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New museum head mixes art, money

Marketplace Staff May 27, 2010
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New museum head mixes art, money

Marketplace Staff May 27, 2010
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TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal:The Museum of Contemporary Art here in Los Angeles is getting a new director next month. It’s worth a mention because for one, the museum made huge art world headlines two years ago for its budget problems. And second, the new guy, New York gallery owner Jeffrey Deitch knows the business of art as well as the art itself.

Our occasional commentator on the art world, independent dealer Richard Polsky is here to discuss. Richard, hello again.

Richard Polsky: Good to be here.

Ryssdal: So this guy, Jeffrey Deitch, is a Harvard MBA, he is an art dealer, he’s a gallery owner. What is he going to bring to the Museum of Contemporary Art here in Los Angeles?

Polsky: Well, hopefully, fiscal responsibility. This is a museum that has a reputation for always being in trouble financially. You know, a museum director these days wears a lot of hats. You’re trying to pamper the trustees to keep the cash flow, you’re trying to add membership, you’re trying to create shows that bring in people, where people want to see it. There is so many entertainment options out there that museums have got to do something to compete. Deitch knows how to do this. He started out creating the first art investment program for Citibank, which allowed collectors to use art as collateral to purchase more art. Nobody thought that way. The idea of a bank lending money on a painting was outrageous.

But the other half of him is out on the streets, hanging out in the East Village, meeting people like Basquiat, meeting people like Jeff Koons. He is a little controversial. He always wears the same outfit and the same weird glasses. He’s a bit of a character; you can’t miss the guy.

Ryssdal: Yeah, and you know, when we think of museum directors, though, we are thinking Phillipe de Montebello, the guy from the Metropolitan in New York. Very patrician, academic. This is not who we have here.

Polsky: That’s a good point. The whole museum world never mixed art and money. It was considered a taboo. Museums hired scholars, but it’s changed mostly because these directors are under incredible pressure to make money. There is a precedent for what Deitch is doing. There was a gentleman named Thomas Hoving who ran the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Hoving was really the person responsible for the blockbuster mentality at a major museum. He was the one who ushered in this whole idea of a museum as not just for the elite — let’s get the people in who pay admission fees, buy things at the gift shops. And when he did the first King Tut show, it completely changed the museum world. So there is a precedent for bringing in someone like Deitch, who is a bit of a showman.

Ryssdal: Is a museum of contemporary art maybe the best place to try this kind of change in leadership? I mean, you know, modern art’s all about taking risks and finding new things and might the crowd that likes modern art might be more receptive to that?

Polsky: Absolutely. L.A.’s the perfect laboratory. The first show that Deitch has curated, or co-curated, is going to be about the work of Dennis Hopper. Perfect call, given the fact that it’s Los Angeles, given the fact that Hopper was an early pop art collector, so he has credibility, he was there early. We know he’s a controversial and very well-liked actor. So, here Deitch comes in, already he’s doing a crowd-pleasing show.

Ryssdal: How long do you think he has. I mean, is there a time limit in his window for success?

Polsky: Time will tell whether he represents the new paradigm as to what a museum director should be and will be. I see it as a big success.

Ryssdal: Richard Polsky comes by every now and then to talk about art and the business thereof. His most recent book is called “I Sold Andy Warhol (Too Soon).” Richard, thanks a lot.

Polsky: Thank you.

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