Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Populism, Commercialism, and Jeffrey Deitch: The Shifting Debate about LA MOCA

Barbara Kruger Last week, my mom called. "That contemporary art museum is on the front of the LA Times again," she said. "It's more about that curator who was fired. I can't believe that an art museum can be front page news in LA for days."

LA MOCA has indeed been front page news, especially in the art world. I'm not usually that interested in museum politics, but this soap opera is too big to ignore, especially as the conversation has shifted over the last few weeks to something I care a lot about: populism.

Here's what happened:
  • In 2010, amidst severe financial woes and declining audiences, the Museum of Contemporary Art in LA (MOCA), hired Jeffrey Deitch, a NYC gallery owner, to be their new director. He was mandated to turn the ship around financially and to expand the reach of the museum in the community. His success has been mixed on these accounts; attendance more than doubled in the past two years, and the budget has been righted at a much lower level than previously attained, but the financial health of the organization is in doubt and very, very dependent on mega-trustee Eli Broad.
  • At the end of June of this year, Paul Schimmel, the MOCA's longstanding, well-respected chief curator, was fired. Strangely, Paul Schimmel was fired by the board, with the message delivered by Eli Broad, instead of by Deitch. The first wave of critique focused on the very valid question of why Schimmel was fired in this manner. 
  • The discussion then shifted to the overall direction of the museum. Schimmel's departure was seen as the final confirmation of Deitch and Broad's populist, celebrity-driven approach to exhibitions, and that concerned many critics, artists, and museum directors in the art world. Schimmel's departure was followed by the resignation of the four high-profile artists on the MOCA board and a huge amount of debate in the press, including prominent people calling for Deitch to resign
In some ways, this debate is fabulous. It's amazing to see papers like the LA Times cover the debate about the future of an art museum deeply. It's wild to see so many bloggers and museum directors and critics weigh in. It's great when my mom wants to talk about it.

But it's also frustrating because I see a lot of conflation of different issues in the discussion of whether MOCA is going in the right direction. I'm pissed off that this debate is giving populism a bad name.

There are three distinct aspects to Jeffrey Deitch's approach that I believe need to be treated separately:
  1. Commercialism. Deitch comes from the gallery world. Since he was hired, there have been concerns that Deitch would take MOCA in a direction that focuses on the darlings of the international art market based on dollar signs instead of artistic quality. Deitch has done this to some extent, and he has also pursued commercialism in another way: by engaging celebrities from the worlds of film and fashion as guest curators and artists. I agree that it is disturbing for a museum whose mission is "to be the defining museum of contemporary art" to invite amateur movie stars to curate exhibitions. Two of the artists who resigned from MOCA board expressed their concern in these terms, saying: "It's about the role of museums in a culture where visual art is marginalized except for the buzz around secondary market sales, it's about the not so subtle recalibration of the meaning of “philanthropy,” and it's about the morphing of the so-called “art world” into the only speculative bubble still left floating (for the next 20 minutes)."
  2. Museum management. Is it appropriate for a museum director of a large, iconic institution to serve as its chief curator? Is it appropriate for a life-time non-voting museum trustee to fire an employee? Is it useful to have a director who can bring in crowds but can't raise necessary funds?  Is it good value to pay a museum director $650,000 per year? These are reasonable questions.
  3. Populism. Deitch--and to an even greater degree, Eli Broad--have expressed clearly that they want to expand the audience at MOCA. Attendance has increased in the past two years from 150,000 to 400,000 annually. The question is whether this attendance gain is partnered by a loss for the institution--a loss of artistic or intellectual rigor, a loss of pursuit of excellence. Critics have rightly noted that admissions barely make a dent in an art museum's operation, so these additional people aren't adding much revenue to the museum. The implication, as in this complicated editorial by Boston ICA director Jill Medvedow, is that Deitch's combination of youth culture-dominated exhibitions, performances, stars and celebrities have "delivered audience" at a cost to education, scholarship, and long-term value.
I agree with the serious concerns in #1 and #2. But I am confused and frustrated about #3.

Visitors are people. They are not numbers. They are not dollars. They are not deliveries. They are people who have experiences with art in art museums. I'm dismayed that the same critics who decry Deitch's disregard for artists and curators treat the public as an unimportant commodity in museums. Why do these critics care so much about the influence of money and so little about the influence of audiences? Why do they focus on what bait is presented to lure visitors in and not on what opportunities are made to engage them?

I feel very strongly that a "defining museum of contemporary art" in one of the biggest cities in America should attract more than 150,000 visitors annually. It should probably attract more than 400,000 visitors annually. The numbers are signposts that demonstrate the extent to which diverse people in a community engage with the objects, stories, experiences, and learning that comes with a museum visit. And if contemporary art experiences are really going to be a significant part of daily life in a big city, the museum has to have a presence worth talking about, arguing about, and visiting. Consider the MCA Denver, which has become a national media darling for director Adam Lerner's eagerness to take on an ambitious goal of engaging a whole community with contemporary art.

What galls me most about this MOCA debate is the insinuation that there's a causal relationship between populism and quality. Attendance has a causal relationship with public awareness, access, and appeal, not with content type or artistic rigor. No one says that the Met is intellectually sloppy because millions of people visit each year. No one says a tiny regional museum is extraordinary or intellectually strong because only 5,000 people attend. There is no causal relationship there. Unfortunately, some museums, especially university museums, seem to believe in this causal relationship and trumpet the extent to which no one sees their shows as a sign of purity. This is the worst kind of elitism in museums. Whatever his missteps, Eli Broad is a strong voice in this regard. He describes increasing access to art as a "moral" issue for museums. I agree.

MOCA's mission talks about "engag[ing] artists and audiences through an ambitious program of exhibitions, collections, education, and publication." They may not be doing it in the right way. They may be overly influenced by a rich philanthropist with a very demanding personality. They may not have the right fundraising strategy. They may not have the right director. But hopefully they--and all art museums--will push forward in engaging artists AND audiences.

What do you think?
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