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Art Should Be Entertainment: In Defense of Jeffrey Deitch

Opening of Art in the Streets2.jpg
Art in the Streets opening, April 16, 2011 | Photo: Craig Barritt, courtesy of MOCA.

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.
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.
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.

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 | Photo: Courtesy of USC.
MOCA Plaza | Photo: Frances Anderton.
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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