When Frank Gehry transformed the architecture of the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2008, Matthew Teitelbaum grasped the opportunity to do the same - with the organization.

The building was empty. It offered him a chance, as AGO's director and chief executive officer since 1998, to lead his team into new territory.

"It was like Humpty Dumpty," Mr. Teitelbaum says. "We got to put it all back together again. We had permission to think about it differently."

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Encouraging others to think differently was key to turning the space into a place of real engagement. While some things were locked down early, because they needed to tell Mr. Gehry where certain collections were going to go - such as early European contemporary art or the Thompson collection - everything else was up for grabs.

Mr. Teitelbaum and his team created guiding principles for the institution - diversity, accessibility and communication - and workshopped what to do next around them.

"I stress that we workshopped them so these weren't things I decided in my office by myself," Mr. Teitelbaum says. "We took those guiding principles into conversations about what art had to be shown, and what might be shown. I wanted to make sure that the things the public wanted and that we knew were important to the history of our institution were not forgotten."

They created models of the 110 galleries at the AGO, each with little dollhouse images of all the works on the walls, and put them in what they called the war room.

"We didn't call it the war room all the time but I liked it when we did, because I knew we were going to get somewhere," Mr. Teitelbaum says. "We'd come in and have our meetings in front of all these models. I took a very big role in this because it was important to me and I wanted to make sure the dialogue was clear."

Next came discussions of what stories the group was going to tell, with Mr. Teitelbaum setting the parameters.

"I was pushing them to just think clarity, clarity, clarity," he recalls. "I said each room has to tell a story and it has to be clear through a simple text or interpretive path. The highest achievement would be a room in which someone would read nothing and still understand what the story was. Less is more."

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Then, a year and a half before the reopening - while the AGO was still deep into construction - they started a project where they imagined what success would look like when they opened, and what the main ingredients would be.

To encourage innovation, one of the group's bullet points was that you couldn't walk through two galleries without experiencing one new idea. The team had permission to design a gallery in a traditional way, but then had to create something new for the next gallery, whether it was seating or labelling or audio.

"I had some pretty strong points of view," Mr. Teitelbaum says. "I was not passive in this and I didn't get much resistance. I'm not saying I'm the hero who was pushing against all odds, but I was insistent that the way in which people learn today is different than how they learned five years ago or 15 years ago."

Mr. Teitelbaum, who has lectured at Harvard, York University and the University of Western Ontario, grew up Toronto, in a household in which his father made his living as a professional artist surrounded by paintings, and where the studio was sometimes out the back door. "Going into an artist's studio and thinking about what art is is the fabric of my life," he says. "It's not something unusual or exotic because it's so real to me. So I come to my profession with that feeling. I'm in my life."

Following a long, distinguished international career, in 2006 Mr. Teitelbaum received the prestigious honour of Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres from France.

Still, when you're leading a public institution, Mr. Teitelbaum insists there are two things you have to remember: Public and institution.

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"I'm not an academic," Mr. Teitelbaum says.

"I'm not in a university classroom in a constrained way and I'm not a hamburger stand at the side of the 400 [highway] I'm [in]an institution which has history, influence, and which has public responsibility. So in my role as the director of the Art Gallery of Ontario, I'm energized every day by the possibilities of what does it mean to present art in this space," he adds.

"We live in a time when increasingly it's difficult to communicate across borders and boundaries and across cultures. Art is a way of breaking that down, of communicating across those barriers. It's an alternative strategy for communication. I happen to believe that strongly."