Los Angeles

Art Should Be Entertainment: In Defense of Jeffrey Deitch

Opening of Art in the Streets2.jpg

Last year, I co-taught a studio at USC School of Architecture. Helmed by architect Frank Gehry, with his partners and architect Aaron Neubert, the challenge given the students was to redesign MOCA Grand Avenue, on the premise that the museum was falling short as a public destination. The goal was not to examine the programming but rather the physical affect of the Arata Isozaki-designed building. This also involved analyzing its context - Grand Avenue - to try and determine why, despite its ribbon of high profile cultural institutions, the Avenue, and MOCA Grand Avenue, failed to attract a thronging public.

One of the students, Jacqueline Lee, decided to research the more grassroots arts community that had sprung up over the last decade just East of MOCA Grand: the Downtown art scene and its art walk. Why was this so attractive to people while MOCA Grand and the rest of the avenue was not? She interviewed many visitors on the walk as well as vendors and gallerists. She asked them if they would go to MOCA Grand, which was featured on the Art Walk map.

To her astonishment, Lee found people who had not even heard of MOCA. Participants in an art walk had not heard of L.A.'s signature contemporary art institution! Then she found that of those who had heard of it, many would not bother venturing to MOCA Grand - too much of a climb up the hill, or, too establishment. One person told her they "liked the atmosphere better downtown;" another said, "there are more restrictions at MOCA, it's too organized;" and a third admitted, "I've heard of MOCA but I've never gone up there. I just go where the crowds are."

Entrance to MOCA, Saturday afternoon, Janurary, 2011 | Photo: Boren Huang.

As a result of her research, Lee proposed as part of her design that MOCA Grand should somehow incorporate elements that would make it as populist as the art walk - maybe vendors on the streets, food trucks, as well as a physical link between MOCA Grand and the downtown scene. At her design review, however, one of the jurors, the artist Glenn Kaino, challenged her concept with an intriguing assertion: "Art," he said, "should not be entertainment."

Art should not be entertainment. Really?

Enter Jeffrey Deitch, a former banker turned art dealer with a keen eye, a nose for the zeitgeist and a true, uncynical admiration for the artists he singles out - just watch him at panels questioning talent with genuine curiosity, or standing at his openings, surveying the party people through his oversized glasses, with unabashed delight.

Deitch had read the numbers and also concluded the museum needed to be more populist.

When the students started their research, at the start of 2011, yearly audience numbers for MOCA in 2010 were around a quarter million (even less in 2009 at almost 150,000), compared to around a million at LACMA. By the time they finished the project, new director Deitch had opened Art In The Streets, admittedly at the far more accessible Geffen Contemporary at MOCA in Little Tokyo. It attracted a record-breaking audience of almost a quarter million in four months.

Art in the Streets opening, April 16, 2011 | Photo: Craig Barritt, courtesy of MOCA.

Art in the Streets opening, April 16, 2011 | Photo: Craig Barritt, courtesy of MOCA.

But despite the show's success, and a breakneck rollout of subsequent shows -- many still conforming to MOCA's tradition of serious examination of post-war artists, from revisiting L.A. figures like George Herms and Kenneth Anger to important contemporary artists like Theaster Gates or Cai Guo-Qiang (see his marvelous, upside-down crop circle, in his Sky Ladder show, on through Sept 3 at the Geffen) -- anger only intensified at Deitch, an anger so venomous at times it has puzzled people like me, outsiders looking in on the art world. What is going on here, we wonder? Has Deitch touched a nerve that runs deeper than the critiques of his unorthodox management style?

Still fascinated by Kaino's assertion, I found myself wondering: Has Deitch committed a cardinal sin of treating art as if it should be "entertainment?"

Even though much art seems intended to entertain - just consider at nearby LACMA Chris Burden's overtly entertaining Metropolis II, for example, or Michael Heizer's Levitated Mass, whose journey from Riverside became itself an "event" -- it does so from a place of conversation within the canon. Such artists have paid their dues, they have fine art degrees, the imprimatur of art critics, and are integrated into the art economy; their work comes steeped in an underlying philosophy and a place in the art continuum that separates it from pure spectacle, pure commerce, pure entertainment.

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For Another View on Jeffrey Deitch, Read Sharon Mizota's Article:

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Whereas at MOCA, we are seeing entertaining art interlopers mixing it up with the canon: graffiti writers, fashion designers, actor-artists, architects and musicians; and maybe, heaven forbid, the talents of every stripe whose work emerged from the Disco era (now why is that not a fabulous theme for an art show?). The result of this creative fusion? The museum, especially the Geffen, has expanded its art-viewing audience while evolving into more of a social space, becoming a place "where the crowds are."

Yet we have a showdown, and somehow it brings to mind one that took place over a century ago, between a radical new wave of artists - the Impressionists -- and the stuffy French Academy of Fine Art. Only this time one wonders if those who are doing the épater-ing have switched places with la bourgeoisie. Are the onetime radicals - the indignant art community -- now the academy?

To try and understand what is going on, I write to my friend Adrian Dannatt, independent art critic and curator, and longtime New York correspondent for The Art Newspaper, now in Paris, who has collaborated with Deitch on past shows. Deitch, he says, "simply 'gets' art in a way that not every museum professional does. He genuinely LOVES the stuff in a way which is, curiously, not automatically the case amongst the aforementioned bureaucrats."

He likens the MOCA director to Andy Warhol: "Both unashamed populists, Warhol and Deitch share that genius for immediately knowing, feeling, the latest thing and wanting to be a part of it, wanting to introduce it in turn to the rest of the world, constantly shifting the boundaries of the high-low art world, constantly curious and willing to try something new, take a risk. Exactly like Warhol, Deitch arouses suspicion because he is very good with very rich people but also overtly keen on the latest, the youngest, the newest thing, and this combination seems to drive the more earnest members of the institutional art world potty with pomposity."

Dannatt believes L.A. is lucky to get Deitch (as it has been lucky to get fellow New Yorkers Michael Govan at LACMA and Ann Philbin at the Hammer, who are also finding ways to mix up art disciplines and entertainment to activate their institutions). But he adds, "perhaps the problem is that Deitch is actually more interesting, more creative himself than many of those he works with, and always willing to think in a new way, with an unusual and inspirational sense of flair, of daring."

Glenn Kaino, the artist who reviewed the USC architecture school MOCA redesign projects, later shared with students the importance of MOCA to artists like himself, who had grown up dreaming of having their work shown or held in the collection there. He demonstrated a reverence for the institution that one has heard repeatedly in the last weeks and months, from artists, from artists who have donated work to the collection, from art critics, from fine art professors, in sum, from the art establishment.

It is a reverence so deep that the convulsions at MOCA right now are causing anguish to those who treasured the museum's role as a sanctuary created by artists for artists. But these convulsions are having the unintended consequence of provoking a genuinely public discussion about art, museums and their role in contemporary society.

I'll bet everybody on the art walk has heard of MOCA now.

MOCA | Photo: Courtesy of USC.

MOCA Plaza | Photo: Frances Anderton.

Meanwhile, looking at MOCA Grand through the lens of architecture and design, USC students and I see a dismal physical place that still needs to be turned into an appealing social space, "where the crowds are." Hopefully, Deitch will apply his "inspirational sense of flair and daring" to turn it into a destination as provocative and stimulating as his programming.

Frances Anderton is host of KCRW's DnA: Design and Architecture, and editor of Grand Illusion: A Story of Ambition and Its Limits, on LA's Bunker Hill. She will discuss its findings at a panel discussion with Dean Qingyun Ma and others at A+D Museum on October 11.

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Top Image: Art in the Streets opening, April 16, 2011 | Photo: Craig Barritt, courtesy of MOCA.

About the Author

Frances Anderton is the host of DnA: Design and Architecture, monthly on KCRW and KCRW.com. She is also a full-time producer of KCRW's national and local current affairs shows, To The Point, and Which Way, LA?. In addition, Ms. A...
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What about getting ponies, mules, donkeys, etc. to bring people from Art Walk to MOCA? Donkeys don't mind going uphill, plus people love ponies and donkeys -- especially if they're painted to look like zebras, like they do in Tijuana. Or they can be painted something related to whatever the exhibit is. This might also be an opportunity to employ more local artists, you know, the kind that paint every day (not those other types that sit around worrying about art history, or the museum's legacy, or other boring theoretical issues). Just think of all of those happy people riding painted asses. There are so many possibilites!


I'm pretty sure those "restrictions" the Art Walk crowd is talking about is that they can't stick a Tecate up their sleeve and walk into MOCA and then find more free beer inside the lobby.


Jesus, i hope you didn't get paid to write this article.


Jeezus this article sucks. Not because of the point of view but because the writer doesn't know anything about the subject.

As she notes "Michael Govan at LACMA and Ann Philbin at the Hammer, who are also finding ways to mix up art disciplines and entertainment to activate their institutions)"

Govan and Philbin are both absolutely loved by the art community and public alike so clearly its not an artist revolt against inclusive programming. So why is Dietch so controversial? His shows don't demand anything from the public but instead just placate what they casually believe. In short he's not very sophisticated and neither is the general public quite frankly. That's not a slight on them but that's why its important for museums to elevate not just placate. It makes society better when we ask people to reconsider what they think they know.

The other thing is he's not a consensus builder he's more of a business owner who is used to just getting things done. It was a naive move not to mention an unwarranted consolidation of power to think he could fire the head curator and slide into the position himself. That wouldn't fly anywhere.

Oh one other thing its not the art establishment whos against him its a lot people with more than a casual interest in and knowledge of the subject.

In the future please only write about subjects about which you have knowledge.


My greatest concern with this article is that it completely misunderstands the reasons that the art community is upset, and this is something that could have been adressed through even the most basic research. As Anderton herself points out, there are plenty of other institutions, including LACMA and the Hammer, that are "finding ways to mix up art disciplines and entertainment to activate their institutions" yet they aren't the subject of widespread protest and public criticism, and their trustees aren't leaving en masse; so clearly, there's nothing visionary about Deitch's approach and it isn't "entertainment" that people are upset about. MOCA is financially depleted. Instead of rebuilding the endowment, the director is curating exhibitions and taking bailout from one billionaire and a handful of corporations that gain far too much control over the programming. (If you want to market luxury goods like Mercedes-Benz, you need to reach the people who can afford them.) The curatorial and education programs have been all but eliminated, with those roles being outsourced to celebrities (James Franco, Mike D, James Murphy) and record labels. Major retrospectives have been canceled to make room for exhibitions quickly thrown together by celebrities and their friends. The lack of diversity has been shameful and public interest has been thrown to the wayside. There's nothing "populist" about what's happening here, and this isn't the kind of money that sticks around. The art world is upset because their foundation is being rattled, yes; but "intellectual capital" never funded museums.


Wow, LA is like super confused right now. Nuthin wrong with entertainment, just don't do crusty stuff that was last popular in 1998.

Be ^actually^ current--and up-to-date with youth culture. Not just a gaudy simulation of "youthful" and "current". That's the difference between the Hammer and MOCA.

Seriously--though how much did MOCA pay you to write this?


Thank you very much for going to the trouble to write. While there are too many points to respond to here, I will be discussing themes raised in this article at events coming up on Oct 5 (Weho's DIEM) and Oct 11 (A+D Museum) and will be happy to chat in person. Yours, Frances Anderton


Critics of this article miss an essential point. Regardless of your opinion of Deitch, the vast majority of Anglenos have never visited the museum nor are they aware of modern art.

The question is whether an art institution has an obligation to expand its audience to include more member of members of the community?

Populist shows like 'Art in the Street' bring a new audience to the museum. And more importantly to art.


Frances, your response is as insulting your article. Thankfully every other critic out there disagrees with you, and they've all done a far better job in explaining why. For example, here's Roberta Smith in the New York Times, addressing the MOCA situation far better than you ever could: http://nyti.ms/O0P2pM.

PS- I'd invite you to attend my own talk, "Design Should Be Decoration"...but c'mon, who would host THAT? It just sounds ignorant.


Stacey - Clearly you are passionate about the fate of MOCA, but lashing out at the writer isn't helping your case. In fact you sound like someone with an ax to grind.

Your satirical analogy does not function any better than the Villa Savoye. Design is Decoration. Yes, its shocking to hear. Form does not slavishly follow function.

Corbusier's Villa Savoye is an icon of functional minimalism. But his 'machine for living' was myth. The flat roof constantly leaked, unlike the sloped roof of its neighbors. The vast expanse of glazing made the Villa Savoye impossible to heat. Corbusier was willing to compromise real functional efficiency in order to create the impression of functional efficiency. That sounds a lot like decoration.



Of all places Los Angeles needs to be receptive to new movements in art—no matter how far they stray from the so-called establishment.

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