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Museum of Contemporary Art hires new director

Jeffrey Deitch appointed new director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
Jeffrey Deitch appointed new director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

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A couple of years ago MOCA, Los Angeles — one of the most prestigious contemporary art museums in the world — was broke, nearly to the point of closing its doors. It has appointed a new chief. The new museum director hopes to use his vast private art world experience to the museum’s benefit.

Jeffrey Deitch, 57, has spent nearly his entire adult life working in the private art world. After he earned a bachelor’s degree in art history he worked for private art galleries, founded Citibank’s art buying effort 30 years ago, worked at Sotheby’s auction house, and founded the very trendy New York City art gallery-performance complex, Deitch Projects.

Walking through an exhibit of the museum's permanent collection, this New Yorker looks at home in MOCA’s galleries. He said he’s attended every major MOCA show.

"We’re standing here in front of one of the greatest paintings ever painted by Jackson Pollock. It would be the envy of any museum anywhere in the world. And it was an extraordinarily generous gift from the family of Taft Schreiber."

The donor name is a very important detail to Deitch. He said he’s sold art to several MOCA trustees, including Eli Broad.

As museum director, he said, he’ll change hats and call on friends and former clients from Europe, Latin America, and Asia. "It’s to develop a community of collectors who are very involved, committed with the museum, who would love to eventually see their collections or work from their collections, have a home here."

Deitch takes over the 30-year-old museum after the economy and poor fiscal management left MOCA with two black eyes. Trustees bought out the previous director’s contract, cut the museum’s budget by 25 percent and laid off dozens of staffers.

Deitch said he wants to build on trustees’ successful fundraising efforts in the last year. "The first goal is to build on that consolidate financial stability of the museum. But at the same time to be developing new initiatives, new excitement, and as the financial stability hopefully consolidates to introduce these initiatives."

In the last 14 years Deitch has built his New York City gallery complex into a unique mix of art gallery, night club, performance space and trend spotting center. One online reviewer said the art at Deitch Projects may not “always be the deep, profound, change-your-life-in-an-instant kind, but it's always, always fun.”

Deitch said his gallery places the artist front and center. It’s an operation with a $6 million yearly budget and about 30 employees, he said, that he runs like a museum.

Private galleries are in the business of selling art, said Selma Holo, director of USC’s International Museum Institute. She welcomes Deitch as MOCA director at the same time that she worries about a blurring line between commerce and public art museums.

"I would like for us as a community to be able to have a forum where we can talk about the lines between the different universes that we occupy and how they can be breached, how they should be breached, and how perhaps they shouldn’t be breached," Holo said.

Deitch said he’ll close his New York art gallery in the coming months. He’s not hesitant about leaving New York, he said, because he believes he’s moving to the creative capital of the world. "With all the art schools, with the great museums here, with the great talent running the museums, Los Angeles will be the world’s great art center."

Jeffrey Deitch takes over as director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles in June.