Friday is Matthew David Teitelbaum's last day at the Art Gallery of Ontario, where for the past 22 years he's spent most of his waking hours, working first as the Toronto gallery's chief curator, then, from July, 1998 onward, as director and CEO. Effective Aug. 3, he's the new director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. A Toronto native and graduate of London's Courtauld Institute of Art, Teitelbaum, 59, has never been less than an engaged and engaging presence. Under his auspices, the AGO got bigger in almost every way – in clout, ambition, audience reach, in the size of its collections and importance of its exhibitions and, of course, in physical size. The Globe and Mail recently met Teitelbaum in his office where he was cleaning house and eagerly anticipating a fishing trip with his son, Max, to Ontario's Baptiste Lake, former stomping grounds of a Teitelbaum art hero, David Milne.
What are you feeling at this point? Is it a mix of being eager or anxious to go and being reluctant to leave?
I've never experienced the combination of sadness and excitement at the same time the way I have over the last couple of months. And it's only intensified over the last week. Obviously, there's the excitement of Boston, but you get concentrated pretty quickly on what you're leaving behind. In practice, there's not a single thing that is pushing me away, nothing that is unsettling, nothing that is a qualification to what is possible. This project here, this adventure, this commitment here isn't finished. I can see the next step; I can see the step after that; I can see how the AGO can get to the next level both nationally and internationally. But I have to leave that behind.
What is going to be most on the plate of your successor when he or she arrives?
At a meta level, the challenge is the one I'll have in Boston and that all museum directors have: to stay focused on what is the purpose of the museum in the 21st century. Or to put it differently, why should people come? How do you stay in that question? On the more strategic level, my successor will have to think specifically, what does this institution mean to Toronto? It's important that its commitment to growth is tied to a notion of what Toronto can be. Something like the AGO exists in a particular context, with all those things that make it work – artists, non-profits, governments, cultural advocates. Somebody needs to know the local conditions to maximize those elements.
If you could change Toronto's cultural scene, what would you change or like to see change?
I'd hope for three things that are happening, that I'd just want to encourage to happen more and more deeply. One is to create a philanthropic community that believes in culture and cultural institutions, that sees in the mix of all the various things we support – hospitals, education – that the arts are seen as even more worthy than perhaps they sometimes they are. I'd hope to develop a more sustainable commercial culture for art – more collectors, more dealers, more activity, a broadening of the market. I'd like to encourage politicians to think about cultural institutions as useful, so that art goes back into the teaching curriculums more confidently and assertively; that the mayor articulates and owns the issue that culture is part of a tourism strategy and business relocation strategy; and when the Premier talks about innovation and thinks about new ideas, she thinks about artists.
Do you think that, since the AGO reopened in 2008 after its Transformation AGO renovation/expansion, the gallery has achieved a kind of groove or, say, an effective balance between self-generated shows and imports, more scholarly exhibitions and popular presentations, between Canadian shows and non-Canadian?
Post-2008, I had colleagues say to me that we had prepared as much as anybody had to move into a new building. But the reality is, nobody's prepared. It took us a couple of years to get our rhythm, to know how to use this building. I would hope people agree with me that there is momentum, that we've got the programming right, that we use the building well. What I think we've done particularly well is we've thought about how we can be engaging for our range of visitors. Our audience is more diverse than it's ever been [attendance in 2014 was 760,000], our membership numbers are the highest they've ever been [more than 100,000 in 2014-15].
The conceptual hump was, if you say to your audiences, "This is your home; you belong here; come; be welcome," and then you have all these rules about how you're meant to behave, you're into an institutional contradiction. Which is why, early on, we allowed cellphone use in the gallery; why two years ago we decided to allow photography throughout the building except where it's protected by copyright. It's why we have very generous incentive pricing for family attendance. Because we want people to come and be the way they should be without feeling there are 27 rules to be met before crossing the front door.
Your father, Mashel, who died in 1985, had, as an artist, a fraught relationship the AGO. He even picketed the place for not showing enough local artists. Was he ever a voice in your head during the last 22 years?
Every day. First of all, I live in a house filled with his paintings. Secondly, I remember things that he said and they pop up, often at unexpected times. Sometimes, I'll be in a meeting and I'll think: "That person doesn't know why he or she is doing this; so what they're saying lacks consistency or doesn't make sense." And then I'll remember he said to me that he spent 95 per cent of his time thinking about what to do and 5 per cent doing it because if you didn't know why you were doing it, you'd end up creating the wrong thing. His fraught relationship with the AGO was only a subset of his relationship to authority and institutional power. "Fraught" doesn't mean "dismissive;" it means "contradictory" and "complex": He wanted the recognition that he rejected. He was asked to be an official war artist [during the Second World War] but rejected it, only to later realize that that was a huge mistake. It would have given a life experience that could have been extraordinary, as it was for Alex Colville.
Are there any exhibitions during your tenure that you regard as game-changers?
They'd fall into the category of projects that positioned the AGO to be advocating for art in a new way. Those were the ones that mattered most to me, where people came out and felt art could liberate feelings for them, give them permission to think differently. David Bowie [in fall 2013] certainly did that. With Ai Weiwei: According to What? [August through October 2013], demonstrably more families came to that exhibition than any other exhibition in recent memory. I think it prompted a cross-generational conversation; it got people talking about the role of art, China, political art, is it art? That sort of dialogue also happened with Basquiat: Now's the Time [ February to May 2015].
Museum planner Gail Lord has indicated that the AGO and the Royal Ontario Museum should be regularly reporting annual attendance of one million visitors or more and she's argued that admission prices have had a negative effect on attendance. What's your view?
I don't think price is the barrier that many people think. The great barrier is, is your programming interesting enough? That's the great question of whether people will come. Remember: We pretty consistently have 100,000 visitors coming in free each year through things like our free Wednesdays. I get the point of access, particularly for those who can't afford it. And any ticket taker at the AGO knows that if anyone comes up to him or her – because it's a value of mine – and says, "I can't afford it; can I come in?" the answer is yes. Why do people go to museums? They don't actually go because they're free. They go because they want to see what's there. Do we have to be thoughtful on price? We try to be. But we want to make sure our revenue model allows us to afford great programming [the AGO's 2015-16 budget is $61.5 million]. Our attendance is robust and we think, so far, we have it right.
You announced your departure in April and, shortly thereafter, the AGO announced the creation of a rather eccentric administration regime, a triumvirate of sorts with the board of trustees, a leadership team of eight AGO staff and something called the interim governing council (with three trustees and three gallery staff). How big a say did you have in that transition mechanism?
I recommended the interim structure. Now, the board didn't have to accept my recommendation, but they did. I recommended it for a couple of reasons. I've seen very few of what I'd call "heroic interim structures" work very well. What usually happens is the single person alters his or her relationship sufficiently that it's hard to sustain after the new person comes in. No. 2 – and people have debated me on this – I think we have a truly extraordinary board, truly experienced, incredibly thoughtful. So the idea of having board members closer to operations did not worry me. It does worry some other people in my field. At the same time, I was very clear that I would not support a board member as an interim lead. The interim governing council [IGC] suggests a group of people will come together to make a certain number of recommendations, not necessarily decisions, at key moments in a way that truly blends the expertise in the institution. Every issue coming to the IGC would normally come to the board or a board committee anyway. It also releases professional staff into another level of responsibility.
But do you feel that people in this interim period are going to be wondering who's the pitcher, who's on first, who's the one who's going to make the decisions in the day-to-day flux?
I think that's a reasonable concern or reasonable question. Whether it's a concern depends on what happens; the test of the pudding is in the taste. I had a management guru early on who said to me something I believe is fundamentally true: The better director you are, the fewer decisions you make. Translation: Your institution would have the capability of leading at different levels; you wouldn't have to be the heroic leader. So that's what I hope we're going to find.
This interview has been edited and condensed.