“HERE we go, folks. Page 133. And — action!”
Midnight had come and gone in a huge, light-flooded plaza near the West Hollywood branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art, a place that on this crisp June night was filled, quite surreally, with open-air sets for “General Hospital.”
In the middle of one set Jeffrey Deitch, a small, trim man in a double-breasted navy suit with a little makeup dabbed on his cheeks and forehead, stood encircled by television cameras, preparing to play a character called “Jeffrey Deitch, director of MOCA” — a role he had just taken on in real life as well after a decades-long career as a high-profile New York art dealer.
The sprawling soap-at-the-museum operation was Mr. Deitch’s idea, the first public art event he had overseen since taking the helm at the Museum of Contemporary Art three weeks earlier. It involved filming a series of scenes set there, starring Mr. Deitch’s friend James Franco, the actor and budding artist who strangely took a part on “General Hospital” last year in what he has described as a guerilla performance-art piece. The new scenes are his return to the show and renew his efforts to smuggle a little conceptual-art contraband into middle-American living rooms (where, if he does his job right, the art aspect might go unnoticed).
That the museum had become a soap opera set was pure Deitch, for better or worse: stuntlike, crazily experimental, scrambling high and low culture, risking ridicule and seeming not to care much when it rains down on his head.
And the shoot was a perfect emblem of the issues and anxieties raised by the choice of Mr. Deitch last January as the institution was emerging from deep financial turmoil and surprised the art world by picking a gallery owner to join the museum leadership ranks, which generally elevate from within.
No mega-dealer like Mr. Deitch, 57, had ever made the transition to running a nonprofit museum, and his selection has been parsed endlessly for what it says about the boundary between museums and art selling, a once-bright line that is becoming increasingly difficult to see. (In the 1950s James J. Rorimer, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, warned a young Thomas Hoving, who would later succeed him, “If you become an art dealer, you’ll never be able to work in a museum.”)
Mr. Deitch agreed to close his gallery, Deitch Projects, and cease all commercial activity before taking the job, a switch that will mean a considerable loss of income for him. But his selection nonetheless set off alarm bells about possibilities for conflicts of interest and cronyism. He made headlines almost immediately by saying that he would not rule out the possibility of selling works from his own huge personal art collection or his former gallery’s inventory during his directorship, in order to meet financial obligations in New York, where he still owns two buildings in SoHo and rents art-storage warehouses. He has also dismissed as childish the notion that he pledge not to show artists whom he promoted and befriended at his gallery.
So the “General Hospital” event was as much a political statement as it was a performance piece. Mr. Franco had originally approached Mr. Deitch with the idea of staging the soap in New York at his gallery. When it became clear the gallery would be closing, Mr. Deitch simply proposed doing it at the museum instead (where an exhibition based on the project will be mounted this year). Like many of his projects through the years, this one would not have had much profit-making potential in a gallery. But Mr. Deitch knew that the very idea of shuttling a show so readily between his two worlds would not sit well with some people, including a few of his new employees.
“There are, naturally, people on the staff who are not comfortable with what I’m doing,” he said, driving down Melrose Avenue to his soap-opera star turn.
Even before officially taking the job, he began looking for ways to attract new audiences and support for a museum still trying to right its finances. He conceived and fast-tracked a retrospective on the work of Dennis Hopper, who died on May 29, organized by Mr. Deitch’s friend Julian Schnabel and opening next Sunday. He canceled a show that curators were already working on but that he believed to be redundant. And he is working to put together a major exhibition about the influence of street art, a movement that was central to the identity of Deitch Projects in recent years.
“I think it’s kind of unprecedented,” he said of his flurry of plans. “I’ve hit the ground running. And there’s no time to lose here. We’ve got to make an impact.”
During more than three months after his selection by the museum, Mr. Deitch allowed a reporter to tag along and observe, at least to an extent, as he prepared to assume the new role and wound down his 14-year-old gallery, a process that involved consolidating art-storage warehouses (six at one point), finding new spaces for artists working in studios he had rented, and dealing with complex real-estate litigation. (His gallery building on Grand Street in SoHo was destabilized after its next-door neighbor began sagging.)
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