01 Mar 2016

In My Humble Opinion: Jeffrey Deitch (MBA 1978)

The curator and collector on art and business
by April White


Photo by Danny Ghitis

The 1970s New York contemporary art world that Jeffrey Deitch (MBA 1978) knew, where painter Jean-Michel Basquiat tagged buildings and artist Keith Haring bartended, was a far cry from the corporate boardroom. But Deitch—like so many of the artists he has supported—had a different perspective on art. “Even though you can’t apply sophisticated financial models to it or the complex structures that I learned in Production and Operations Management,” he says, “art is a business.” And Deitch, in his three-plus-decade career as an art advisor, curator, and collector, has become one of its most successful entrepreneurs. His business strategy? “If it is art that inspires me, it’s going to inspire other people, and they will buy it. It’s really as simple as that.”

On getting an art education: “One of the great things about art is that what you experience every day adds to your knowledge and connoisseurship. I try to have an important experience with a work of art every day: seeing a work of art that’s new to me, seeing a work of art in a new way, or reading about an artist or a work of art.”

What makes a great artist: “I’m not looking for artists who just paint nice pictures, or have impressive technique or arresting subjects. I’m looking for artists who are changing the definition of what an artwork is or what an artist is— or even in a small way making some sort of structural or conceptual change in how a work of art is made.”

In his personal collection: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Jeff Koons, among many others. “I like to collect works by artists I’ve worked with and who’ve been good friends.”

Advice to novice art collectors: “Creating a great art collection is surprisingly similar to actually creating a great body of art yourself. It’s not an investment portfolio; it reflects a vision.”

The personal touch: Deitch travels some 100 days a year. “In art, the deal is very personal. So an in-person conversation is always more important, more meaningful, than an email or a telephone exchange.”

Those glasses: He’s been wearing the custom-made, buffalo-horn frames since about 1988. “Now that they’ve become a trademark, I have to continue wearing them.”

“Creating a great art collection is surprisingly similar to actually creating a great body of art yourself.”
“Creating a great art collection is surprisingly similar to actually creating a great body of art yourself.”

Changes in the art world, part I: Its prominence. “When I came to HBS, contemporary art was on the margins. Now, as we’ve seen, culture, art, design—these are central to the economy.”

Changes in the art world, part II: Its price. “I remember being the underbidder on the most expensive Rothko painting ever sold in 1982; it sold for $250,000. Now a similar Rothko would be $80 million-plus. Oh, the works I’ve sold that I should have kept! I remember selling an Andy Warhol Elizabeth Taylor portrait for $135,000 around 1994. Something like that today would be worth $20 million.”

Keeping focus: “If I’m unable to do my morning run, I’m not as mentally focused the rest of the day. I ran the Charles River when I was at Harvard Business School; now that was a great run.”

Proudest professional accomplishment: Post Human, an exhibition Deitch curated in 1992 on future conceptions of the human body. “It became very influential, and the term entered into the language.”

Dream project: “I’m particularly determined to do the great exhibition on New York art in the 1980s. It’s my generation; that’s where I was.”

Notable Exhibitions

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1978, Section B

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