The art dealer Jeffrey Deitch is leaving New York. The Soho impresario, champion and enabler of young unknowns has taken a job as director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. By June 1, his laboratorial gallery, Deitch Projects, will close its doors after 13 years, leaving his stable of artists-among them rising stars Kehinde Wiley, Tauba Auerbach and Kristin Baker-in need of new representation, and the hipsters who attended his famous parties looking for new thrills.
Word of Mr. Deitch’s appointment at L.A. MoCA, which marks one of the only times in American art history that a commercial gallerist has been given the reins to a not-for-profit public institution, came as a shock to the art world this week. Tom Eccles, director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard, said it was “the most astonishing news [he'd] heard in the art world for a decade.” The critic Jerry Saltz called it a “game-changer and a hail-Mary pass.” Others left it at “interesting,” and others still noted with dismay that such a blurring of the lines between scholarship and commerce had dark implications for the future of museum practice.
But what will New York lose when Mr. Deitch moves West? That depends on whom you ask, as his gallery was a polarizing force whose programming-characterized by an embrace of messy experiments and an affection for what Mr. Deitch called the “radical downtown tradition”-earned its proprietor as much admiration as skepticism.
One thing most people in the art world agree on is that Mr. Deitch’s two gallery spaces on Wooster and Grand were a source of spectacle unlike anything one will find coming out of the sleek white cubes in Chelsea. At 57 years old, Mr. Deitch is a man whose reserved and unassuming demeanor belies a penchant for showmanship and an enthusiasm for creating chaotic situations. He loves artists, and he loves being around them. In the words of P.S.1 founder Alanna Heiss, who said she tried more than once over the years to convince Mr. Deitch to work for her, “Jeffrey is by definition an artist’s man. Although many, many people in museums love and honor and treasure artists, he comes to this job almost as an artists’ representative, in the sense that his whole life has been Jeffrey and the artists. That’s the formula. Jeffrey doesn’t have a family: His commitment is to art and his particular commitment is to artists.”
Addicted, as many contemporary art gallerists are, to finding the new, Mr. Deitch favored young artists above all, and during his time running the gallery, he took pleasure in letting them do whatever they wanted. He also made a point of attracting young people who weren’t artists to his gallery, sometimes by hosting events with rambunctious musical acts like Fischerspooner and the Scissor Sisters.
“Jeffrey’s energy was really extreme, and he energized entire communities around him,” said art critic and Paper magazine senior editor Carlo McCormick. “Whether it was by putting a skate bowl in the gallery or doing a yearly parade through Soho or hosting a reality TV show or, you know, just doing shows that pulled in every fucking freak from Bushwick and Williamsburg … He was trying to address kids who don’t normally go to galleries.”
Mr. McCormick added: “Jeffrey understands how a T-shirt can be a signifier, or how being a skateboarder gives you a particular view of the world, or what it means to be a graffiti artist, and how you can manifest that as a studio practice that isn’t just a shitty, watered-down version of what you do on the street.”
“‘Eccentric’ is the wrong word, but Deitch Projects is not your standard contemporary gallery,” said Bruce Altshuler, the director of the museum studies program at N.Y.U. “It is very focused on younger artists, generally working in less standard forms, with a kind of rebelliousness, at least in appearance.”
“At least in appearance” is the key phrase there, as far as Mr. Deitch’s critics are concerned.
“He has made a brand for his gallery,” said Bruce Hackney, who was managing director of the Yvon Lambert Gallery in Chelsea and who now runs his own management company for artists. “The brand says young, hip, trendy, cool: lots of chaos and irreverence.” But in Mr. Hackney’s view, the scene that has sprouted around Mr. Deitch’s practice is at best an approximation of what radicalism used to look like, when radicalism in contemporary art was still possible. “It’s a lot of kids in skinny jeans, black Keds and gauzy scarves. Big fucking deal!” said Mr. Hackney. “You can go on the L train and see the same people!”
REGARDLESS OF WHAT one thinks of the people who attended Mr. Deitch’s parties and events, it is not unreasonable to ask: What do the trustees of L.A. MoCA believe he can offer them, that they were willing to weather the scrutiny and outcry they knew would accompany his appointment?
The easy answer is that Mr. Deitch has a way with the wealthy, having spent the past 20 years advising and selling artwork to rich people, and the 9 years before that as an art adviser in the employ of Citibank. He has a network of collectors at his fingertips whose support the financially unstable museum-which avoided closure in 2008 only because its founding chairman, Eli Broad, provided a bailout of $30 million-could use as it is nursed back to health.
Hollywood, historically, has not been fertile ground for art institutions seeking donors, and it would seem that the MoCA board feels Mr. Deitch’s delight in pop culture and ease with celebrities might help change that.
“Half the battle is making sure that your base is not just silvering,” said the art adviser Lowell Pettit of Pettit Art Partners. “I think that the genius of a Jeffrey Deitch is his ability to leverage established heavyweight collectors, international and otherwise, but also to throw the party, to have the performance event, to bring the band that will bring in an entirely new audience who I think pay little heed to the museum world right now-least of all MoCA, in Hollywood, with all of its distractions.”
Mr. Pettit went on, explaining how Mr. Deitch’s engagement with the kids can translate to a connection with donors: “He takes very seriously all the dimensions-and constituencies-of the social experience of art. When he helps sponsor the free beach concert in Miami during Art Basel, for example, it’s a bunch of people enjoying it who may never buy art at Deitch. Still, just like the Art Parade, he realized, ‘What better way to promote the gallery, fair and art world than to have, say, the Scissor Sisters kicking ass onstage?’ And all the while, he’s throwing a party for his inner circle at the Shore Club, where if you listen closely, you can almost hear the performance on the beach nearby.”
Mr. Deitch has said since Monday’s announcement that he would love, at some point, to inaugurate an Art Parade in Los Angeles. But in an interview with The Observer, MoCA board chairs David Johnson and Maria Bell seemed more inclined to talk up their new director’s scholarly pedigree than his talent for mounting flashy events, emphasizing his background as an art critic and the curatorial experience he gained from working on several museum shows. Still, they said they would be pleased as punch if Mr. Deitch brought some of the populist energy he was known for in Soho to their institution.
“It’s a part of the picture of who he is,” said Ms. Bell. “He’s an impresario and he’s very innovative about getting people to come into contact with contemporary art. And here we are in Los Angeles, a city that is very diverse and very spread out-if he can create some enthusiasm and excitement around MoCA, the more the better. We welcome and embrace that part of Jeffrey Deitch!”
So does Pharrell Williams, the L.A.-based hip-hop producer whose portrait was painted recently by Kehinde Wiley and displayed this past fall at Deitch Projects.
“This is a really exciting thing for MOCA, as Mr. Deitch has a connection to youth culture and will hopefully be able to bring younger people to the museum,” Mr. Williams said in a statement.
BACK IN NEW YORK, meanwhile, some of Mr. Deitch’s colleagues in the art world have begun to mourn.
“It’s going to leave a void-he’s really the downtown man,” said Stephan Stoyanov, who runs a gallery on the Lower East Side. “He took a lot of risks over the years-I can’t say that for a lot of our colleagues in Chelsea. For the last several years, if you went to Chelsea, it’s always just painting, painting, painting-and conservative painting. Jeffrey was never afraid.”
But the superstar gallerist Mary Boone cautioned against writing any eulogies.
Asked whether downtown will change when Mr. Deitch leaves, Ms. Boone replied, “Probably not a lot. There are a lot of really good galleries down there. Certainly, there’s always a loss when somebody as important as Jeffrey leaves, but … it’s not like he’s dying! He’ll build energy around whatever he does. By bringing energy to MoCA, I think it’ll enhance the art world even more.”
And what of Mr. Deitch’s artists, many of whom have undoubtedly begun fielding calls from other gallerists?
“The good ones will find good places to go,” Ms. Boone said.
Might some of those good ones end up with her?
“I don’t know,” Ms. Boone said. “I haven’t really thought about it.”