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Controversial L.A. Museum Director Steps Down


Now to an entirely different side of Los Angeles: A very public controversy on the art scene here appears to have come to something of an end. The board of the city's respected Museum of Contemporary Art has announced that its embattled director is leaving. The departure comes a little more than halfway through his five-year contract.

And as NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports, he stirred up L.A.'s art world from the start.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Jeffrey Deitch arrived in L.A. a successful New York gallery owner and downtown impresario known for throwing wild art parties. He had his own ideas about what a contemporary art museum could include.

JEFFREY DEITCH: Film, fashion, literature, street culture. That is all a central part of art right now. So I think the potential is amazing to create a new model for the museum in the early 21st century.

BARCO: Deitch told the cultural website Nowness.com three years ago that he was interested in the convergence of art and entertainment. His first show at MOCA was a collection of paintings, sculptures and photographs by actor Dennis Hopper. Deitch also collaborated with actor James Franco to curate an exhibition celebrating the movie "Rebel without a Cause." The shows were poorly received, but Deitch scored big in 2011 with his huge celebration of street art.


BARCO: The ambitious exhibition - from New York's wild style hip-hop graffiti to installations by the British artist Banksy - broke attendance records for MOCA, with more than 400,000 visitors.

CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT: If you're a business person, you're interested in getting those 400,000 people in the door immediately, and then you'll deal with the issue of who's going to come in next month later.

BARCO: L.A. Times art critic Christopher Knight says that was one of the problems. Deitch was a businessman with no museum experience. He alienated MOCA's curators by bringing in outsiders to curate his shows.

KNIGHT: It's the museum world's version of outsourcing.

BARCO: Last summer, Paul Schimmel - who'd been MOCA's chief curator for 22 years - was forced out. Four renowned artists - John Baldesarri, Ed Ruscha, Barbara Kruger and Catherine Opie - very publicly resigned from the museum's board of trustees in protest. That angered MOCA's former chief executive and board member Charles Young, who called for Deitch's removal.

CHARLES YOUNG: All of the key people have either been terminated or left, and there is a great deal of unhappiness and dissension among those who are supporters of the museum.

BARCO: Still, Deitch leaves L.A. with some defenders, like art critic Mat Gleason of the Huffington Post. He points out that when Deitch took over, the museum was in dire financial traits, but critics did not believe Deitch was the man to save it.

MAT GLEASON: He was up against so many people in the Los Angeles art world with no imagination, with no ability to think outside the box. And these people were just completely intransigent, to the point of sabotaging him.

BARCO: Jeffrey Deitch reportedly plans to return to New York and open a new gallery.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.