It's not a prominent feature of his current résumé, but for about a year and a half in the early 1980s, Matthew Teitelbaum was a lowly researcher at Maclean's magazine. "I want to be clear," the director and CEO of the Art Gallery of Ontario and overseer of its $254-million expansion and transformation project says with a laugh. "There's no falsification on my CV. I was a fact-checker. My office was next to Peter Newman and Barbara Amiel."
Just 24 years old at the time, Teitelbaum says he was interested in journalism, but not necessarily interested in being a journalist. "I think I was always interested in the communication of ideas. And I was between university and graduate school and this was a good place to rest."
All of this is relevant to Teitelbaum's subsequent career because he had to choose his path with more than a little care. That's because his father, the late Mashel Teitelbaum, was a painter himself. Not hugely successful, he was a man with strong opinions about the world of contemporary art and for three or four days actually picketed the very institution his son now runs, to protest its curatorial practices. Inevitably, he exercised a profound influence.
Thus, when Matthew finished his art-history degree, he briefly considered becoming an arts journalist. "But I didn't go very far. I saw it as being in line with arts criticism and I wasn't going to go there. Becoming a curator was being enough of the enemy. To be an art critic would have been like the devil incarnate."
That Teitelbaum ended up as an art curator and ultimately a gallery director owes something to his mother, Ethel, as well. A powerful force in the Toronto volunteer community, she also sat as a judge on the immigration appeal board. Her son is said to have inherited her political skill set, a combination of diplomat, negotiator, administrator and passionate believer in bringing art to as many people as possible.
As a young man, his father's lack of commercial success puzzled Teitelbaum. "Troubled is too strong a word, but I was always curious about how values and judgments are made in the art world, and that sort of takes me toward my mother's side, as the arbiter."
Fundamentally, he says, "my father didn't know what to make of institutions. And the AGO became the institution against which to rebel." Teitelbaum still has in his basement two placards painted by his father for his picketing campaign. To this day, the AGO has never purchased a Mashel Teitelbaum canvas; of course the irony is that, now that his son is in charge, it effectively can't..
Teitelbaum, now 50, says he shares some of his father's doubts about institutions.
"I'm skeptical of them. I want to push them. But he was critical. He was dismissive. He was angry. I'm not."
What would the late Mashel have made then of Matthew's emergence as one of the country's most important art figures? "I think he'd be deeply confused. He would have had to be. On the one hand, deeply proud. On the other, what is this?"
At any rate, Teitelbaum eventually left Maclean's, did a graduate degree at the Courtauld Institute in London, and then worked as an intern at the AGO. He's held curatorial posts at Museum London (in London, Ont., where he met his future wife, Susan Cohen), the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon (his father's hometown) and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, where Susan was working.
Even before then, the couple had married and spent many thousands of dollars commuting. Recalls Teitelbaum: "I wanted the wedding invite to read: 'Air Canada and Bell Canada take no pleasure in announcing. . . .' Because we were helping them out big time." Susan is now deputy director of education at the Ontario Science Centre; the couple have two sons, Elijah, 12 and Max, 14.
One day in Boston, Teitelbaum received a call from Glenn Lowry, then director of the AGO. He was looking for a chief curator. Did Matthew know of anyone?
At first, he didn't realize Lowry was asking him if he were interested, "so I actually gave him a couple of names. Then he said, 'Why don't you come up for a chat.' " He took the job in 1993 and became director five years later.
When he assumed command, Teitelbaum knew he had an energized staff and an ambitious board. But the catalyst for the Frank Gehry-designed expansion was a conversation he held with Ken Thomson, during which the country's largest art collector said, 'I want my art to be there at the AGO.'
"When he said that, a whole lot of other things became possible," says Teitelbaum "Because think of what having that private collection here would mean. Think of how people would be able to experience art. So it's not only how to accommodate this physically, but how do we transform the institution."
At its current stage -- the building is set to open in 2008 -- Teitelbaum concedes that it's "hard to get away from the construction project." But he and others at the AGO are spending an increasing amount of time thinking about the program -- not the outer form, but the inner content.
"I haven't said this publicly before but I say it to staff: There are a lot of lousy museums in great buildings and for that matter a lot of great museums in pretty mediocre buildings.
"And if we aspire to be a great museum in a great building, we can't lose sight of the construction, but we have to really imagine and plan the presentations that will sustain us after the opening. The building will come alive in part by how we fill it."
Mashel Teitelbaum would likely second that motion.