Wednesday 13 January 2010

Risky business?

Problems with quantifying risk can water down, drag out the development of, and even kill good ideas.

I see this over and over again in my professional life, especially when it comes to 'social media tools' that allow 'users' to interact with, add information to, or reuse collection items or 'authoritative' information sources.

When activities like these are proposed, questions are raised. What if we allow tagging, and people add racist tags to collection items? What if we enable reuse, and people cut and paste Hitler's face onto the photograph of someone's ancestor? What if we ask people to clean up OCR'd text, and they paste in spam instead? What if we start a community, and Russian mobsters come and steal members' identities?

Often, the questions have no answers, because there's no evidence yet. You can't deny that there's a risk, but nor can you measure it effectively so that you can allay concerns. And sometimes this unquantifiable risk becomes the thing people get stuck on.

I feel like I'm seeing this with the appointment of Jeffrey Deitch as the new director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). Commentators are not writing reams of content because he's known to be stupid and lazy, or to have a history of fraudulent behaviour, or the beneficiary of a nepotistic decision by the board.

Instead, they're hung up on the following:
  • he is currently a commercial dealer (a practice he has stated he will give up)
  • he is currently an art collector (a practice he has stated he will not give up).
It is unusual (but not unknown) for a director of a commercial gallery to be appointed to lead a not-for-profit art museum (notably, it is not at all uncommon for staff to leave not-for-profits and go to dealer galleries and auction houses, and conflict of interest is rarely discussed on these occasions). I'm unsure of how common or not it is for a director to have a personal art collection (not so uncommon that there aren't clear and well-publicised guidelines for this situation).

So there's commentary like this (from Tyler Green):

Imagine that MOCA launches a group show. Imagine that one of the artists is not so well-known, and that her inclusion in a show at America's top contemporary art museum would represent a substantial elevation of her profile. Imagine then that Deitch then decides to sell three works by that artist from his collection. That would be deeply problematic. I'm not suggesting that would happen, I'm merely pointing out the sort of situation that should be prevented.

And this (from Jorg Colberg)

I'm wondering how Deitch being director of LA MoCA does not open the doors to a potentially huge set of conflicts of interest. A commercial dealer obviously has very different priorities than the director of LA MoCA. This is where things might get pretty iffy, especially if (that, of course, is a big if, and I'm not implying in any way that this is going to happen) in a few years Deitch decides to step down as director of LA MoCA to become a private dealer again. He could then end up in the situation where he would trade the very same artists he might have promoted as director of LA MoCA, thus benefiting from decisions he made earlier...

I also think Tyler Green is unfairly harsh on Roberta Smith's piece on Deitch's appointment; as far as I have seen, she's the only person to put it together with the recent appointment of Bill Moggridge (an industrial designer and businessman) to lead the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and ask if this is the beginning of a new trend (following on, I guess, from the MBA trend of the 1990s/2000s).

One of the most thoughful responses I've seen so far is Andras Szanto's comment on Ed Winkleman's ArtWorld Salon post yesterday:

... we’ve been handed a phenomenal opportunity to think out loud about art-world roles and the lingering sentimental attitudes attached to some of them.
... Our choice, ultimately, is between a guild-like hardening of professional silos, or a more fluid opportunity to mingle successive jobs and careers. The art world is coming late to this party–behind lawyers and scientists and even politicians. There may be unexpected benefits.

I tend to agree with Szanto. Deitch's behaviour will come under incredible scrutiny. His appointment may trigger the development of further conflict of interest guidelines. But we're all going to lose out long-term if we blanket-ly say that people who have worked in certain kinds of jobs in the art world shouldn't move into other roles because the (potential, unquantified) risk is too great.

P.S. A friend (who runs the site I Heart Eyeglasses) has noted that Deitch's specs are awesome.

No comments: