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Ever since he was appointed to head up Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art two years ago, New York gallerist-turned-museum director Jeffrey Deitch has ruffled feather, but after a string of bitter resignations, the art world star is now under pressure to step down.

That's what MOCA's former chief executive Charles Young would do if he still called the shots. In an email to Eli Broad, the billionaire and art collector who is the museum's founding chairman and major benefactor, Young wrote, "I hope that the four-alarm fire now enveloping MOCA has at least given you pause for thought about his appointment and your continued attempts to try to save him for a job for which many (including myself) believe he is unqualified." The harsh words made news on Friday when the email somehow made it to the Los Angeles Times' Jori Finkel. Young argued to Broad that he isn’t the only one calling for Deitch’s head, and that many "believe his tenure is likely to take MOCA into the abyss."

The dramatic build up to Young's excoriation has been filled with pointed criticism and hand-wringing about MOCA’s future. The issues at stake here extend far beyond the petty, ego-driven infighting that crops up so often in the art world. It all started a month ago when MOCA’s chief curator Paul Schimmel resigned. Or was he fired, as many outlets initially reported? Whatever the terms of Schimmel's ouster, it was no secret that he and Deitch butted heads

Schimmel was well respected for cementing MOCA’s reputation as a challenging voice in contemporary art. He enjoyed pushing boundaries with shows like 1992’s Helter Skelter, which collected work that portrayed “America as one vast, roiling, sex-crazed, gun-toting wasteland,” according to The New York Times.

Deitch controversially decided not to replace Schimmel, leaving MOCA without a chief curator. He announced that the museum would rely on freelance curators, but many perceived this as an attempt to further dictate MOCA’s curatorial direction. Deitch has drawn ire for favoring flashy, fashion-forward shows that draw more from pop culture than the academy. At the moment, MOCA is planning a show called Fire in the Disco that will explore disco’s impact on art and culture. Tellingly, James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem is billed as a co-curator. 

Shortly after Schimmel’s departure, MOCA board members began dropping like flies. The museum prides itself on including a large number of artists on its board of trustees. But in the last few weeks, all four resigned. John Baldessari, a conceptual artist recently profiled in this Tom Waits-narrated video, was the first to exit. "To live with my conscience I just had to do it," he said.

Visual artists Catherine Opie and Barbara Kruger soon joined the board exodus. "I believe that MOCA's strengths have always been in relationship to the outstanding scholarly curatorial practice it had established," said Opie. "What concerns me is seeing the museum embracing more celebrity and fashion."

Ed Ruscha, known for his word paintings, stuck it out another day, but with his resignation, the board became officially artist-less.

That leaves MOCA where it stands now, with each day bringing new complaints about how the institution has become unrecognizable due to Deitch’s influence.

But let’s put aside the icky details of MOCA’s internal politics for a moment. Jeffrey Deitch's people skills aren't the reason why this debacle has touched such a hot nerve. The real issue at stake here is the very mission of modern art institutions. Should museums hew close to academic approaches, presenting art with intellectual depth yet perhaps alienating average patrons? Or should they glam it up by programming sexy, statement-driven exhibitions that challenge the old guard and attract droves of visitors?

MOCA tapped Deitch because of his provocative reputation, and he's done a good job of living up to it. His SoHo gallery, Deitch Projects, was always known for its button-pushing, celebrity-baiting shows. He's never had high-brow inclinations. And it's no secret that, as a former private dealer, he's hip to the market. Even if Deitch has badly mismanaged MOCA’s internal affairs, it’s a bit strange to see everyone so surprised by how he's run MOCA.

Take one of Deitch's biggest shows yet: Art in the Streets, the first major retrospective of graffiti and street art by an institution of MOCA's caliber. It may have oversimplified its subject, and it was probably too cliquish about which artists it included. But it drew tons of media attention, got a record number of people through MOCA’s doors, and ignited an important debate about the merits of street art. Art in the Streets might not have been the sort of success MOCA board members wanted, but it was a success nonetheless, and one only Deitch could've put together.

The details that have come out about Deitch's tenure at MOCA have not been savory. But it's hard to understand why MOCA expected anything else from him. It sounds like they're taking Jeffrey Deitch to task simply for being Jeffrey Deitch. Whatever happens to this embattled, divisive figure, questions about what philosophical directions modern institutions should pursue will continue to resonate through the art world. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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