Earlier this month, LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) announced their nontraditional pick for new museum director: Jeffrey Deitch, a (soon-to-be) former commercial gallery owner and experienced art dealer from New York City. What’s the big deal, you ask? This is the first time that an art dealer will run a major American museum, blurring the lines between commerce and culture and business and nonprofit practices. As New York Magazine put it quite simply, the appointment is a “game-changer” for the art world.
But this is a “game-changer” in the same way that paying Gates Foundation director, Jeff Raikes, a salary of $900,000 a year is a game changer: high executive compensation– like museums hiring business managers instead of academics to lead them– represents a necessary evolution of the nonprofit sector to certain stereotypically for-profit practices.
Even more importantly, the appointment represents art museums joining the rest of the museum world, as many non-art museums already have business leaders running them.
Art museums are traditionally run by folks with significant academic backgrounds in art, and art museums are institutions in which substantive experts particularly shine. According to David Suarez, a professor of nonprofit management at the University of Southern California, in a relevant Nonprofit Quarterly publication, “Substantive experts are individuals who have a great deal of experience or training in specific disciplinary areas… Substantive experts are likely to pursue academic credentials… and management is secondary to their dedication to a field of expertise.” The nonprofit world is full of substantive experts, but art museums provide environments that value academic expertise. It makes sense. — but is it really that unsettling for the art world to have Deitch (a successful businessman with an MBA) in a management position in a nonprofit organization? It shouldn’t be.
MOCA almost went bankrupt in 2008. People are calling Deitch a risky choice. Nobody is talking about how appointing an academic who is fluent in the 1999 emergence of Stuckism with no formal management experience would have been much riskier.
Though amount of praise for the substantive expert may be a defining characteristic that sets art institutions apart from other museums, several of the top (non-art) museums in the country are run by leaders who toot educational backgrounds in management over academic disciplines. The Field Museum, California Science Center, and St. Louis Science Center are three of 2009s top 25 most-visited museums with management-trained leaders. In short, art museums are catching up with the rest of the museum world by hiring a trained manager during a time when they need a trained manager.
Though Jeffrey Deitch has a significant background in art, his appointment may open the door for other art museums to break tradition and take on management-savvy leaders from other sectors. The MOCA appointment serves as a symbolic step for art museums; it’s a step off of an academic pedestal, and into the evolving museum world. Eli Broad, who was the chairman of the board at the time of the museum’s founding, helped pick Deitch as the new director. According to the New York Times, he said, “It’s time to redo the old museum model. The world has changed.” This quote needs clarification: It’s time to change the old art museum model. The world has changed.