When the Art Gallery of Ontario announced earlier this year that it would host an unprecedented exhibition beginning this month of more than 100 Abstract Expressionist works from New York's Museum of Modern Art, you just had to think: Well, that's what friends are for.

The friends in this case are Matthew Teitelbaum, 55-year-old director of the AGO, and his 56-year-old counterpart from the legendary MoMA, Glenn Lowry. Their friendship goes back almost 20 years, to 1992, when each was invited to participate in a panel discussion at a conference in Kingston, Ont. The New York-born Lowry was a couple years into his tenure as head of the AGO; the Toronto-born Teitelbaum, whose "home-town art museum," as he calls it, had been the AGO, was then a curator at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art.

They hit it off during the panel, even as they disagreed. Recalled Teitelbaum the other day, as he and Lowry sat down for a joint interview at the AGO: "I came home to my wife, Susan, and told her, 'I met a really interesting guy, and I like the way his brain works.' "

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Ditto Lowry. In Toronto to watch the uncrating of one of MoMA's signature paintings, Woman, 1 by Willem de Kooning, he recalled: "I came home to my Susan and said, 'I know who I want to see come to the AGO.' I hadn't even realized Matthew's long history with the AGO. I just thought, 'Here's someone who asks interesting questions, someone you could have a long debate and discussion with.' "

Less than eight months later, Lowry's wish came true: Teitelbaum was appointed the AGO's chief curator, a position he continued to hold through Lowry's departure for the MoMA in 1995. Sixteen years later, Lowry perseveres as the MoMA's director, having overseen the museum's $800-million renovation and expansion. Teitelbaum, meanwhile, has held Lowry's previous position since 1998; and, of course, he has overseen a renovation and expansion of his own: Frank Gehry's $276-million Transformation AGO.

People use the words "special," "warm" and "close" to describe the Lowry-Teitelbaum relationship. (They even have the same middle name, David.) Funny thing is, though, while the Lowry MoMA and the Teitelbaum AGO have lent each other dozens of works over the years, Abstract Expressionist New York represents the first full-fledged MoMA show to come to the AGO since the spring of 1971, when Toronto was the final destination for a Frank Stella retrospective.

Why the 40-year hiatus?

"Well," says Lowry, "these things are organic; they happen when they're appropriate and they fit in both our museum's agenda and the AGO's agenda. … I feel an enormous sense of commitment to and interest in what's happening at the [AGO] for obvious reasons. So we've had a very engaging dialogue over 16 or 17 years at this point, about various possibilities that might be interesting to pursue. This is just one that clicked.

"These things don't work to a rhythm," he adds. "It might be a long time before there's another show. Or it might be six months."

The seeds for the current exhibition were planted only last fall, when Teitelbaum travelled to Manhattan to see the MoMA show. Featuring more than 300 works from the New York museum's vast holdings of Jackson Pollocks and Lee Krasners, Mark Rothkos and Franz Klines, it was scheduled to run until late April, 2011.

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"We'd done the exhibition, really, as an exercise to explore our own collection," Lowry explains. "It wasn't something we had intended to travel, as our desire to lend works of this calibre, this number, is very limited." But, he adds, "Matthew immediately had a sense that it would be an interesting project for Toronto."

"We got there pretty fast," Teitelbaum acknowledges. "And we had the right conversation at the right time with the right set of possibilities."

In short order, Lowry and MoMA's director of painting and sculpture, Ann Temkin, were giving Teitelbaum and David Moos, then the AGO's director of contemporary and modern art, pretty much carte blanche to choose what they wanted.

Of course, as the AGO is much smaller than the MoMA, its show would of necessity be a distillation of the Manhattan project - what Teitelbaum calls "the best of the best." Of the 18 Pollock paintings in MoMA's permanent collection, for example, the AGO will be showing 13. Only two paintings - Pollock's One: Number 31, 1950 and Barnett Newman's Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1951) - were deemed off-limits, due to their fragility and size.

With its collection of more than 150,000 works, MoMA is one of the most envied art institutions in the world, not least by the AGO. ("We have a no-fly zone when Matthew shows up," Lowry says, laughing.) But the AGO also owns a few things Lowry covets. They include Claes Oldenburg's sculpture Giant Soft Hamburger and Andy Warhol's huge Elvis 1 and 2 silkscreen. ("If it's missing," says Lowry, "you know where to look.") Lowry also confesses a fondness for such Canadian artists as David Milne and Paterson Ewen, and notes that "it hasn't been easy for Canadian artists to be as well-received in the rest of North America as they deserve to be."

Could there, at some point, be a MoMA-AGO collaboration on Abstract Expressionism North and South, for example, or on the dialogue between Canadian colour-field painters such as Jack Bush and William Perehudoff and Americans like Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland?

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"Who knows?" Lowry says. "These things grow out of conversations, and those conversations can often take years to bear fruit." The "lubricant," he adds, "that makes all this possible is not actually the relationship that directors have to each other, necessarily. It's the relationship curators have. … Great exhibitions grow out of curatorial dialogue."

And that sort of dialogue is under way, Teitelbaum suggests. Last year, his gallery hired Elizabeth Smith, then chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, as the AGO's executive director of curatorial affairs. In doing so, Smith became one of the few AGO curators to have a show that has travelled to MoMA: her 2004 retrospective of sculptor Lee Bontecou.

"What a very great show that was," Lowry chimes in.

"So, you know, Elizabeth's going to hang out with Ann [Temkin]" Teitelbaum observes, "and we'll just see what happens."

Abstract Expressionist New York opens Saturday at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto and runs through Sept. 4. Glenn Lowry and Matthew Teitelbaum talk about the exhibition June 15, at 7 p.m. in the AGO's Baillie Court. Ticket information: ago.net/glenn-lowry.