Matthew Teitelbaum, like most directors of major museums, is a busy man. Since guiding the Art Gallery of Ontario through a major renovation and expansion by Frank Gehry that culminated in 2008, Teitelbaum has opened major exhibitions on General Idea, Picasso, Julian Schnabel and (currently) Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera at the museum.
There’s also been challenges along the way, too—the curatorial departures of David Moos, Dennis Reid and, more recently, Michelle Jacques; continuing concern in the Toronto community that the institution has failed to represent local artists; and, last but not least, trying to maintain a balanced budget and grow attendance in tough economic times.
Recently, on the eve of the departure to an international museums meeting in Germany, and with a visit to Art Toronto on the horizon, Teitelbaum chatted on the phone with Leah Sandals about some of the issues he’s been considering in running an art museum these days.
Leah Sandals: The AGO is about to acquire some new works at Art Toronto, just as it has at the fair’s gala evening for the past few years. Given recent curatorial departures at the gallery, who will be deciding what to acquire there?
Matthew Teitelbaum: It’s pretty straightforward. Kitty Scott, our new curator of modern and contemporary art, and Elizabeth Smith, our executive director of curatorial affairs, have been talking and thinking about it. They’re going to get into the fair early and walk around, then Kitty will make a recommendation to Elizabeth.
Elizabeth and Kitty will then present their selection to the chair of the AGO curatorial committee, Phil Lind, and any other members of the committee that happen to be there; then, there will be a process that acquires the works into the collection. The real answer to your question is it’s Kitty and Elizabeth, and they’re going to be working closely together.
LS: And what are they looking to acquire most this year, do you think?
MT: You know what? I really don’t know. I don’t know if they’re looking specifically for Canadian work; I don’t know if they’re looking specifically for international work. I think maybe they’re looking to buy one big thing or two bigger things, but I don’t know for sure at this point.
LS: On a different collections note—this month, two prominent Canadian collectors, David Mirvish and Michael Audain, announced plans to open their own private-collection museums. How do you feel about this development, given that it would seem to set some of their most important works off-limits from public Canadian museum collections?
MT: Well, you know, the short answer is that I think it’s terrific. I think it’s terrific that two extraordinary collectors—both in Canada and on the international stage—are making their work available to the public. I mean, the most important thing is that people who care about art, that students, that people who are thinking about what the visual arts mean in our culture are going to have access to two private collections.
And I think quite easy access, I might say—access in a way that truly celebrates both the collectors and these great works of art. So, you know, I’m not somebody who believes in the museum as the absolute pinnacle of recognition or legacy. I think there are many different routes to that, and this is one of them. I think it’s just terrific that they are thinking in that public-minded way.
LS: Private-collector museums have been a trend throughout the world for some time. Are there any particularly Canadian implications of this trend taking off here? I saw you in Miami last year where this type of institution is quite prevalent; does this signal a move to a more American-style situation in Canada?
MT: That’s a good question. I think it relates back to the frustration that many collectors have around the fact that offering collections to museums often means that works of art are hidden from public view. So it’s really a strategic response to the question, How can I make the work available to the public? And you know, those collectors who have chosen this route have, at the core, made a judgment that this is the best way for their work to be celebrated.
What I keep an eye on is the question of access. What I keep an eye on is the question of how these private collections refresh and give energy to the presentation of work.
But, you know, the reality is that we live in a really complicated time around issues of presentation of works of art. I mean, when Gagosian Gallery or White Cube create spaces that rival some of the very best museum spaces in the world and present exhibitions that are truly extraordinary by any standard in terms of the loans they get and the publications they produce, you see the beginning of the blurring between the public and the private world.
So there’s no doubt that in this complicated time there’s going to be blurring between the public museum and the private foundation. That’s why I think the most important issue to focus on is issues of accessibility—because I think one can find oneself in a dead end very quickly if one thinks about ownership as the sole question, i.e. that giving to the museum or giving to the public trust is the highest calling.
You know what the highest calling really is? To make work accessible and to have it shared by the broadest number of people.
LS: Well, I appreciate you speaking to that because, as you may know, access is one of my main concerns in regards to the museum world. So on that note: the Royal Ontario Museum reduced its admission fees last year because of a study showing that the people they wanted to come to the museum found it too expensive. What’s your perspective on that strategy of growing audiences by reducing admission fees? I’m also wondering in what ways that the ROM’s move, given that it is a Toronto museum, has prompted the AGO to reconsider its own fee structure.
MT: Well, we were never as expensive as the ROM in recent years. And even with their change in admission fees, our family membership and family admission fees are less than theirs.
I do think ROM director Janet Carding is one of the very best things that’s happened to Toronto in a long time, and I have extraordinary confidence in her ability to do the right thing. So if that’s the judgment she’s made, I’m sure that it’s the best judgment, in this moment, for her institution.
Our situation is slightly different. We know that there is price sensitivity. We live in a world of price sensitivity—and even perhaps more pointedly, value considerations. I think the whole question of how experiences and objects are ascribed value in today’s world is more layered than ever before.
And we know that we live in a world in which the notion of free and free access is all around us.
So the question of price in relation to value is a very, very big question and I would sort of triangulate this issue around three factors: price, value and access.
We’re thinking about that all time. All the time. Are we too expensive? Have we bundled it properly? Are we losing out on certain audiences?
Last year, more than 15 per cent of the people who came to the AGO came for free. We are open for free on Wednesday nights—one of the few public institutions of our scale to be open for free hours in that way. We have many relations with neighborhood groups so that nobody in our neighborhood is denied access to the AGO if they want to come. And, as you know, we were one of the founders of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship’s Cultural Access Pass program and part of original core group of the Toronto Public Library pass program. So the whole notion of creating accessible ways for people to come, and making the AGO a welcoming place, is crucial both to how we talk about the AGO today and into the future.
The reason why I create the triangle between price, value and access is I think that creating a direct line between price and accessibility—and this is an important point—is not accurate; we need to create value experiences. Whether it’s showing great art or creating great social experiences or creating great architectural experiences, we need to create great value in what we do, and to do that we need appropriate revenue.
So is there a part of me who sometimes dreams of free, free, free? Sure there is. But the reality is that I need to be responsible in the stewardship of the AGO to make sure that we have the revenues and the diverse revenue base that allows us to do extraordinary programming.
If I went free, free, free and felt good about it for two weeks because I had this idea that more people would come, and then I found that I didn’t have the revenue to create great programs, then I’m going to end up in a spiral down.
So I’m not saying it’s a straight line. I’m saying it’s actually a triangle, and I’m saying that it’s complicated and we’re always thinking about it.
And, you know, we have at the moment a membership base that is at the highest level in our history. And even more important—and I take great pride in this—members are coming back for repeat visits more than they ever have. That’s grown for each of the past three years. What that means is that we’re actually doing what people want, and people have found through the membership program the way to find the value proposition that works for them.
I’m giving a really long answer because I think about this stuff all the time, and I’m in the middle of it. I haven’t come to any hard and fast conclusions. I can only say that it is about the triangle, and if we lose a sense of how we create value and lose our ability to find the resources to do that, it will be a spiral down.
LS: I want to congratulate you on the fact that membership is at an all-time high, because I know that is a big achievement. How do you hope to maintain that following the Picasso and Frida Kahlo blockbusters, which I’m presuming had something to do with these numbers as well?
MT: You know, I think so too. But I have to say with great pride—and I mean pride on behalf of everyone at the AGO—that the AGO currently has “Frida & Diego,” the Grange Prize, Josef Sudek, Evan Penny and Michael Snow. I feel pretty good about that, you know? Let alone the permanent collection.
Those are five exhibitions and I think there’s no doubt that “Frida & Diego”—you know, you wrote the big article in the Toronto Star for “Frida & Diego,” you didn’t write the big article on Josef Sudek—so I mean, I get it, I get that they are sort of the diesel engine that’s pulling the train to a large degree.
But the train is actually what people, in the end, are going to feel a sense of ownership for—and that is the totality. We’ll continue to do projects like “Frida & Diego” which I think are deeply meaningful and stand for something, and that, in relation to other programs, is going to—I hope and believe—allow us to create great programs for many, many years to come. It’s always going to be a mix.
LS: You mentioned the permanent collection, which does have some wonderful pieces; the Kureleks and the Group of Seven works come to mind for me. And you know we started off this conversation talking about access to collections and about how some collectors may feel their collections are not seen as much if they are donated to a public museum. So I just wanted to ask you about the possibility, in terms of that triangle, of the permanent collection becoming more affordable to view as opposed to the special exhibitions.
MT: The question is, affordable for whom? Is it just blanket affordable? Or is it more affordable for schoolkids? Or is it more affordable for retirees? You know, how do we do that? So, you know, we’re still thinking about that.
But I’ll give you the conceptual answer, or maybe even the strategic response: What you don’t want to do is put your permanent collection in some kind of competitive situation with the temporary exhibitions.
This is sort of what happens at Tate Modern, where they charge a surcharge for the special exhibitions; and you know, I think they have mixed results in terms of how they meet their targets. Because you end up devaluing, perhaps, in a perceptual sense, the notion of the permanent collection, or you tend to make that proposition for the special exhibition less appealing—you end up, in one way or another, putting them into competition with each other.
My own view is that the MoMA and the Met have a pretty interesting model, which is it’s one price for everything, period. The challenge there is, they have an unbelievable permanent collection that is always equal to in its impact to the temporary exhibitions, and they have that advantage.
I guess I’m giving a long answer to say that I don’t know if it’s as simple as coming up with a two-tiered pricing structure; I think you can end up with sort of inadvertent challenges that way.
Yet it’s something that we’re constantly looking at—believe me, we’re constantly looking at it—because there’s no absolutely right answer. There’s only the best judgment given the facts you have at hand. And we’ve made our best judgment. But given that there are different points of view, you could imagine that I have conversations with people on the board and in the community and artists all the time who have different thoughts about how to come up with pricing structures that would perhaps appear to be more accessible.
But I come back to the triangle, and I want to keep making the point that if we don’t think about how we’re creating value, and we don’t have the resources to do it, we’re not going to end up building audiences. And I think that there’s no indication other than anecdotally that price is really that reason why people come or don’t come.
In other words, we’re not at $30. We’re at $19.50. We’re not at $40 for a special exhibition. We’re at $25. And so when we go into the marketplace we’re hearing okay things.
Now remember that when you come on Wednesday night, the special exhibition is half price. And we do very well with that; people who have price resistance to paying $25 for Picasso came on the Wednesday night and we were quite quite full. So I guess my point is that we hope we’re perceived as thoughtful in responding to what the market is telling us and creating the access points we can. We’re going to continue, always, to keep this issue alive.
LS: I know we have about a minute left but I was curious, given your long history in the public gallery world, what are the challenges are that you see lying ahead not just for your institution, but for the museum sphere as a whole?
MT: So I’m going to take more than a minute to give you an answer—maybe I’ll give you a day and a half. This is a deep question and it’s an intricate answer. But let me say at least on the surface, we’re all trying to figure out, What is the new consumer telling us? What is the new learner telling us? What is the new creative individual telling us about his or her needs as a creative individual?
It’s changing so fast, and it’s not just about free, it’s not just about knowledge or access to the Internet. It’s also about the increased internationalism of our urban audiences, the increased mobility of people who are, even in these economically tough times, travelling more than a previous generation did.
Think about the experiences that people in high schools are having versus the experiences that you and I would have had—much more diverse, much more layered in terms of the experiences of their fellow students, confronting more earlier than certainly I did and I suspect you did too. I just think the information people are getting for the choices they’re making are more intricate and more spider-web-like than ever before.
So why am I saying that first? Because I think the position of the museum in contemporary life is a subset of that, you know? There’s part of me that believes, very simply, that artists have been around forever, and museums haven’t.
So the question is, if the museum as an idea is going to continue to have value and importance—and I deeply believe it does—we have to find a way to articulate that public value. And it’s changing. It’s not just about the quiet, contemplative spiritual experience.
When we go out to our audiences, we find that they tell us over and over again two things about what they want from an AGO experience—they want to be with other people, and they want a point of view.
So they’re telling us “We want a social, engaged, conversational, interactive experience. And we don’t want you to be neutral, we don’t want to just walk into a funhouse. We want to walk into a place where we will have a learning opportunity, where we will be engaged and responsive to ideas, feelings, points of view.”
Both those things are really exciting to me. Because first of all, we have a fabulous building, and it’s a building that really works for gathering people together. I think we have a city that is extraordinary in the energy it has and the creative industries and the young cosmopolitans that are living downtown and nearby. I mean, there’s such energy and such incredible thinking if you start aggregating the music scene, the design scene, the architectural scene—if you imagine those all coming together and sharing ideas, that’s pretty exciting.
And if the AGO can become that place where people gather…. then I think we’re really onto something. And that’s what we are trying to do, because there are so many alternatives to the ways in which people can access knowledge and experiences. The question is, What can be unique about an art museum, or an art gallery?
Well, one of the things is to gather people together in a space and give them experience in exchange with one another that they can’t actually replicate somewhere else. That’s what we think about a lot. So, for example, when we launched First Thursdays and expected 500 or 600 people, we had 1,600 people; we had to turn people away. In one sense, we were surprised; in another sense, we weren’t surprised. We were surprised we did so well right out of the gate. We weren’t surprised that people want that type of experience.
I think that might be a symbol of what a new engagement might look like—although that isn’t the recipe for every audience.
This interview has been edited and condensed.