During Matthew Teitelbaum’s first year on the job, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, plans to present a survey of the Women’s Wear Daily fashion illustrator Kenneth Paul Block (12 December 2015-14 August 2016), monumental installations by contemporary artists from Asia’s largest cities (3 April-14 August 2016) and the first exhibition to examine 17th-century Dutch painting through the lens of class distinctions (11 October 2015-18 January 2016).
But Teitelbaum, who will take over as the museum’s director on 3 August, sees his own role as more ambassador than scholar. “The role of the museum director has changed a fair bit over the last 20 to 30 years,” Teitelbaum told us in one of his first interviews since his appointment last month. “You have to think about what your institution means to the fabric of the city rather than just as an academic institution. These functions of a museum—to provide public service and create identities within a city—are much more in focus than they used to be.” Museums today must also “create platforms for the voices of their visitors… where the visitor feels they are co-creating content,” he says.
Three of Boston’s largest museums—the Museum of Fine Arts, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the Harvard Art Museums—are preparing to pass the baton to new leadership. The search process is still underway at the latter two institutions, whose directors are scheduled to depart within the next seven months.
Teitelbaum arrives in Boston after 22 years as the director of the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. Like his predecessor Malcolm Rodgers, who oversaw the construction of the MFA’s new American wing, Teitelbaum managed a major $276m renovation by Frank Gehry, which opened in 2008. In Boston, he will have to rely more heavily on private donors than in Toronto, where the government covered 37% of the museum’s annual operating costs.
At the MFA, Teitelbaum will also be tasked with completing the museum’s three-year, $200m capital campaign, expanding its digital initiatives and growing its contemporary art collection. “I learned early on in my professional life that one is always in growth mode,” he says. The son of an artist, Teitelbaum acknowledges that the field of contemporary art is “more competitive than it’s ever been—there’s more competition [for works] within the museum sphere, with private foundations and with private collectors.”
But he sees a distinction between building a collection and building a programme. “There is more latitude in publications, exhibitions and off-site collaborations,” Teitelbaum says. “We live in a time when people have extraordinary access to extraordinary works of art, whether they are online or in commercial galleries or semi-public foundations… The museum has to distinguish itself as a special space where people have an experience they can’t get elsewh ere—to have a conversation in front of a work of art.”
When Teitelbaum arrives at the museum in August, having conversations in front of works of art is precisely what he plans to do. The first order of business is “to walk through the galleries with curators, educators, marketers and really get a sense of what the institution means to them,” he says. “If you’re looking for me, you’ll probably find me in the galleries.”
• A report on the next generation of museum directors will be published in our June issue.