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Brady Westwater Headshot

Art Dealer to Run Art Museum; MOCA to be Latest Deitch Project

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When LA Times writer Mike Boehm revealed New York mega-art dealer Jeffery Deitch is to be the next head of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art - my reaction was the same as everyone's in the art world.

Painfully bruised toes after my jaw dropped on them.

Early Facebook status updates ranged between disbelief to horror along with the occasional call for minyans to sit shiva. MOCA clearly leaked the news in advance to allow the initial shock to die down and to allow purists to be able to process the five stages of mourning prior to Monday's formal announcement.

There were some early supporters, though, such as COAGULA editor, Mat Gleason, who declared that since art museums were already brothels, it was an inspired choice for MOCA to hire a first rate pimp to run theirs.

Now to enlighten the 95% of Angelenos who've never been to MOCA, our major contemporary art museum recently lost so much money some board members wanted to shut its doors and give the collection to another museum. Luckily, Eli Broad and his 30 million in matching grants allowed for its short-term survival.

That is why MOCA is getting a new director.

As for the current controversy, Deitch's hiring will be the first time a major art museum has been run by the owner of a commercial art gallery. His being the new director will, obviously, create potential conflicts of interest. There are also some who question some of Deitch's curatorial tastes, even though far more people cite that as one of his strengths.

But what has not been emphasized enough is that MOCA already has a highly respected chief curator who runs the art program - Paul Schimmel - or that MOCA has one of the finest curator staffs of any museum in the world.

It also has not been stated enough the director's job requires someone who can raise money, get artwork donated, handle the finances, do long term planning, administrate the staff, develop & expand the physical plant and be the public face of the museum. And no one can deny that Deitch is potentially better equipped to deal with each of those roles than any traditional museum director with the customary fine arts degrees.

He also knows everyone worth knowing in the art world, has worked in finance (Citibank), is very bright (Harvard MBA), has run a major arts empire (Deitch Projects) and has even already gone through his necessary humbling Icarus-like epiphany when he almost went broke backing a Jeff Koons project.

So I'd like to remind everyone who thinks this is the end of civilization as we know it, that Dudamel was just as big a risk when the LA Philharmonic first hired him, albeit in a different way. Classical music was said to be a dying art form but now it's the hottest ticket in town. Even contemporary classical music concerts, a hard sell elsewhere, are regularly selling out Disney Hall to appreciative and increasingly educated audiences.

In contrast, LA's major art museums have become a bit disconnected from our civic life and our contemporary art galleries and non-profit spaces are too few and too empty. We are one of the world's great cities when it comes to the production of contemporary art - but a relative backwater when it comes to the display (or sale) of the art that is produced here - or elsewhere.

So just as this city's interest in classical music surged due to a spokesperson with the passion to excite us about all kinds of classical music, contemporary art also needs an effective spokesperson to get us engaged with all of our art museums - and not just the contemporary ones - and to get us to explore our commercial art galleries.

And that is the reason why Jeffrey Deitch should be a brilliant, even inspired choice to lead MOCA, and why he should tag team well with the equally exciting and innovative Franklin Sirmans, the new curator of contemporary art at LACMA.

Now there is no guarantee Deitch will completely succeed, but that risk factor will be just one more reason why everything that happens at MOCA is going to be watched and talked about this year.

And, for once, that talk will be about the institution's artistic choices and programs - and not its financial decisions. And that is a debate that can only be healthy for this city - and for contemporary art.

Brady Westwater blogs at www.lacowboy.blogspot.com and at downtownfashionwalk.blogspot.com.