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Interviews / January 27, 2016

The AGO’s New Director Stephan Jost Discusses His Plans

The Art Gallery of Ontario’s new director, Stephan Jost, talks about his priorities for the gallery and his emphasis on audience.
The Art Gallery of Ontario’s new director, Stephan Jost. The Art Gallery of Ontario’s new director, Stephan Jost.

News broke earlier today that Michigan-born Stephan Jost would be taking up the director position at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Jost was selected after a six-month search that began once Matthew Teitelbaum departed the museum for Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Jost is slated to take over his new role in mid-April, transitioning from his position as director of the Honolulu Museum of Art. He has previously held director positions at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont and the Mills College Art Museum in Oakland, California.

Jost spoke with associate editor Caoimhe Morgan-Feir over the phone earlier today about the strategies that worked in Honolulu, his priorities for the AGO moving forward and his dedication to audiences.

Caoimhe Morgan-Feir: You’ve spent your career in the US. How would you describe your familiarity with Canadian art and artists? And the Canadian museum scene more broadly?

Stephan Jost: First of all, I’ve got a lot to learn. I’m pretty aware of that. Broad strokes, I know a little bit about Canadian art, but I would not at all claim expertise. I come to the AGO once a year because my husband is from Oakville, so every summer we do our vacation here. He’s Canadian and our five-year-old daughter is Canadian, as well.

In terms of the museum scene, I actually understand that a bit better, because I’m part of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) and there are five or six Canadian directors who are a part of that, and very much in the middle of that conversation, so we see each other twice a year.

CMF: The hiring announcement emphasizes improvement of the Honolulu Museum of Art’s finances during your time there, citing an 85% reduction in debt and pension obligations. What was the strategy behind that financial change, and what lessons from it will be carried forward to the AGO?

SJ: For the last two years we have been running a surplus in Honolulu, and we were able to pay off a lot of the debt and pension obligations. We did that without laying anybody off for financial reasons—without slashing and burning. I think it’s very, very hard to cut your way out of a crisis. We were able to merge some museums, and project a new museum, a new brand and a new mission.

I quip that “money follows mission.” People don’t give you money if you don’t know what you’re doing. The community in Honolulu is very generous, as it is here, but it’s also very important that we have a sense of direction and that people know what they’re investing in, whether that’s a major donor or, quite honestly, a taxpayer.

CMF: Will the mission, or the focus, be shifting at the AGO with your appointment?

SJ: Sure, but I just met the senior staff today, so I need to listen to them. I don’t want to claim any expertise in Toronto, or how things get done here. That’s going to take three to six months of listening and hearing people. There are great ideas everywhere, and my job is not just to advance my ideas, but rather to advance the best ideas. And a lot of those won’t be mine, but I will run with it.

I am fiscally conservative. Curatorially I am not, but fiscally I am.

CMF: Do you see the opportunity to be involved curatorially in the new position?

SJ: Oh yes, it’s always a conversation. I don’t want to be chief curator, but we need to make sure that the curatorial program and the overall mission are aligned.

CMF: Beyond collaboration, do you have a curatorial focus or ethos?

SJ: I’m a big fan of access, and making sure that the exhibitions are accessible. That doesn’t mean I believe in labels written at a second-grade reading level, but I want to make sure they’re comprehensible. And that people feel welcome here. Even if they don’t quite understand, we’re going to help you understand, help you engage and even help you not like something in some cases.

CMF: Speaking of access: membership costs were greatly reduced at the Honolulu Museum of Art, and there was a large increase in membership. Are similar approaches being entertained for the AGO?

SJ: I think we should always be asking, “What are the barriers to access?” Sometimes it’s financial, sometimes it’s marketing, sometimes it’s somebody grumpy. We need to make sure we are very welcoming, and very deliberate in how we do it.

I think we will look at pricing, membership, all those things. I don’t have a conclusion because I need to look at the numbers and I need to learn from the community, what those issues are, but I think that we should always be looking at those things, looking at what’s working and what’s not. It’s pretty fun.

CMF: How do you balance creating accessibility without pandering to projected audience interests?

SJ: I look at things maybe a little differently to most museum directors. I don’t look at things chronologically or medium-based in terms of how the exhibition should be modelled. I look at shows that:

  1. Affirm your traditional audience (such as the Turner show).
  2. Bring in new audiences (like Bowie).
  3. Offer intellectual exhibitions that contribute to a scholarly field.

And those three kinds of exhibitions need to be up simultaneously. A tapestry show done well can be cool, but I look at it from an audience perspective rather than an art-historical perspective.

CMF: The AGO has a significantly larger collection than the Honolulu Museum of Art, and it serves a much larger population (3.5 million as opposed to 1 million); how much can the strategies you found successful be scaled up?

SJ: The strategies we worked on in Honolulu were Honolulu-specific; we can’t just transfer those over. We really have to have very good conversations internally, and I’ve got to listen, and I’ve got to run numbers, so there will be strategies but they won’t be the ones in Honolulu.

CMF: Upon Matthew Teitelbaum’s departure he noted that a new strategic plan had been developed and would be guiding the institution. Is this something you will be working with?

SJ: Absolutely. I just met the senior staff today, and I know they’ve been very much guided by that. It’s not a long-term strategic plan. I think it’s very important as an interim part. Matthew is a rock star, and I have the good luck of building on what he’s done. I don’t think there will be a radical shift in direction because he laid such a strong foundation.

CMF: The Canadian economic environment is different than that of the US. With our dollar at a 12-year low, how do you intend meet the economic challenges ahead?

SJ: I did go through 2008 in the States, in Vermont, which was brutal, and we did it without laying anyone off. So I’m pretty damn committed to making sure that good people are part of the institution. I will get a sense of the economic climate here.

Yes, the dollar is low, but I’m not particularly scared of that because I’ve been through tough economic times. These things are cyclical, and when things are tough it’s the best time to plan and be smart and thoughtful. You have got to make sure that when things turn around you are well positioned. The board of the AGO is really, really impressive. And that’s also a huge resource to depend on.

CMF: Is there anything else you would like to note about your plans for the AGO moving forward in the next few years?

SJ: I really need to come and listen to people first. That’s my first task. I think once I listen to the staff, and get to know the organization, we will change and set priorities. We can’t do everything for everybody.

I care about great art, I care about access and education, and I’m pretty fiscally conservative. We have got to run a balanced budget. We get public money, and the public expects us to run a tight ship.