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Jeffrey Deitch

A conversation with Jeffrey Deitch

DA CAPO!” is the tit­le of the new edi­ti­on of the stay­in­art maga­zi­ne. Da Capo deri­ves from the Ita­li­an lan­guage in con­nec­tion to Baro­que music and means “from the begin­ning” or “to repeat a cer­tain pas­sa­ge or a musi­cal note”. Through the cur­rent health and poli­ti­cal cri­sis in the world, many have to start over their life and work, or need to redo what they had alrea­dy achie­ved in life. This is also true for the art world, gal­le­ries, artists and muse­ums. An online con­ver­sa­ti­on with the renow­ned art dea­ler, cura­tor and for­mer muse­um direc­tor Jef­frey Deitch could help to start reinven­ting our dama­ged world through his inno­va­ti­ve and crea­ti­ve mind. The quo­te “Jef­frey fore­ver” is based on the Ita­li­an artist Vanes­sa Beecroft’s say­ing during the filming of an inter­view. It was stuck in my mind, becau­se Jef­frey is fore­ver, with or without a cri­sis. He is per­sis­tent, endu­ring, las­ting, deter­mi­ned and forward-looking.

BARBARA STEFFEN: Jeffrey, we have known each other sin­ce 1986, when I was intro­du­ced to you by a com­mon friend in Lon­don. At the time you were working as an art advi­sor and cura­tor for the collec­tion of Citi­bank in New York. You were one of the very few peop­le who defi­ned the art world as it is today. Your very impres­si­ve and crea­ti­ve care­er can hard­ly be repli­ca­ted by anyo­ne in the art world. Excep­tio­nal­ly good tas­te, a clear visi­on for new artists, unusu­al ide­as for exhi­bi­ti­ons, gre­at con­nec­tions and a deter­mi­na­ti­on to live and brea­the art 24 hours a day brought you the ama­zing suc­cess at this mul­ti­ta­len­ted level no one else can achie­ve. Today the art mar­ket is in a some­what dif­fe­rent situa­ti­on due to this new health cri­sis. Given your long histo­ry in the art world, what has chan­ged for you sin­ce March 2020?

JEFFREY DEITCH: Many of us in the art com­mu­ni­ty had been living in a bub­ble, our pro­fes­sio­nal lives con­su­med with exhi­bi­ti­on ope­nings, art fairs, busi­ness pres­su­res, and the social obli­ga­ti­ons of the con­tem­pora­ry art world. The out­break of the pan­de­mic and the inten­si­ty of the racial jus­ti­ce pro­tests sho­cked the art world into the rea­li­ty of the real world. The­re has been a deep reck­o­ning among artists and art pro­fes­sio­nals – ques­tio­ning the mea­ning and the social impact of our work and the sta­tus of our insti­tu­ti­ons. Des­pi­te the qua­ran­ti­nes and the clo­sure of muse­ums, gal­le­ries and the art world’s gathe­ring pla­ces, I have found that com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on and a sen­se of com­mu­ni­ty have actual­ly incre­a­sed. I have been pho­ning, Face­Timing, and Zoo­m­ing with art world col­leagues, having leng­thy con­ver­sa­ti­ons with peop­le with whom I pre­vious­ly just exch­an­ged small talk at art events. In Los Ange­les, I par­ti­ci­pa­ted in a pro­ject to estab­lish an online gal­le­ry plat­form and gal­le­ry asso­cia­ti­on. It has been very rewar­ding to build on ongo­ing dis­cour­se with col­leagues about gal­le­ry issu­es and com­mu­ni­ty initiatives.

Your exper­ti­se com­ple­tes all enti­ties in the art world. You are an art dea­ler, a for­mer muse­um direc­tor, a for­mer expert at Sotheby’s auc­tions, a wri­ter, a publis­her, an advi­sor, and more. From what I can see, you feel most crea­ti­ve as a gal­le­rist and cura­tor. You are someo­ne who shapes the art world, finds new young artists, redis­co­vers older artists and works with the very top of artists such as Jeff Koons, Ai Wei Wei, Bar­ba­ra Kru­ger, Kehin­de Wiley, Keith Haring, Urs Fischer and many more. Can you tell me how your work and selec­tion pro­cess dif­fers from owning a gal­le­ry and form­er­ly run­ning a muse­um? How will a gal­le­ry ver­sus a muse­um con­ti­nue to work after this cri­sis is over, or rather, hope­ful­ly be in bet­ter hands? What would a gal­le­ry and a muse­um have to do to sur­vi­ve the­se times and work with a much smal­ler audience?

I am often asked how I find pro­mi­sing young artists and how I make pro­gramming decisi­ons. This pro­cess has evol­ved as I have got­ten older, but remains fun­da­ment­al­ly the same as when I began my care­er in the ear­ly 1970s. I don’t just look for indi­vi­du­al talents: I look for cir­cles of artis­tic ener­gy. The most inte­res­ting artists do not emer­ge in iso­la­ti­on, but as par­ti­ci­pants in dyna­mic com­mu­nities of wri­ters, musi­ci­ans, gal­le­rists, collec­tors, and other artists. I have been for­tu­n­a­te to have found mys­elf, or inser­ted mys­elf, into several of the­se artis­tic cir­cles over the years. In my first gal­le­ry job, at the John Weber Gal­le­ry in SoHo in 1974, I lucked out – not yet knowing my way around the art world, I found mys­elf at the epi­cen­ter of the com­mu­ni­ty of artists who were defi­ning Con­cep­tua­lism and the other van­guard move­ments of the time. Then I began stay­ing out late to hear the new punk and new wave bands at CBGB and met the artists, wri­ters and filmma­kers in this sce­ne. A few years later, I con­nec­ted with the Wild Style graf­fi­ti wri­ters and the extra­or­di­na­ry crea­ti­ve peop­le con­nec­ted with this com­mu­ni­ty. I am still invol­ved with the­se artists today. During the prime years of Deitch Pro­jects, we were able to build a dyna­mic crea­ti­ve com­mu­ni­ty around the gal­le­ry that led us to an enga­ge­ment with some remar­kab­le artists who came to us, wan­ting to be invol­ved. I did not have to go out loo­king for artis­tic ener­gy – we were genera­ting it ourselves.

Now I still look for the­se cir­cles of artis­tic ener­gy, but being almost fif­ty years older than the emer­ging artists, I incre­a­singly rely on talen­ted youn­ger peop­le on my gal­le­ry staff and in my artis­tic cir­cle to direct me. Even though I am no lon­ger han­ging out on the side­walk in front of a club at 5:00 AM, mee­ting artists orga­ni­cal­ly, I have found that my accu­mu­la­ted expe­ri­ence with crea­ti­ve peop­le has given me an even shar­per instinct for artis­tic inno­va­ti­on and qua­li­ty. One obser­va­ti­on remains para­mount: true inno­va­tions in visu­al art almost always have par­al­lels in other crea­ti­ve fiel­ds; music, film, lite­ra­tu­re and fashion. I still look for the big aes­the­tic trends.

Regar­ding how muse­ums and gal­le­ries will ope­ra­te during the pan­de­mic and post-pan­de­mic, and after re-exami­ning their roles in the con­text of social jus­ti­ce, I think that their pro­fi­le will expand, not con­tract. The online audi­ence that has deve­lo­ped during the pan­de­mic will con­ti­nue to grow as the art world finds more crea­ti­ve and enga­ging ways to com­mu­ni­ca­te online. The muse­ums and gal­le­ries that are able to deve­lop their online initia­ti­ves will be able to enhan­ce their pro­gramming and expand their audi­en­ces. The gal­le­ries and muse­ums that mas­ter online com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on will build acti­ve and enga­ged glo­bal audi­en­ces. Art insti­tu­ti­ons will also hope­ful­ly beco­me more invol­ved in their local com­mu­nities, expan­ding their enga­ge­ment bey­ond the con­ven­tio­nal art audience.

Iremem­ber at your first gal­le­ry in New York, Deitch Pro­jects, peop­le were queu­ing around several blocks in Soho to get into your exhi­bi­ti­on space. Would you like to see this hap­pe­ning again, or do you see new ways to get the public into the gallery? 

It was thril­ling to see peop­le lining up around the block to enter the gal­le­ry, and some­ti­mes clo­sing down the street. We crea­ted a uni­que ener­gy around Deitch Pro­jects which had a lot to do with the crea­ti­ve com­mu­ni­ty in New York at the time whe­re the new art, music, and fashion sets con­ver­ged. A gre­at exhi­bi­ti­on by a ground­brea­king young artist will still attract a lar­ge, enthu­si­astic crowd in New York. The situa­ti­on in Los Ange­les is dif­fe­rent. So many artists and crea­ti­ve peop­le have moved to LA during the past several years, but the­re are fewer struc­tures to con­nect than the­re are in New York. Two thousand or more peop­le, pre-pan­de­mic, came to our exhi­bi­ti­on ope­nings in Los Ange­les. Exhi­bi­ti­on opens are a plat­form for artists who live all around the city to meet each other. It is gre­at to see a lively crowd at an exhi­bi­ti­on ope­ning, but now I am more inte­res­ted in pre­sen­ting a mea­ning­ful exhi­bi­ti­on than hos­ting an enor­mous ope­ning audi­ence. Unli­ke some other gal­le­rists who focus on the art insi­ders, I have always wan­ted to con­nect with a lar­ger audi­ence. Art should have an expan­si­ve public, like the best pro­gres­si­ve pop music. When we can all cir­cu­la­te again, I am loo­king for­ward to hos­ting per­for­man­ces and talks in the out­door space adja­cent to our LA gal­le­ry to help build our audi­ence. We are also plan­ning public events. I would love to bring my New York art para­de to Los Angeles.

You have worked with many art collec­tors world­wi­de who can thank you for buil­ding their collec­tion over a long peri­od of time. Do you find that the­re are many new collec­tors who will be nee­ding your cura­to­ri­al exper­ti­se, and what advice would you have for them today? Is the next genera­ti­on of collec­tors as serious as the collec­tors in the 80s and 90s? Do you also collect on an intel­lec­tu­al level or are you sim­ply buy­ing art?

Gre­at art collec­tors are almost as rare as gre­at artists and cura­tors. I have not­hing against peop­le collec­ting art for deco­ra­ti­on, social sta­tus, or invest­ment, but what real­ly moti­va­tes me as an art advi­sor and gal­le­rist is to find the­se spe­cial peop­le who want to collect as an artis­tic pro­ject and who want to share their collec­ting with the public. I have been for­tu­n­a­te to work with several extra­or­di­na­ry art patrons over the years. I am now advi­sing some inspi­red new public-spi­ri­ted collec­tors as well as con­ti­nuing to work with collec­tors whe­re the rela­ti­ons­hip goes back for­ty years. The­re is a new cohort of “spe­culec­tors” as Ken­ny Schac­ter calls them, but mar­ket down­turns tend to thin their ranks. I try to avoid them and focus on buil­ding rela­ti­ons­hips with collec­tors who have an artis­tic and public mission.

You are cur­r­ent­ly run­ning spaces in New York and Los Ange­les. In New York you have two exhi­bi­ti­on spaces and in LA, the renow­ned archi­tect Frank Gehry built a 1,400 squa­re meter gal­le­ry space for you. In what way are the art mar­ket and gal­le­ry life dif­fe­rent in LA and NY? How does the cri­sis affect your work in NY and in LA in terms of ope­nings, exhi­bi­ti­on plan­ning, size of audi­ence and sales?

New York and Los Ange­les both have remar­kab­le art com­mu­nities. The­se com­mu­nities incre­a­singly over­lap. Pre-pan­de­mic, the­re was fre­quent tra­vel bet­ween the cities and many New York artists have been com­ing to Los Ange­les for exten­ded sojourns. I find it very rewar­ding to be part of both com­mu­nities. The Los Ange­les art com­mu­ni­ty seems more vibrant now, but New York pro­bab­ly has more major artists. During the pan­de­mic, Los Ange­les is more ali­ve becau­se most artists have stay­ed here rather than going upsta­te or to Long Island like many New York artists. I am in Los Ange­les now, wel­co­m­ing visi­tors to my gal­le­ry and doing several stu­dio visits each week. In Los Ange­les, we now draw more of a cross­over audi­ence to the gal­le­ry, with visi­tors from film, music and fashion com­mu­nities as well as the art insi­ders. Sin­ce we can­not have our usu­al ope­ning events and din­ners, we have plan­ned an exci­ting public event to accom­pa­ny our cur­rent Ken­ny Scharf exhi­bi­ti­on: a Kar­bombz! ral­ly with many of the one hund­red fif­ty cars in Los Ange­les that Ken­ny has pain­ted for free. It is sche­du­led for Sep­tem­ber 26th along San­ta Moni­ca Bou­le­vard in West Hol­ly­wood. Hope­ful­ly more peop­le can par­ti­ci­pa­te and watch than would attend a con­ven­tio­nal gal­le­ry opening.

Recent­ly, you have foun­ded, tog­e­ther with other gal­le­ries, the crea­ti­on of GALA, a gal­le­ry asso­cia­ti­on of Los Ange­les, which is an online plat­form with online viewing rooms, edi­to­ri­al con­tent and infor­ma­ti­on about gal­le­ries in Los Ange­les. Do you think online sales and the pre­sen­ta­ti­on of art on the inter­net will be the future of a more inter­ac­ti­ve art world? What are the advan­ta­ges and dis­ad­van­ta­ges of this? Isn’t it important that view­ers see an art­work with their own eyes befo­re buy­ing it or wri­ting about it?

Online pro­gramming is alrea­dy beco­m­ing essen­ti­al, sup­ple­men­ting the in-per­son art viewing expe­ri­ence. For the local audi­ence, the online pre­sen­ta­ti­on gives peop­le back­ground infor­ma­ti­on about the exhi­bi­ti­on and hope­ful­ly also ser­ves as an indu­ce­ment to see the art in per­son. Online pro­gramming also allows the gal­le­ry to reach the lar­ge inter­na­tio­nal audi­ence that might only visit the gal­le­ry once a year, or not at all. It will beco­me rou­ti­ne for gal­le­ries to have both vir­tu­al and actu­al pro­gramming. Some art­works func­tion just as well online as in per­son, but not­hing can com­pa­re to the in-per­son expe­ri­ence of an art object. This will never be dimi­nis­hed, just as recor­ded music has pro­bab­ly incre­a­sed the desi­re to expe­ri­ence live music.

Spea­king about viewing art in the ori­gi­nal, are you still visi­t­ing artists’ stu­di­os, or are you only con­nec­ting online with them now? I know how important it is for you to con­nect with peop­le and con­nec­ting them to art. How big an obsta­cle is this now during this new time?

During the past two weeks, I have visi­ted the stu­di­os of Mr. Wash in Comp­ton, Say­re Gomez, Mario Aya­la, and Celes­te Dupuy-Spen­cer in indus­tri­al are­as near down­town LA, and Jonas Wood near litt­le El Sal­va­dor. I also joi­ned Urs Fischer for an out­door din­ner at his won­der­ful bohemi­an com­pound near Ely­si­an Park. I am loo­king for­ward to stu­dio visits with artists who will be in the upco­m­ing exhi­bi­ti­on that my gal­le­ry direc­tor Melahn Frier­son is orga­ni­zing with A. J. Girard. We wear masks and social­ly distance, but are still able to have sti­mu­la­ting con­ver­sa­ti­ons. We have an advan­ta­ge in LA in that we can get around in our cars – I have been reluc­tant to take public trans­por­ta­ti­on and ride shares during the pandemic.

Jeffrey, you have also worked with all the major auc­tion houses, bought art the­re, advi­sed them and led collec­tors to them. How do you see the future of art auc­tions through the eyes of the buy­er and sel­ler? What would your advice for the auc­tion houses be now? 

The auc­tions will incre­a­singly pro­vi­de both an online and live expe­ri­ence. I expect that the online tech­no­lo­gy will beco­me more enga­ging. They are still at a pri­mi­ti­ve sta­ge. The most inte­res­ting inno­va­ti­on during the pan­de­mic peri­od has been Loic Gouzer’s Fair Warning. What makes it so suc­cess­ful is that it is focu­sed and cura­ted. The auc­tion offe­rings had beco­me over­whel­ming and most collec­tors could not focus with a three-foot stack of auc­tion cata­lo­gues arri­ving each round. Live auc­tions were very exci­ting during the 1980s when almost all of the buy­ers were sit­ting in the room. They beca­me boring with most of the bidding now on the pho­ne. An online – live hybrid could make the pro­cess more exci­ting if the auc­tion houses can take the tech­no­lo­gy to the next level.

In your new space in Los Ange­les you pre­sent very lar­ge art instal­la­ti­ons like the over 600 chairs pro­ject by Ai Wei Wei or your recent sculp­tu­re show. You now have the rare pri­vi­le­ge to cura­te your own shows and place instal­la­ti­ons, which nor­mal­ly only muse­ums can do. In a way you have it all now: the cura­to­ri­al selec­tion, the abi­li­ty to make rare instal­la­ti­ons, not having to ans­wer any­bo­dy for your choices and making money by sel­ling art. Is the­re anything left that you haven’t done yet or that you would like to do to ful­fill your life even more?


I need to set asi­de the time to wri­te. I am con­stant­ly asked when I will wri­te my memoir. I have been very lucky to have been at the cen­ter of the art dis­cour­se for almost fif­ty years. I have some good sto­ries to tell.

How do you deve­lop ide­as in your mind about what to show in the future? Do you take your ide­as from exter­nal expe­ri­en­ces, for examp­le, knowing art histo­ry, visi­t­ing stu­di­os, reflec­ting on poli­tics, or does your crea­ti­ve visi­on come from wit­hin and you then act upon it? How important is your intel­lec­tu­al frame­work loo­king at art?

The­re are peri­ods when artists and cri­tics have a nar­row, self-defi­ning con­cept of art. I have always taken a more expan­si­ve view, con­nec­ting with art that reflects social trends and par­al­lels deve­lo­p­ments in other crea­ti­ve fiel­ds. In order to bet­ter under­stand the direc­tion of con­tem­pora­ry art, I try to fol­low the most inno­va­ti­ve con­tem­pora­ry fic­tion, music, and film, and keep up with pop cul­tu­re. One of the fac­tors that draws me to art is the way it builds on its histo­ry. I have been inte­res­ted in how a num­ber of con­tem­pora­ry artists “col­lap­se time,” com­bi­ning his­to­ri­cal and con­tem­pora­ry refe­ren­ces. I always look for an intel­lec­tu­al or con­cep­tu­al struc­tu­re in an art­work. Sol LeWitt gave me a gre­at les­son in art con­nois­seurs­hip when as a naï­ve 21-year-old, I expres­sed my enthu­si­asm for a pain­ting with bra­vu­ra brushwork by an artist who had recent­ly joi­ned the John Weber Gal­le­ry. “Just sur­face, no struc­tu­re,” LeWitt com­men­ted dis­mis­si­ve­ly. Sin­ce then, I always look for the intel­lec­tu­al and con­cep­tu­al frame­work. Without deep intel­lec­tu­al con­tent, which can be abs­tract and not some­thing that needs to be ver­bal­ly arti­cu­la­ted, an art­work can­not aspi­re to greatness.

During an inter­view for the docu­men­ta­ry ’Jef­frey Deitch’s Los Ange­les’ by Art­bound, you refer­red to the art of Vien­na 1900 as the moder­nist era in art. Sin­ce I am cur­r­ent­ly based in Vien­na and pre­vious­ly cura­ted a lar­ge muse­um exhi­bi­ti­on of Vien­na 1900 at the Foun­da­ti­on Beye­ler near Basel, couldn’t we make the con­nec­tion bet­ween Vien­na 1900 and Los Ange­les 2020 in art, style, time frame and momen­tum? Vien­na was on one side a very rich town with edu­ca­ted, wealt­hy peop­le and on the other side very racist, in the midd­le of the First World War and with artists working in dif­fi­cult cir­cum­s­tan­ces being poor. Los Ange­les is a much richer city with many oppor­tu­nities, yet becau­se of the cur­rent poli­tics peop­le are still discri­mi­na­ted, they demons­tra­te and have less social sys­tem. Do artists somehow need the socio­po­li­ti­cal con­fron­ta­ti­on in the world they live in to crea­te art, and do cha­os and tur­moil pro­du­ce more adre­na­lin to be crea­ti­ve and pro­duc­ti­ve? What would art look like if we all lived in a per­fect­ly hap­py won­der world?

The gre­at émi­gré filmma­kers, com­po­sers, archi­tects, and wri­ters who came from Vien­na to Los Ange­les estab­lis­hed an endu­ring con­nec­tion bet­ween the cities. Like Paris in the ear­ly modern era, and New York in the mid to late 20th cen­tu­ry, turn of the last cen­tu­ry Vien­na and Los Ange­les today are vibrant cities with a com­plex and diver­se social struc­tu­re. Yes, we have seen that artis­tic inno­va­ti­on is bred in cities whe­re peop­le from dif­fe­rent back­grounds and eco­no­mic sta­tus come tog­e­ther, rather than in cities with a rigid social struc­tu­re. Los Ange­les today might be the world’s gre­at mul­ti­cul­tu­ral city.

Could I invi­te you to Vien­na to get to know the art sce­ne here and to make con­nec­tions for artists in Los Ange­les? The list of famous Aus­tri­ans in Los Ange­les goes back to Josef von Stern­berg, Erich von Stroh­heim, Richard Neu­tra, Bil­ly Wil­der, Hedy Lamarr, Fritz Lang, Fred Zin­ne­mann, Wolf­gang Puck and Arnold Schwar­zen­eg­ger, just to name a few. 

I look for­ward to being able to tra­vel again, espe­cial­ly to Vien­na, a city that has given me so much artis­tic and intel­lec­tu­al inspiration.

You are very opti­mistic for the future and that the cur­rent cri­sis will pass and we will con­ti­nue to work in the arts as befo­re, even stronger. 

Art is an opti­mistic enter­pri­se. Artists work for the future.

Jef­frey Deitch at his gal­le­ry in Los Ange­les. Pho­to: Isa­bel­la Vosmikova

Jef­frey Deitch is an Ame­ri­can gal­le­ry owner, art dea­ler and cura­tor. He foun­ded his gal­le­ry Deitch Pro­jects (1996–2010) in New York and cura­ted ground-brea­king exhi­bi­ti­ons like Lives (1975) and Post Human (1992) in pri­va­te muse­ums. Deitch was direc­tor of the Muse­um of Con­tem­pora­ry Art, Los Ange­les (MOCA) from 2010 to 2013. He cur­r­ent­ly owns the Jef­frey Deitch Gal­le­ry, a gal­le­ry with loca­ti­ons in New York and Los Ange­les. Over the cour­se of his care­er, which has inclu­ded stints at the John Weber Gal­le­ry in SoHo, the art finan­ce depart­ment of Citi­bank, and as a suc­cess­ful pri­va­te dea­ler and art con­sul­tant, Deitch has crea­ted a uni­que posi­ti­on in the art world that com­bi­nes the cura­to­ri­al pro­fi­le with the busi­ness side of art.

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She lived in New York and Los Angeles from 1988 to 2003, where she was curator at the Eli Broad Art Foundation in Santa Monica, one of the largest private collections of contemporary art in the USA. At the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, Steffen initiated, among other things, the Hugo Boss Art Sponsorship Prize. She founded the International Director's Council (IDC), which, together with a group of international art collectors, financed the purchase of contemporary art. Steffen curated the following exhibitions in Europe: "Francis Bacon und die Bildtradition", Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna; "Visions of America", Sammlung Essl, Klosterneuburg; "Vienna 1900 - Klimt, Schiele und ihre Zeit", Fondation Beyeler, Basel; "Gerhard Richter - Aquarelle und Zeichnungen", Albertina, Vienna.

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