You would be hard-pressed not to hear the name “Jeffrey Deitch” when discussing the contemporary art world’s most influential figures. A self-described polymath Jeffrey Deitch has been involved with modern and contemporary art for more than 40 years as an artist, writer curator, dealer and advisor. His influence has propelled the careers of some of the greatest artists of the 20th century. From Jean-Michel Basquiat to Keith Haring and Jeff Koons, Deitch’s now-shuttered New York gallery, Deitch Projects, had an unmistakable knack for identifying and elevating compelling artistic talent – and sell art.
Jeffrey Deitch pioneered the art of applying strong business acumen to the practice of buying, selling and exhibiting art. A Harvard business grad, he focused on identifying the buying trends that defined this billion-dollar industry. Before founding Deitch Projects, he worked for Citibank to help develop an art advisory service and set up a department specializing in art finance. Founding Deitch Projects in 1996, he managed the seminal gallery until he closed shop in 2010 to become the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles. Deitch has since returned to New York, keeping busy organizing various exhibitions.
In 2017, Knowledge@Wharton and Artrepreneur CEO Grace Cho spoke with Jeffrey Deitch in his New York City office about the major lessons he has learned during his career in art and business. Despite the changes in the art world from the pandemic, Deitch’s understanding of the art market remains timeless and is as as relevant today as ever.
Jeffrey Deitch Interview Highlights
You can listen to the full interview at Art of the Matter: A Conversation with Jeffrey Deitch.
On Getting His Start in the Art World
After a skilled craftsman did some work for Deitch’s family business, the 19-year-old decided to help his father mount a craft arts business. As the gallery began to take shape, Deitch realized the space’s walls also needed to be adorned with great art.
“We were stuck with all of this inventory, and it was beautiful copperware, and we didn’t know how to sell it. I said, ‘Well, I can sell it.’ And so I loaded up my van, with all the copperware, and drove all over New England to nurseries and gift shops. By the end of my tour, which went all the way up to Maine, the van was empty. I’d sold everything. I was quite confident [and thought], I don’t need to sell to other people, I can do this myself. Why don’t I open a little gallery called The Copper Artisan?
I realized we needed something for the walls. My mother said, “well, I know an artist.” I didn’t really understand at that time that there was a giant difference between the art world, this big art business with a complex of museums and magazines and collectors and professional artists, and just people who made nice art because there are people who make nice looking art everywhere. But most of them are not inside this international art economy.
I wasn’t aware of that at the time. So I went to this local artist. “Can we have some art for the walls?” And his art was perfectly nice, a kind of abstract figuration combination. After the first weekend, I gave him a call. I said, “we sold it all, I need more.” This guy was astonished. As the gallery progressed over the summer of 1972, and artists who lived in the Berkshires saw what was going on, I was approached by more and more people. “Would you like to show my art?” And by the end of the summer, we became a hangout for the local painters. People kept on giving me things, I kept selling them.
At the end of the summer, one of the artists who had brought things in and who became a regular, said to me, “I see you have a lot of aptitude for this. But let me tell you, you don’t know what you’re doing, and you need to get yourself an art education.” And I listened to him and switched my college major from economics to art.”
On the Business of How to Buy and Sell Art
Most artists are completely stuck when it comes to an understanding the process of selling their artwork. Deitch, on the other hand, appears to have mastered the art of selling fine art. He tells Cho that closing art sales hinges on your presentation.
“I always let the art and the presentation speak for itself. Every work of art is hung level. Nothing’s out of place. We’re going over the repainting of walls to make sure there are no imperfections. And we agonize over the lighting. We have a model where we work out the installation in advance. So when people walk in, the work is displayed with total authority. Because I find if, say, there is dust on the floor, there are finger marks on the white walls, you erode the authority. You have to be behind the work with total confidence and belief. And then you need to know what you’re doing, you need to be prepared.”
On Finding the Right Partners
Deitch suggests that artists shouldn’t feel like they have to go it alone when it comes to developing their careers, and they also shouldn’t become too focused on the minutiae of the art world. In fact, Deitch says doing so can cause an artist to lose focus. Instead, artists should pay attention to opportunities for socializing, while making sure to devote plenty of time to their studio practice.
“It all has to be integrated. I know many artists who spend much more time socializing, going to gallery openings, parties and that sort of thing than they spend in their studio. And they might have fun doing this, but it’s not going to take their art anywhere, because it’s all based on the quality of the art.
Now, an artist who is completely isolated and doesn’t connect socially, they might have a tough time getting the art out. But I know plenty of very shy, retiring artists who do get the work out because other people do it for them. So this connecting with a wider network of endorsers almost always starts with other artists. So let’s say, at an art school, the other artists always know who the big talent is. And they support this talented artist. If they’re invited to an exhibition, they say, “Well, you should invite my friend, as well.” So almost all great artists, their acclaim starts with other artists, with their artist peers.”
On Finding Success
Reiterating the importance of cultivating a network, Deitch stresses that emerging artists should take the time to identify key partners, critics, and collectors that will help your work shine.
When young artists ask me for some advice, one of the first things I ask them is who’s your team? Because you can’t do it by yourself. Who’s the artist-writer who really likes your work, who’s written something good? Is there a young art dealer — are your art friends crucial to who’s been helping you? Is there a pioneering collector who’s already got a few of your works? Artistic success is having a network. A network can help you to communicate your work outward. Also, a network that you can trust can say, ”no, that’s the wrong direction. That painting you did last month, was much better.”
The artist who understands how to build this network and connect socially and benefit from the market is usually the one who can make the strongest art historical statement.”
For more information on Jeffrey Deitch and his current projects, visit deitch.com.