Matthew Teitelbaum is the director and CEO of the Art Gallery of Ontario. A tireless advocate for the arts, Teitelbaum is equally as vigilant about his love for his hometown. After teaching and curating stints in places as disparate as Boston and Saskatoon, he took his current post in Toronto in 1998 and a few years later spearheaded a six-year $300 million project to transform the space and its place in the community.
With the signature Frank Gehry staircase over his shoulder in the vivid natural light of the AGO's Walker Court, Teitelbaum was happy to talk about his goals for the museum, life on the road and why he believes Toronto is the envy of the global community.
What's your day job?
I'm the director and CEO of the AGO. I work about 70 hours a week and I help this public institution reach the public and celebrate the roles of artists and art. I work with an extraordinarily talented staff and volunteers. There are about 400 of us on the staff side and 700 or 800 volunteers. Together we work pretty hard to make the AGO a big part of Toronto.
In the last few years the AGO undertook a massive renovation. What was the most difficult part about doing it?
About a year and a bit ago we finished the $300 million project where our goal was expanding the space for art and changing the physical attributes of our space. Frank Gehry, the Toronto-born architect of the world who lives in Los Angeles now, was our architect and the project began with the extraordinary gift of the Thomson collection. Our biggest challenge at the beginning was finding a space in this fairly defined footprint to show this extraordinary collection.
It took awhile to figure out. Would we go up? Would we go sideways? What would the relationship of the galleries be? That was the first big challenge of the project and the second big challenge was advocating for the importance of the project in Toronto, so that the right mix of government and individual supporters and staff would be truly supportive of what we are doing.
Are you pleased with the result?
Someone gave me a great compliment about the new AGO when she said 'it is a place I just want to be in.' There really is something about the quality of the light, the use of the wood; it's not one of those heavy art galleries where what you don't know seems to be hanging down on you like a black cloud. This has a certain lightness.
We tried very hard to create the space as a place where people wanted to be and I think we achieved that. So I would say to anyone who hasn't been down here, come on Wednesday night when it's free, try it out and you'll find a lot of like-minded people just using the space to hang out in and have some great experiences.
What is your main goal now?
We spent a lot of time figuring out how to build the building, now we want the building to create a capacity to bring people and art together. Our challenge now is to fulfill that goal. At the very highest level we want to create programs that bring art and people together by developing a social space, an intellectual space, a space of experience, where people come face-to-face with great works of art.
What have you been doing make the AGO relevant to young people in Toronto?
Since we re-opened in November 2008, we have made a noticeable change in our demographic. We used to have about 17% or 18% of our visitations from the under-30 crowd and we are now up closer to 40%. We really have changed that. If you come on a Wednesday night when we are free from 6PM on, it's noticeably youth-orientated. We are free to high school students every day school is in session after-3 p.m. And we have greatly reduced youth prices for general admission. I can't say much about it now, but in the fall we will be announcing something pretty special for those 25 years of age and under.
You live in downtown Toronto, what do you like about it?
I'm from Toronto. I moved away from here for more than 20 years and then I came back. What I liked when I was growing up, and I still like, is the sense of scale. The city is big enough where you have a community of ambition and importance and energy. But, it's not so big that you lose the sense of intimacy, community and that sense of neighborhood.
When I think of Toronto, I think of the places I walk, which are the various neighborhoods off Yonge Street in the downtown area. These seem at the same time intimate and part of a big cosmopolitan centre. I like that a lot.
I like the ravines, the waterfront, I like the potential of the waterfront but I also like many of the experiences of the waterfront today. I like that every day when I walk around Toronto I can see that it's made up of people from around the world and that it represents the world. Toronto strikes me as a city that other places want to be; it's inviting and welcoming. Our challenge is how do make that sense of welcome and belonging an attribute of this institution.
You must travel a great deal for work. Where have you been recently and how has it informed your job?
I was in China recently and Los Angeles, actually I'm going to Indianapolis tomorrow. In China, I thought a lot about ambition and the execution of big ideas. It also reminded me that we are in Chinatown and that really provoked me to think about our programming and how we can reflect that.
Los Angeles has this spirit of being new, even though it's an old and historic community. And I came back from there pretty excited about the possibilities in Toronto to create a new proposition for the Art Gallery that really reaches out to people. I don't know what I'm going to experience in Indianapolis, I've never been there so I'll wait and see.
Window or Aisle?
I am an aisle guy on short flights because I want to get out as fast as I can because I'm usually on a shorter timeline. On a long flight, I'm a window guy because it's more likely I'm going to want to sleep and nest my head up against the window.
Do you have any trusted travel tips?
Travel as lightly as possible. I find that the notion of dealing with baggage, checked baggage, more than one bag, is increasingly problematic and adds a whole layer to travel. The corollary to that is to pack effectively which means clothes that have multiple uses and that travel well.
Also, take a really good book because it guarantees you won't read it. When you take a really good book it all but guarantees you will watch a really terrible movie. I always think, 'oh my god, I don't get to read that often but I never get to see a terrible movie!' It's a good way to get into popular culture.
When you are away from Toronto what do you miss about it?
It depends where I am. Although some people may find this unusual on these clogged and challenging traffic days, but, I find Toronto, for a city of our scale, easy to navigate and easy to get around. I can get pretty nostalgic pretty quickly when I'm in a traffic jam in Mexico City or Los Angeles or Paris. I always think 'boy, Toronto is pretty appealing.'