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Art Basel 2012

by Rachel Corbett
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Two years since his surprise appointment as director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, Jeffrey Deitch admits that the switch from running a successful commercial gallery in New York to salvaging a struggling nonprofit was a “rude awakening.”

During a conversation with art advisor Josh Baer at Art Basel last week, Deitch described the burden of raising money from museum patrons, who, unlike gallery clients, have fewer tangible incentives to give. “At the gallery, I was in the fortunate position that I had things people wanted,” he said. But when he got to Los Angeles, “people wouldn’t take my phone calls because they figured ‘he’s going to ask me for money.’” Plus, many philanthropists prefer giving to more urgent causes than art. “People say it’s more important to give to hospitals or needy children than the museum,” he said.

When Deitch needed cash at his former gallery, Deitch Projects, he’d simply ask clients to buy a work in advance to support the cost of fabrication. But while a gallery can make its money back, a museum often takes on a deficit. As an example, Deitch cited the Theaster Gates solo show, “An Epitaph for Civil Rights,” which was held at the museum in 2011, and for which Deitch raised only about $15,000 in advance. Yet when Chicago’s Kavi Gupta Gallery mounted the exhibition, it sold everything and earned around $500,000, by Deitch’s estimate.

But Deitch reserved his strongest criticism for the new class of wealthy private institutions that now compete with museums for acquisitions. These megacollectors pose a bigger threat to LA MOCA than do even the top galleries, many of which are known for producing museum-quality shows, he said.

“The challenge is how to connect with a big audience when people only sell to multimillionaires who have private foundations and the ability to display the work beautifully,” Deitch said. “What happens if you ask an artist, ‘Would you rather sell to the Mr. and Mrs. Foundation or sell to a museum where we have limited space and can only show it every four to five years?’”

Indeed, earlier in the day, Indonesian farming tycoon and art collector Budi Tek illustrated this type of authority during a panel on private Asian institutions. He attested to haggling with dealers on prices by promising to build dedicated spaces for museum-scale artworks, such as the glass house he’s constructing for Maurizio Cattelan’s live olive tree in his Shanghai museum opening next October.

And missing out on these brand-name artworks can unleash a flood of problems for the museum, including a potential loss of sponsors, who are desperately needed to finance big historical shows, Deitch said. “If you want a heavyweight historical show that doesn’t include popular artists it’s hard to get corporate and collector support. They will if there’s an artist they want to get in with.”

In the end, Deitch said he’s setting out to create a new hybrid fund-raising model, one that looks beyond the traditional realms of patron and corporate support and connects museums with private foundations. “I hope that what can even out is some of the businesses -- that auction houses and fairs will allocate more revenue to helping the museum, because it’s necessary.”

RACHEL CORBETT is the news editor of Artnet Magazine. She can be reached at Send Email