Inside and Out: Jeffrey Deitch’s Life in the Art World

Over four-plus decades, Jeffrey Deitch has developed a large influence in the contemporary art world. Read about how he navigates being both art world insider and someone above the fray.

Jeffrey Deitch sits at the front desk of his eponymous gallery in Hollywood in an office chair. His is an ordinary office chair, but all around us, office chairs roll around the gallery on their own as if poltergeists have taken them over.

A steady stream of important art world figures comes into the gallery to see this work by artist Urs Fischer in collaboration with choreographer Madeleine Hollander (who did the choreography for Jordan Peele’s film “Us”). The two artists have programmed the chairs with A.I. and motion sensors so that they seemingly interact with the gallery’s guests, and sometimes break out into a chorus line formation.

“I really enjoy just sitting here,” Deitch says to Hammer curator Aram Moshayedi, who has dropped in to check out the show. “It’s so lyrical. This is like watching a Balanchine performance.”

Deitch is 66, thin and small, with coke-bottle glasses and an almost emotionless way of speaking. He has a nasal voice with the slightest hint of a Western Massachusetts accent, where he lived until he was 19. He elongates the word “Balanchine,” which he says four times to four different people to describe the show in his gallery. I don’t need to ask him many questions, because his story has a narrative arc, and he connects the dots himself.

That story is told without guile, a tale that paints himself as both art world insider, (and as something of the inventor of the current state of the art world), but also someone who is above the fray — almost a dilettante.

Jeffrey Deitch at work | Still from "Artbound" Jeffrey Deitch's Los Angeles
Jeffrey Deitch at work | Still from “Artbound” Jeffrey Deitch’s Los Angeles

Deitch’s story begins in Lenox, Massachusetts, an affluent town in the Berkshires with about 5,000 residents. It is an arts colony, home to the Tanglewood Music Center, a building that houses the Boston Symphony Orchestra during the summer months, and Jacob’s Pillow, the famed dance performance space, is in nearby Becket, Massachusetts. Deitch’s family was in the sheet metal business, but since the town was so arts oriented, they decided one day to start putting art on the walls of the shop. Deitch began to realize that while the stated goal was to sell copper, it was the art that excited him.

“This combination of the aesthetic stimulation, the intellectual stimulation, the social access to interesting people. And then I was making a lot of money too. I just thought, ‘This is for me.’”

One day, a regular at the shop, a New York artist whose name Deitch has forgotten, told him his knack for selling art could lead to more.

“’I want to tell you something,’” Deitch recalls the artist saying. “’I see you’ve got talent for this, but you don’t know what you’re doing. You’ve got to get an art education.’ And I listened to him.”

So Deitch began an Art History track at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he studied under Avant Garde musician Alvin Lucier and worked as the assistant to the curator of the college’s print collection. Then, one fateful day, he was in Wesleyan’s art library, where he came across a copy of now-defunct arts journal Avalanche Magazine, an issue with conceptual artist Vito Acconci on the cover.

“I said, ‘My god, if this is where art is, that’s where I want to be,’” says Deitch. “Because I’m from the age cohort that’s prime counterculture. My teenage years were in the ’60s. What Vito was doing was so inspiring to me. So I began driving down to New York City to go to the galleries.”

Ai Wei Wei's "Zodiac" exhibition at Jeffrey Deitch, Los Angeles | Joshua White
Ai Wei Wei’s “Zodiac” exhibition at Jeffrey Deitch, Los Angeles | Joshua White

The day he arrived in New York, he walked into legendary art dealer Leo Castelli’s gallery, but the receptionists wouldn’t give him the time of day. Upstairs in the same building, his second choice, the equally renowned Sonnabend Gallery, had closed the gallery for the summer. So he kept working his way up the building until he came across John Weber’s gallery on the fourth floor. The secretary had just quit, and Weber was at Art Basel, so Deitch offered his services to the director, Naomi Spector, for free — an offer she couldn’t refuse. But Weber was known to only hire pretty girls as secretaries, so when the gallerist returned, Deitch braced himself to be fired. An ensuing shouting match between Spector and Weber behind closed doors only confirmed Deitch’s fears.

“I’m ready to pack up, and just as I’m about to leave to escape his wrath, Naomi sticks her head out the door, and says, ‘Your hired.’ It was the greatest year of my life — 1974 to ’75 — and I just so lucked out to be at the center of this gallery that represented Sol Lewitt, Carl Andre, Hans Haacke, Dan Flavin, all the Arte Povera artists. The first show that year was [Arte Povera leader] Alighiero Boetti. It was so totally inspiring.”

Deitch was burning the candle at both ends, going to concerts every night at the New York music club CBGB’s and barely making it into work on time. He decided to strike out on his own when he was 22, and curated the show, “Lives,” in an abandoned building in Tribeca. The show was Deitch’s first success.

“It was about artists who used their own lives as an art medium, so Vito Acconci, Laurie Anderson, Hanna Wilke, Scott Burton, Jonathan Borofsky,” Deitch says. “It was an amazing show. I did it all myself and paid for it myself. The relationships from the John Webber days and from ‘Lives,’ it was foundational of my life. I’m still friendly with a lot of the people.”

Deitch spent the next few months in Europe in the presence of the Arte Povera artists, before returning to New York to start a theoretical art advisory called Art of Specific and General Interest, where he promoted the work of a then-unknown Adrian Piper and other young artists.

“But I didn’t have any clients,” Deitch says. “There wasn’t really an art market then. There was zero income.”

Jeffrey Deitch at work | Still from "Artbound" Jeffrey Deitch's Los Angeles
Jeffrey Deitch at work | Still from “Artbound” Jeffrey Deitch’s Los Angeles

Weber offered Deitch a directorship at the gallery, which Deitch considered, but ended up going to Harvard Business School to get what Deitch jokes was his version of an “art history” degree.

“I applied all these [business and marketing theories] to my understanding of art and cultural trends,” he says. “I began writing about art and economics. I did a thesis project on Andy Warhol as a business artist, and a friend of mine, Maurice Tuchman, who was the curator of the L.A. County Museum (LACMA), was intrigued by this. He asked, ‘Would you consider making a presentation at the College Art Association?’ He was putting together a panel about art and economics. It was so radical at the time.”

So Deitch took to the podium at the Hilton in Washington, D.C. in February of 1979, and the way Deitch tells it, that was the moment he became Jeffrey Deitch, International Art Impresario.

“It was a key event in my life,” Deitch recalls. “I gave this presentation on Andy Warhol as a business artist, and there were cheers like if a singer really enlivens the club. It was really a breakthrough on the topic. You know how after speeches sometimes people rush to the stage to try to talk to the guy? I had never experienced that. All these people rushed — like, major art collectors. That’s how I met Patsy Nasher of the Nasher Museum. It launched my career in many ways.”

“A lot of the things I wrote about, that’s what’s happening now. People didn’t think of it then — art had nothing to do with the business world or the cultural world. It was just the art world. And then at some point things filtered into the public culture. Somehow with this double perspective of being in the inside of the art world, and then being exposed to this business school way of thinking, I put it all together.”

Around the same time, Deitch landed a job as a curator at the deCordova Museum in the sleepy Boston suburb of Lincoln, Massachusetts. His first show there, “Born in Boston: Sixteen prominent artists who were born or raised in the Boston area but who developed their careers elsewhere,” featured works by prominent artists like Carl Andre, Frank Stella, Nancy Holt, Chris Burden and Jonathan Borofsky.

The show received so much attention — a cover story on the Boston Globe’s Sunday Magazine — that it caused a traffic jam in Lincoln, and accusations of upstaging the museum’s director, but it was an early taste of Deitch creating a blockbuster show.

After getting pushed out of the deCordova, Deitch then got a job developing and co-managing the Art Market Department of Citibank, in which he truly utilized his business degree and art acumen and began advising clients on art as an investment.

“Some people say I created a monster because we basically invented the profession of professional art advisory,” Deitch says.

"People" exhibit installation at Jeffrey Deitch, Los Angeles | Joshua White
“People” exhibit installation at Jeffrey Deitch, Los Angeles | Joshua White

Deitch stayed at Citibank for all of the 1980s before breaking out with his own advisory business.

“A number of my clients said, ‘Listen, start your own business.’ So except for a few institutional type people, all the major clients followed me, and I instantly had the most important art advisory business in the whole world.”

Deitch continued to curate exhibitions, including “Artificial Nature” (1990) at the Deste Foundation in Athens, Greece, about adaptability in the modern world, and “Post Human” (1992-93 at various European art spaces) which grouped together artists thinking about plastic surgery, genetic engineering and biological enhancements.

“[It is] still my most influential exhibition, ‘Post Human,’” Deitch says. “It went to five museums. Now there’s the whole thing of posthumanist studies. I’m the first person to, I believe, use the term. If you read the essay, it predicted everything that’s going on with this. It influenced a lot of artists like Vanessa Beecroft and Maurizio Cattelan.”

In 1996, Deitch began his longest running endeavor, Deitch Projects, on Grand Street in Soho. The original concept behind the gallery was an unconventional one — he would give an artist who had never had a solo show in New York $25,000 to create a project, and if he sold the work, he would recoup the costs, and if he didn’t, he would keep the work for his own collection. Of course, he sold almost everything, but in the process, he created a space filled with weird and curious shows by the likes of Vanessa Beecroft and Dash Snow.

“We succeeded in creating a platform — and this is one of the things I’m proud of — when young people came to New York from wherever in the world, and they’d say, ‘Where do you go to meet people?’ You could say, ‘Well, go to an opening at Deitch.’ It’s really where people connected,” he says.

The gallery had a larger-than-life reputation. Deitch put together an “Art Parade” from 2005 to 2007, where artists flaunted their works via masks, costumes and float through the streets of SoHo. He even began a television series in 2006 called “Artstar,” in which young, unknown artists interacted with art world figures like Deitch, critic Jerry Saltz, and artist Kehinde Wiley.

It all culminated in the 2007 show, “Nest,” by artists Dash Snow and Dan Colen, who tore up phone books and other paper material to create a “hamster nest,” in which they invited a crew of artists to create pandemonium in from midnight until 8 a.m. The gallery exhibition was the result of that madness. Beer-and-piss-soaked paper and graffiti littered all over the walls; Trash was everywhere.

“’Nest’ is the most radical show I ever did,” says Deitch. “God was looking over us because I told both of the artists, ‘You’ve got to please help me out. Don’t smoke. Be really careful. Nasal is a fire hazard.’ Dash said, ‘Okay, don’t worry about it.’ And then I see photographs that we published in the book, and after the whole thing that they did to the walls with this giant torch, you know how you can make out of a spray can, and the flame is shooting up six feet into the ceiling. I thought, ‘Oh my god.’ Can you imagine if every major artist of that generation got immolated in the nest because they were all there at 4 in the morning?


L.A.

At this point in our conversation, it is 6 p.m., and Deitch needs to close his gallery, so we continue the conversation at his Los Feliz home, the former home of Cary Grant, where he makes tea, and we talk until the sun goes down about his relationship to L.A.

Deitch had been traveling to Los Angeles since the 1970s. In 1981, artist Sherrie Levine, then a teacher at CalArts, invited Deitch to do studio visits with her artists. That class would graduate several artists — Andy Moses, Ashley Bickerton — who would go on to become major figures themselves. He maintained friendships with prominent artists like Barbara Kruger, as well as Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelley and Charles Ray, who were included in the “Post Human” exhibition.

In 2005, he helped bring a Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition from the Brooklyn Museum to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles.

“And I had good relationships with a lot of MOCA’s trustees, who bought art from me,” Deitch says.

A few years after the Basquiat exhibition, MOCA found itself in financial straits. By 2008, director Jeremy Strick resigned and the museum was strained so much, it was compelled to accept a $30 million bailout from trustee Eli Broad. Broad and fellow board member Maria Arena Bell then began looking for a new director, and he asked Deitch to help them with the search.

“Somehow the conversation turned toward, ‘Maybe this is something for me,’” recalls Deitch. “Eli and Maria Bell followed my program and really liked what I was doing, they thought what I brought to it of the public engagement and the performance and the connoisseurship and rigor that I did for years, that was the right combination. And also, I’m a businessperson. So I thought, ‘Maybe I am the one.’”

But Deitch’s inner circle advised him against taking the position.

“I didn’t confide in too many people, but people warned me, ‘You cannot go there,’” he says. “They had very specific reasons why I could not go there, which I don’t want to go into, but they were absolutely right. But I was confident. I’m always confident, and I feel like I get along with everybody. I was like, ‘I’m not going to have a problem.’ But it was much deeper than I ever would have anticipated. Vicious. And at a certain point, I had to leave.”

“The New York museums, generally, they’re well-oiled machines. With some exceptions, but if you become director of a New York museum, and you’re a fairly good candidate for it, the whole structure helps you along. There are fundraising people, there’s operations people, there’s a board that’s supportive. But I was flying without a parachute. I was very surprised how much on my own I was. It’s well known the dissention on the board — I go in and find all these disgruntled and angry people. It was immediately super contentious, and immediately board members resigning publicly. I’m like, ‘What? I’m not even there yet, and you’re already resigning because of me.’ I don’t really want to go into all this, because one of my ethics in life is keep it positive.”

 Explore the programming of the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles on “ArtboundMOCA: Beyond The Museum Walls.

What was positive about Deitch’s run at MOCA was a boost in attendance. Deitch’s ability to put on blockbuster exhibitions translated to MOCA in a big way. “Art in the Streets,” a 50-person look at the history of street art, attracted over 200,000 visitors during its four-month run in 2011.

“I don’t think that there’s art for the people and then there’s serious art,” says Deitch. “I’ve always believed that you can put the two together. You can be popular and also rigorous. The public museum, that’s supported by Los Angeles taxpayers, the museum belongs to them too. It doesn’t belong to just the wealthy patrons.”

Among other legacies Deitch left behind at MOCA was a revamped gala structure in which the gala was a performance (the 2011 MOCA Gala by Marina Abramović featured performers’ heads sticking up from the tables, and a giant Debbie Harry cake).

But the troubles at MOCA mounted. Media outlets from The L.A. Times to Vanity Fair to The Hollywood Reporter criticized Deitch incessantly. They called out his salary (reported at over $600,000), his clashes with longtime chief curator Paul Schimmel (which lead to Schimmel’s resignation), the mounting of a Dennis Hopper photo exhibition curated by Julian Schnabel that Deitch remains proud of, an off-site exhibition with James Franco, and a decision to cancel a planned retrospective of beloved-but-obscure L.A. artist Jack Goldstein, which Deitch calls a misunderstanding perpetuated by the media.

(The way Deitch tells it, Goldstein’s most famous piece, “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer” (1975) was in a recent show and to have a full exhibition would have been redundant, so Deitch wanted to expand the show to be based around Richard Hertz’s 2011 book “Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia,” but the curator declined and asked to shop the show to other museums, which Deitch allowed.)

“There was this very unfortunate situation where I was basically mugged by this internet mob, where all these falsehoods came out that nobody checked,” Deitch says. “It would have been easy to do this due diligence. Stuff about salary, but I gave the museum $800,000, so I was essentially working for free. So all of the after-tax income I had all went back to the museum. So basically I worked for free for three years, and I gave valuable gifts. I gave a third of the cost of a David Hammons piece, I gifted this historic work by Noritoshi Hirakawa, I paid for some exhibitions 100% out of my own pocket, but I didn’t advertise this. I wasn’t going around saying, ‘Hey, look at what I’m doing.’ But no one bothered in columns about my salary, which is the low-end of museum people anyway, no one went to financial and said, ‘Did Jeffrey give any gifts to the museum?’ Not exaggerating, I worked for free for three years.”

He also felt like there were board and staff members who were going to media behind his back.

“I was in The L.A. Times week after week,” Deitch says. “It was crazy. I don’t want to get into how this was all manipulated and how people were using The Times to settle scores. Outrageous.”

And so, after three tumultuous years at the museum in which he mounted 50 exhibitions and projects, in 2013, Deitch left.

“I’m on the other side of it now,” he says with the hint of a smile.


Return to Los Angeles

The story of Jeffrey Deitch, the gallery, begins during Deitch’s tenure at MOCA when he began working with L.A. photographer David LaChapelle on a show at his New York gallery.

“David’s studio is on North Orange Drive, and I see the studio, the building, the neighborhood, and I said, ‘David, this is incredible,’” recalls Deitch. “If I ever have a gallery in L.A., this is where I want it — North Orange Drive.’ So, David, who was just getting to know L.A., and understood what was happening here, kept saying, ‘Jeffrey, you have to open a gallery in L.A. This is the most exciting city.’”

After MOCA, Deitch moved back to New York and restarted his Grand Street space. But his goal was to continue to create exhibitions in museum-like spaces, so he nearly closed on a site in Red Hook in Brooklyn, but the deal fell through in the 11th hour. Then, through an introduction, he was connected to a landlord who had a space in Los Angeles.

“On North Orange Drive, where my first fantasy was to open a gallery,” says Deitch. “That was the place. We drove over to this building, and everything about it was perfect — location, size, proportions. And it was just this dark warehouse with all this junk in it, but I understood, and I said, ‘I’ll take it.’ We didn’t even talk price.”

“So here I am in L.A. with this space where I can do, on my own, museum-level exhibitions, and that’s what we’re doing,” says Deitch, who enlisted architect Frank Gehry to redesign the space.

He then called on Ai Weiwei, considered by many to be the most famous artist in the world, to be the first artist exhibited in the gallery. Ai filled the new space with nearly 6,000 wooden Ming and Qing dynasty stools as well as a series of Chinese zodiac paintings made with Legos.

“That was a great way to open because I wanted to open with an artist who had an appeal beyond the inside art world,” Deitch says. “The attendance was unbelievable. It was museum-level attendance. Some days, several hundred people [visited the gallery].”

Ai Wei Wei's "Zodiac" exhibition at Jeffrey Deitch, Los Angeles | Joshua White
Ai Wei Wei’s “Zodiac” exhibition at Jeffrey Deitch, Los Angeles | Joshua White

Artist Kenny Scharf, who was included in the 2011 Art in the Streets exhibition, sees Deitch’s return to Los Angeles as a boon to the city’s art climate.

“Jeffrey provides a forum for artists to communicate and play and he encourages the interaction with his amazing spaces,” says Scharf. “Bringing all different types of art and artists together, it’s almost like a salon. This is definitely needed in a place like LA and creates a community, which is much appreciated.”

Journalist Carolina Miranda, who runs the Culture: High & Low section of The Los Angeles Times, feels that Deitch’s previous problems at MOCA won’t affect his return to the L.A.

“Generally, the market doesn’t care about stigma, so I don’t think that what happened at MOCA is liable to hurt him in a gallery setting,” she says. “I don’t think collectors care whether Jeffrey Deitch can run a museum.”

Still, she’s unsure of what type of program Deitch will bring to his new gallery, and if it will have the same impact as Deitch Projects did in the 1990s.

“I think what made him interesting as a gallerist in New York is that he was willing to explore subcultures in methodical ways — club culture, street art, for example, at a time when other types of big galleries were simply not doing those kinds of shows,” she says. “He gave those artists space and resources and his space had a rather carnivalesque air. He supported the street artist Swoon’s boat project, for example. And he staged the annual art parade in SoHo, which was this kind of goofy, very DIY thing that artists of all kinds participated in. But naturally it will be curious to see how this translates to L.A. Will he be mining that vein here? Will he be showcasing L.A. or other subcultures in some meaningful way? Or will this be a showplace for New Yorkers in L.A.? The former could be really interesting. The latter I’m less excited about. Plus, Gagosian already seems to have the market cornered on NYC in L.A.”

Perhaps the next few exhibitions will shed more light on Deitch’s plans in Los Angeles. With nearly 50 years in the art world, Deitch is now more on the reputational scale of the Leo Castellis and Iliana Sonnabends and John Webers of yore than the upstart who shook up the New York scene in the 1990s. Which isn’t to say he doesn’t have more up his sleeve — just that he’s, well, eking his way towards his own kind of legend.