This week in The Wall Street Journal, Berkley economics professor Brad Delong described the current economic downturn as “a depression.” We’re not reliving the 1930s, but let’s face it—those aren’t comforting words. In fact, they’re the kind of statements fueling speculation that Soho dealer Jeffrey Deitch closed up shop because the gallery was suffering financial losses, rather than a simple desire to pursue a new career direction as the Director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA). Last Monday, the museum announced Deitch would take the position and cease all his commercial activity as a dealer. His new job will consist primarily of pulling the financially troubled museum out of the deep water, supporting curators and developing new programming.
This has a number of effects worth discussing, not the least of which is its impact on the Soho art scene. Guild & Greyshkul—an artist-run gallery known for its strong programming—closed last year, leaving only a few non-profits like Location One, the Drawing Center, and Team Gallery and a sparse number of commercial spaces, with Team, Spencer Brownstone and Harris Lieberman Gallery among them. Deitch maintained two locations in Soho, each turning over new shows monthly. Likely a result of this volume of activity, most New York-based artists I know have at least one or two friends who have shown at the venue and many more acquaintances. Whether or not the programming was consistent, it’s hard to deny the mark Deitch left on the scene.
As I’ve written on my blog, the economic gap Deitch Projects will leave has, for the most part, taken a back seat to concerns about the kind of creative direction the former dealer will bring to MoCA. There are reasons to be concerned about this. Stable artists such as SWOON, the street artist responsible for the ill-conceived anarchist boat at last year’s Venice Biennale, or Kehinde Wiley, the artist behind the vapid art-historical referenced paintings of African-American men, don’t inspire confidence. But these artists also fit into Jeffrey Deitch’s interest in broadening the fine art market—a desire that has little place in the non-profit world. It’s perhaps overly optimistic, but my hope is that when he leaves the commercial art world, he’ll also leave SWOON and Wiley behind.
And there’s reason to believe that might happen, at least for the first half of his tenure. A director with large deficits to manage will have less time to shape the Museum’s program. Assuming Deitch makes good on his promises to focus on fundraising and gift shop innovations (I see limited edition prints in this museum’s future), MoCA may have turned one giant negative—its deficit—into a positive.