Charlotte Burns: Hello and welcome to “In Other Words”. I’m your host Charlotte Burns, the senior editor at Art Agency, Partners. Joining us today the art world impresario, Jeffrey Deitch, and Lisa Dennison, who worked at the Guggenheim for 29 years starting as an intern and eventually becoming the museum’s director. When you left to join Sotheby’s in 2007 where you were the executive vice president, it was major news reported in publications like the New York Times.
Jeffrey you’ve been forging your own path since the beginning of your career. You were the vice president at Citibank in 1988 where you developed and managed the bank’s art advisory and art finance businesses, and you went on to become a highly successful art advisor and gallerist before becoming the director of LA Moca between 2010 and 2013, making headlines there. Now, you’ve reopened Deitch Projects in SoHo in New York, and you’re about to open a 15,000 square foot warehouse space in Hollywood, LA. I want to ask you a question first of all. What was easier: working in the commercial art world or in museums?
Jeffrey Deitch: That’s a great question. My experience at the Museum of Contemporary Art was quite enlightening. One would expect that in the commercial gallery world the majority of your time is spent on business and a good amount of time, but a lesser amount of time, is spent on pure art matters. In a museum you would think that’s the reverse, but in fact the director of a museum today is primarily preoccupied with fundraising.
When I was running Deitch Projects, it was 95% art and 5% business whereas running the Museum of Contemporary Art, it was 95% business and 5% art.
Charlotte Burns: Did you find that difficult?
Jeffrey Deitch: These positions of museum director in a major public museum are the most difficult jobs in the entire art world. There is nothing to compare with the pressures. One result of my tenure at Moca is just immense respect for my friends who direct public museums. The amount of pressure coming from every angle is tremendous, and you see a lot of people succumb to some of those pressures.
Charlotte Burns: When people talk about museum directors, they often talk about vision—people bring a vision to an institution. But, Jeffrey you’ve spoken in the past about the degree in which being a museum director is really about compromise. Lisa, is it difficult for museum directors to put their own vision as a standpoint in an institution?
Lisa Dennison: I don’t think it’s difficult, I think it’s a requirement. You are selling your vision, and that’s the capital that you have. And you have to go out there, and you have to raise a lot of money by literally selling your vision. So if you ask me which is more stressful, it was selling the vision because in the transactional art world, it is a transaction: give me a painting, I’ll give you money; give me money, I’ll get you a painting. It’s simpler, and there’s competition in both worlds, but in a city like New York when you’re a museum director, you have fierce competition from other institutions that have in many ways the same program, the same vision.
But I find the interesting thing about being in the commercial art world is I feel that I’m more engaged in art here on a day-to-day basis than I was when I was the museum director—not necessarily a curator, because the bulk of my career was as a curator. But once you step into the realm of director, it’s very hard to find that space for creativity, for thinking, for ideas. It’s kind of relentless and bureaucratic, whereas at a place like Sotheby’s everything revolves around the art or the collector. Everything. You’re so pointed and focused on that, that everything else is extraneous.
In the museum world it’s a very needy machine where everybody wants you, the director’s attention to help focus on their projects and realize something grand with very nominal means.
Charlotte Burns: When you made moves that other people found to be shocking or unprecedented, what were you thinking at the time? So Lisa, when you left the Guggenheim to come to Sotheby’s; Jeffrey when you went to LA Moca and then when you left LA Moca, and now opening in LA later this year—when you’ve made these decisions, what were you thinking at the time, and were you prepared for the reaction? And secondly, do you believe that it would be easier now? Is the art world more porous?
Lisa Dennison: Well mine’s an easier question because I had a very simple life. I was at the Guggenheim for as you said 29 years, but I was also an intern before that, so my tenure there actually started in 1973. I was very happy in that institution and had come full circle from an intern to the director.
My years as the director were the least interesting for all the reasons we’ve talked about, but it was 2007 and the art world had exploded. It was the peak of the art world. I remember sitting in Sotheby’s—I was a curator who always went to auctions, I like not just the theater of it but the amount of information I got about: works of art; their value; how people value them; who is in the audience. The whole thing was fascinating. I was there in May 2007 when David Rockefeller’s Rothko sold and the next night at Christie’s when Warhol’s Green Car Crash sold for approximately the same. You could just feel that this was the center of the world, and I was like Cinderella who went back to my struggling museum finances.
And I thought about all the decisions I would make of which there would be no consequence until eternity sometime, and that I was missing something. I was missing the center of the action. When I did get the call not long after from Tobias Meyer to consider coming to Sotheby’s, it was the easiest decision I ever had to make in my life because I knew I wanted a second career. And I thought that I would be in this fulcrum of activity in the center of the art world, and that what I did was transferrable in a certain way, but it really wasn’t.
Charlotte Burns: It wasn’t?
Lisa Dennison: Well, not really. I didn’t learn any skills that I later needed here. But there was a lot of press as you say. In particular, there was a op-ed piece written by Eric Gibson in the Wall Street Journal about this idea of the porousness of the art world, and that it was unheard of before for someone to go from the not-for-profit world to the commercial world and what did that mean? It meant that boundaries were breaking down between auction houses, museums and galleries in some of the ways we’ve touched on here in terms of just the production values, the scale of operations, all of that.
Yes, it took the world by surprise and yes there’s been a lot of movement since then, and the firewall has broken down—you could never imagine before that someone could go to what they call the dark side and go back, but yet we’ve seen that happen with many people. It’s just a different world. For me it was a very good decision, and I’ve never looked back and never regretted it and stay incredibly close to museums, including the Guggenheim. But I think Jeffrey’s path was much more complex.
Jeffrey Deitch: Yes. I joke that I’ve had every single role in the art world, even including artist.
Charlotte Burns: Do you have a favorite role?
Jeffrey Deitch: Yes, I love what I do now. I’m a natural fit with being an art dealer, gallerist because it’s an open platform. Basically I can do everything. Creative side—I love graphic design, and that’s where I am an artist. You can indulge every aspect of art, and particularly engagement with the fascinating people around art. Yes, I love doing it.
But I like to open new chapters. I’m not the type of person who likes to do the same thing year after year. In the structure of my gallery—other galleries, the whole point was to build a stable of artists: every couple years, the artist has another show. And I did some of that, but the objective was to keep finding new talent. The gallery looked different every month. We would rebuild the gallery for different shows, so that was always my approach to do fresh things. And for me to, say, right now open a new chapter of a gallery in Los Angeles, it’s so exciting. I already did Deitch Projects—we had a good run, 15 years, did a very ambitious book on it, and that’s a completed chapter. But the vision—the mission—is always the same, so that I haven’t changed.
Charlotte Burns: Tell us about the LA gallery. Why LA?
Jeffrey Deitch: First, I’m not someone who says: “Now it’s LA. Forget New York.” I am a complete New Yorker. For me the most interesting way to live in America now in the creative sphere is to be involved in both New York and LA. There’s great creative energy now in LA and the sector of the creative world, which I’m particularly interested in, where there is a lot of blurring of boundaries between: visual artists; film director; musician; writer; fashion designer. This is so interesting for me. I like to cite figures who I admire like the Mulleavy sisters, Rodarte, Hedi Slimane, Daft Punk—who secretly have a studio in LA—Miranda July, who I have worked with a few times.
I’m very interested in these figures who are redefining what an artist does. And so in LA, there’s an audience that appreciates and understands this and people who are open to this new kind of blurring of creative boundaries. I’m also going to be doing rigorist art historical shows and contemporary exhibitions that I hope will help to define the agenda.
Charlotte Burns: Tell us about the first show. It’s a sequel to the “Overpop” exhibition.
Jeffrey Deitch: Right, it is called “The Extreme Present”. And usually I invent my own titles, but in this case I was so inspired by a book called “The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present” by Douglas Coupland, Shumon Basar and Hans Ulrich Obrist. They very generously gave me permission to use part of the title: “The Extreme Present”. I just think that says it all, and that’s how I want to open the gallery.
Charlotte Burns: It’s to do with the legacy of Dada and Pop in the digital age, is that right?
Jeffrey Deitch: Well, it has precedence, but artists who I think are defining artists now—mention a few: Ian Cheng, Josh Kline, Anicka Yi. These are some of the artists who will be in it.
Charlotte Burns: Are they making new work for the show, or is there a mix of new and old work?
Jeffrey Deitch: Mix of new and old work. My approach to the art business is not about: “Oh, I just found this excellent painting on the secondary market, and I’m going to offer it at the highest price I can, and then onto the next one.” It’s about over time developing a vision and as a gallerist, as an art advisor—if I was selling anything, that’s what I was selling. I was selling a curatorial vision, a vision about how to understand and to take advantage of the opportunities of the art market. I always looked for people who could share my vision, and these became my clients.
Lisa Dennison: You would develop these collections—and I know many of the people you’ve worked with—you would often curate exhibitions from these collections and you would develop artists’ careers in a really profound and interesting way. And one of the things that I wanted to ask you was: what does it feel like when you have launched so many artists who you’ve discovered from nowhere? The most difficult thing in the world is discovering an artist and discovering talent. Let’s take someone like Cecily Brown. You discover Cecily. You build her career. You take her to a certain level and poof they go onto another pasture, a bigger gallery or whatever. Is that satisfying for you? It’s like raising children and they go out into the world? Or is that frustrating because you have helped develop them and then they go?
Jeffrey Deitch: I’ve learned that there’s always another remarkable artist coming. You get involved with someone—deeply involved—and they go off on another path, but it’s not over. The case of Cecily—it’s so fascinating how I met her. At the beginning, I couldn’t really talk about it because she had to be very discrete about the fact that she was the daughter of perhaps the greatest art critic in the English language: David Sylvester. I became friendly with David—met him in London—and when he came to New York City, we would always see an exhibition together.
One of his visits—it was the time of the Jasper Johns retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and, as we were about to go, David says: “Would you mind if I brought my daughter?” “David, you have a daughter here?” It never came up before. He says: “Well, yes I will explain later.” Cecily shows up with us. She’s a very charismatic young lady, and she was only about 23 at the time. And David and I went through the Jasper Johns show. Fascinating to listen to David talk about the Johns masterpieces. What was even more fascinating: to see Cecily so interested in the strangest, oddest, most out there works of Jasper Johns.
I arranged a visit a few days later, and she was living, working in a loft in Tribeca, but not the kind of loft that my friends in the ‘70s had where they had the entire floor for $150 a month. Cecily was in a cubical on one of these floors with all of her possessions, clothing, painting material piled into the center, and all the walls were these extraordinary works inspired by some strange combination of Victorian Fairy paintings and de Kooning and lots of other things. It was one of those rare cases where right on the spot I said: “Let’s do a show as soon as possible.”
Charlotte Burns: What year was that?
Jeffrey Deitch: This is 1997. I was amazed to see people standing in front of the paintings for 15, 20 minutes. I knew that we were really connecting with the audience. Cecily’s work is a continuation, in many ways, of David’s artistic interests in Bacon, Giacometti, de Kooning and the great New York School artists. Where even though she didn’t grow up with him, somehow it was all absorbed in an amazing way. Cecily continues to do great work. So Lisa asked: “What happens when after two shows, and lots of success and the artist leaves?” I’m still very friendly with Cecily. I, in fact, spent an afternoon with her last week.
Lisa Dennison: You don’t harbor resentment obviously. You go onto your next discovery.
Charlotte Burns: Sometimes you’re the conduit for other people’s discovery, such as Street art.
Jeffrey Deitch: When I first moved to New York in 1974, I was just fascinated by this underground world of the tagging on the subways and came at the right time to watch the invention of Wild Style. I got to know a lot of the innovators and one of my big missions was to try to in a convincing way insert these artists into contemporary art history. That’s one of the reasons why my first big show at Moca was “Art in the Streets”.
Charlotte Burns: Are you going to revisit that, because you do tend to revisit exhibitions in new forms?
Jeffrey Deitch: There’s a project I’ve been doing for the past three years in New York City. It’s called Coney Art Walls, and it opened on Memorial Day in this year. And we have spectacular walls by 33 artists, and this year I’m especially excited because Lee Quiñones—maybe the great artist of this movement—did an incredible wall for us.
Charlotte Burns: Your mentioning of Coney Island reminds me of real estate, and you’ve always been really aware of real estate in the way that you talk about the art world, too. You’re very aware not only of changes in the art world and artists who are emerging and movements that are ebbing and flowing, but also the movement of real estate.
Jeffrey Deitch: The connection between artists and real estate values now is very well known, but it was fascinating to see what was invented in SoHo in the early 1970s, and see how this spread all over the world: the whole idea of the live/work space and repurposing of an industrial space for creative, residential use. A lot of that was invented in SoHo. It has been fascinating to watch how many economic trends, cultural trends have come out of the vanguard art world, and now it extends into fashion and all the other arts.
Charlotte Burns: Do you consciously kind of harness those things? It seems to me that your work to develop an artist’s career and real estate at the same time—that you use those two synergistically?
Jeffrey Deitch: I would say it’s something that I’ve written about a lot, I’m very aware of and think about is the role of art today. Vanguard art is in a very different place since particularly the 1980s than it was in 1915, 1920. It very quickly helps to shape the wider popular culture and the progressive sector of the economy. Many people in the art world resist this and want to keep it all, in a way, so-called “pure”, but I don’t think that’s possible anymore. Art is in a very different place. When I would visit the Guggenheim back in the ‘70s, hardly any people there. I usually knew maybe 20% of the people who were there. They came from a small community.
Now you go to Guggenheim on the weekend, there is a long line outside. Art has sparked this whole new kind of audience economy, and it’s wonderful if you can have this very pure art experience. But what we do has become very popular and it influences throughout the culture. If Jay Z is rapping about Picasso, you’re going to get a lot of people influenced by that and going to see Picasso.
Lisa Dennison: Art is a form of entertainment in a way, or it rivals some of the entertainment businesses.
Jeffrey Deitch: Yes well, that’s such an interesting question, and people who followed the story of my tenure at Moca know that I was subjected to a lot of criticism that I was bringing in programming that was not serious enough, that maybe veered into entertainment. I’m actually as serious about hardcore Modernist art as anybody. My foundation is having worked with artists like Sol LeWitt and Robert Ryman in the ‘70s. What a gallerist or museum director now needs to explore and understand is this interface between art and popular culture. No, it’s not entertainment, but there’s a new audience for progressive culture.
Charlotte Burns: Is it something to do with spectacle? The way we describe this idea of entertainment is perhaps more to do with spectacle. The way we talk about spectacle is often judgmental, but there’s a long history of art being sensational. If you look at Dada, that’s spectacle.
Jeffrey Deitch: I just am so excited to read about Jean Tinguely’s exploding sculpture in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art in the early ‘60s. For me, that’s so exciting. That’s spectacle that, for me, is so artistically interesting. Yves Klein’s Anthropométries performances: that’s spectacle. But also that’s such influential avant-garde performance.
A cheap spectacle of course isn’t artistically interesting at all, but a great Christo project, the Jeff Koons’ puppy—these are spectacular. I love it when a work of art or a performance art is that strong that it can truly be spectacular and inspire so many people.
Charlotte Burns: What do you think, Lisa?
Lisa Dennison: There is something about getting audiences through the door, which has led to perhaps a more a populist approach to art in some of our museums. I worked for [Thomas] Krens, and he was widely criticized for doing shows like “The Art of the Motorcycle”, which did open up the museum to a new demographic and it was really a very kind of sociological study of a design object seen through the lens of time through a century, and I thought quite interesting. But it was also entertaining. There is a line there. I also think about monumentality. We are all awed by the grandeurs of nature, by seeing the Grand Canyon or something like that, but there is something about an artist who takes on that issue of monumentality, of earthworks or the gigantism of Jeff’s puppy and how that often inspires awe. I think there’s a real difference between pushing the envelope, moving something into an avant-garde direction like Dadaism versus this idea of the spectacular.
I always remember when Larry opened a space on 24th Street and I kept thinking: “Oh my God, it reminds me a lot of Bilbao.” You build these big spaces, and now artists have to rise to the challenge to fill that space, and how are spaces impacting what artists are making and artists’ production? I’ll never forget when I looked at Larry’s space for the first time I said: “Boy, the elephant in the room is who is going to get a show here that can make large work? It requires an elephant.” Then Douglas Gordon did that brilliant piece with the elephant photographed, and I was like: “Yes, this is what it’s taking. It’s pushing artists towards making elephants.”
Charlotte Burns: With the Tate, Turbine Hall, it’s a very unforgiving space, and to create something that’s awe-inspiring is a challenge. To work on such a large scale means that your failure, if you fail, is writ large, and there’s not really anywhere to hide. Not all spectacle is awe-inspiring for the right reasons.
Lisa Dennison: It’s true, and then it gets into the question of collectability, and I think what you’ve accomplished Jeffrey with the collections you’ve built, for example, is that they become not domestic collections but kind of foundation collections. If we take Dakis Joannou, for example, he was collecting very ambitiously, so there became a market—not only Dakis, but others—for collecting this kind of art that traditionally was only the realm of museums, but museums could no longer afford to collect.
I want to go on a different direction for a minute. Jeffrey you have always given such great direction and pithy guidance. I do remember asking your advice very soon after I started at Sotheby’s because of your own experience. You said: “Today’s collector gets their art history from the 60 lots in an evening sale. Albers to Warhol, because I can’t think of a Z right now.” That was the pantheon, and the way that we were traditionally trained was Alfred Barr’s timeline. But people didn’t go to collection galleries at museums anymore, but instead took those 60 lots, and that’s where they were getting their education and that was the timespan and what they could absorb, what they had time for in their lives. This was the new generation of hedge fund managers. It really stuck with me.
The other thing you said was that auction houses and galleries had upped their production values. Their galleries looked curated like the best of museums. They brought in art historians and art professionals to curate and tell the story and narrate and create these monumental catalogs that museum curators would take 40 years to produce. That really stuck with me. I’m just wondering: that was probably in 2007 that we had that conversation, do you think it’s still the same today?
Jeffrey Deitch: I think it’s intensified.
Lisa Dennison: It’s worse.
Jeffrey Deitch: The auction houses and galleries are continuing to up their game. It’s beyond just that there are these 60 lots, that’s the artistic pantheon. What is even more fascinating—maybe even frightening—the contemporary auction spans a period from the 1940s up to the present. Let’s just say it is six decades, or more than that. But that means that for each decade, you can really only include about ten artists. This is astonishing that all the thousands of people working, of all the galleries, all the gallery staff, all of us who devote our lives to giving artists a platform that—does it really come down to this? You have to be in the top ten to exist in this kind of new art history? The 1960s, it’s basically ten people, [same with] the 1950s, and unless you were in that top ten you don’t have the same kind of secondary market, you don’t have the same collector base, all of the things that go with it. If the artist is not in the top ten of the decade, it’s very difficult for the museum to find the funding.
Lisa Dennison: It’s a really perplexing problem, and it’s about centers of power as you were about to say. And that always shifts. I remember when it was the Museum of Modern Art. I remember when in the ‘50s it was the critic. I remember when it was the gallery, and I remember when it was the artists, when all of a sudden as the museum curator, you were there to facilitate the artists putting on their show—not to say to the artists: “Go away, I’m the curator. I’m going to look at your production and create a show,” and they said: “Thank you very much.”
Jeffrey Deitch: A lot of this happened at the Guggenheim. With Dan Flavin, Daniel Buren—
Lisa Dennison: That’s true.
Jeffrey Deitch: —a few other artists with now legendary battles between the museum and the artist. That is basically where the artist won the battle.
Lisa Dennison: It’s so true.
Charlotte Burns: So interesting. Through this conversation we sort of touched on the idea of community, and I’d like to go down two different paths with you both here: one is your communities, this idea of you two being part of the same generation and having different experiences although they started to overlap.
Jeffrey, I was thinking about you specifically. I spoke to Walter Robinson last year when I interviewed him for the Guardian ahead of his exhibition with you. He told me about in 1974, he’d walked into the John Weber Gallery with a stack of Art-Rite magazines that he was producing with some colleagues and friends at the time.
You were behind the desk, and he thought that it was almost unbelievable that you were so genuinely enthusiastic. He said he’d never met anybody in the art world who didn’t at least display cynicism, even as a false pretense. You were very excited and authentically so, and then that began a conversation, which is continuing. You just showed his works, you wrote for the magazine—
Jeffrey Deitch: My first piece of art criticism was for Art-Rite. It was never published, that was a whole other story. It’s been republished since.
Charlotte Burns: What’s interesting to me, this idea—the way Walter described you to me—made me think very much of community: that you were interested and involved in the ideas of the people around you and very much engaged in them. Jeff Koons said that at a recent event in which you were honored at the Appraisers Association of America, that your energy was something that he found impressive and always inspiring—you were out and about engaging in your communities but also building communities. Lisa, you do that too here. You work in a very collegial way, which I’m always very grateful for. You work in a very generous way.
Jeffrey Deitch: That’s one of the great rewards of this. Art has a lot of power. For me, great works of art are not inanimate objects at all. They really communicate. For me, one of the best parts of this is to get involved with all the people who make it, the people around it. Art is a social situation. Art comes alive when people talk about it. Share their ideas.
Lisa Dennison: It has a great convening power. It does. And there is this thing called the art world, and it is extremely social, but you live it. And you live with: the artists; you live with the collectors; you live with the institutions and you live with the market. People come in and out all the time.
Charlotte Burns: Do you think that’s more relevant now in the context of a changing world in which we are looking at increased nationalism and culture as less of a priority for governmental spending in Europe and in America? I guess the question here really is—can art change the world?
Jeffrey Deitch: I remember attending one of the many art benefit dinners that I’ve attended over the years. This was a benefit for Skowhegan, and the honoree that year was Robert Rauschenberg. It was very early on in my experience in the art world, and it was amazing to see Robert Rauschenberg—who had a lot to drink; these things are not easy for artists—and he staggered up to the podium, and he was obviously a little bit inebriated and he, rather than the standard prepared speech, just said: “I still think that art can change the world.” Of course there was standing ovation. I believe that too.
It’s great to experience the Rauschenberg Show now at the Museum of Modern Art because the approach is Rauschenberg and his artistic colleagues. It’s such an interesting exposition of how it really works. Very few artists do it all on their own. One of the reasons for Rauschenberg’s influence and quality of his own work was the engagement with: John Cage; Jasper Johns; Cy Twombly; Leo Castelli. Yes, it comes out of community. I very much believe in art as an international language that brings cultures together. It’s very important now, but this is nothing new.
Modern art has always been international. Now it’s very important when you have countries putting up barriers, firewalls in the Internet, for artists to keep going with this international dialogue. It’s a truly cosmopolitan field.
Charlotte Burns: Well, thank you both very much. Thank you Lisa for being here today. Thank you Jeffrey, I really appreciate it.
Lisa Dennison: Thank you.