Adversity forces reinvention: Matthew Teitelbaum on turbulent times at the MFA, Boston

After charges of racism levelled at his museum in 2019, Teitelbaum had to deal with the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. And then there was the Guston controversy

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston had to close twice in 2020 because of Covid-19 © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston had to close twice in 2020 because of Covid-19 © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Beyond a pandemic that has twice closed down his institution, Matthew Teitelbaum has weathered considerable turbulence recently as director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA). A budget shortfall caused by the first long shutdown of 2020 led to serious job cuts, and the museum faced a state ultimatum to become more welcoming to minorities after a 2019 racial incident involving visiting Black students. Staff later voted overwhelmingly to unionise, and charges of censorship flared after a controversial decision by the MFA and three other museums to delay a Philip Guston exhibition. In an interview with The Art Newspaper, Teitelbaum reflects on a year fraught with challenges.

The Art Newspaper: The MFA has been through a tumultuous year. As a result of the first closure, from March to September 2020, financial strains led to a 20% reduction in a staff of 550. How has that affected morale?

Matthew Teitelbaum: Certainly what it’s done in an immediate sense is, as with most—I assume every—institution, to recalibrate the work we have to do and that we must do. How do we get it done with fewer resources? We’re still in the midst of figuring that out. It’s just true that when you have moments of reduction, you create a sense of vulnerability amongst all your staff. We instituted very, very regular town halls. I attended many, many departmental meetings to share information and take questions.

Do you anticipate further job cuts?

I think that’s a hard question to answer. Who could have anticipated anything in the last 10 months? We closed in March assuming we’d open in April. We have no plans for layoffs at the moment, but I’ve learned to assume that my crystal ball isn’t as clear as it used to be.

Do you anticipate an operating deficit for the current fiscal year?

It’s probably going to be between $20m and $21m.

Did the second shutdown of the museum, which started in December, create more financial difficulties? (The MFA announced last week that it would reopen on 3 February.)

Yes, it does create more financial strain. It takes away earned revenue that is a direct result of the gate and the attendance. When we reopen, we’ll have two very significant exhibitions on view, Writing the Future: Jean-Michel Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation and Monet and Boston: Lasting Impression. Both were doing extraordinarily well. We had reduced capacity, but we were sold out weeks in advance and that trend was continuing. So, there is a moment of pause. There is a [financial] hit.

Ero (1984) by Jean-Michel Basquiat, part of the MFA Boston's current exhibition Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat; licensed by Artestar, New York; courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

More broadly, what are the biggest challenges the museum faces right now?

I would probably say that there are three. First of all, there is the overarching financial challenge. How do you run an institution that depends on some balance between revenues and expenses in a way that allows you to imagine a sustainable future? It's harder to do now than it was before because of the uncertainty particularly on the revenue side.

The second is to determine the changes that are necessary in the institution to meet the future. And by that I mean, the structural organisation, the ways in which we deal with systemic inequities in our institution that run the range from compensation to diversity to issues of accessibility to our institutions. How do we set up structures to respond in relation to the first issue which is, how do you do it with a clear business sense and a sense that you can sustain whatever you do?

And the third issue that I think is significant as a challenge is the meaning and purpose of museums. Which is to say, can we become even more than we are because I think our institution needs it, a place of gathering, convening, of conversation, of debate, where we are institutions that truly are part of our community, that truly are, in the MFA's case, both in Boston and of Boston.

I think that's an institutional challenge at the highest level because, we are where we are and proudly so because of the extraordinary collections that we built over generations. The building that we have and our campus, our sense of place and history. But for us to maintain and grow that, we need to continually refine the question of relevance: What role does the museum play? How does it bring people together? How do we create a place of belonging for all of our communities? And I think that is a big, big question certainly for the MFA and I would say for all American institutions.

Matthew Teitelbaum has led the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, since 2015 © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The MFA faced controversy after a group of Black local high school students said they were mistreated by museum guards and visitors in May 2019. Do you believe that the museum has a problem with racial intolerance?

I believe that two conflicting truths can be true. I believe that the staff at the museum behaved admirably. I believe the students had the experience they said they had. What I mean in saying that is, why would we assume it to be otherwise? Why would we assume that a big, physically intimidating institution with the traditions and history of a very particular part of Boston… wouldn’t be intimidating and maybe even uncomfortable?

You don’t think the guards acted inappropriately, as the students reported?

I don’t want to litigate and go back into the facts of the case, but I believe our staff are terrific and they did their job at a high professional level.

Do you think the museum has made any strides in trying to be more welcoming to visitors of colour?

We've been very intentional in things that we have done, all the way from staff training to the engagement of different voices and different acts of interpretation and different programme creation to various training that we have provided to our volunteer corps and our trustees.

We are certainly a much more aware institution, we are like other institutions on a journey. And that journey includes not only a greater sensitivity, but a desire and a commitment to change our hiring practices, our way of creating performance management systems and looking at promotions. We have become much more intentional.

Following an investigation of the incident by the Massachusetts attorney general, the MFA agreed to set up a $500,000 fund dedicated to community engagement and to collaboration with the school whose students were affected. You’ve adopted an anti-discrimination, anti-harassment policy and hired a director of diversity and inclusion. What do you hope will come of all this?

Short term, we will become an institution more aware that the things we say and the way we do them affects the kind of institution we are and the openness we have to the lives of many. I think we’ll develop the skills to be able to respond to our visitors differently. We’ll learn what it means to be truly welcoming to people who express a range of interests. I think, over time, you will see a more diverse cohort of staff, because more and more people will see this as a place [where] they belong.

In September, the MFA, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, Tate Modern in London and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston drew criticism for delaying a travelling exhibition devoted to Philip Guston. Apparently, the issue was works depicting hooded figures evoking the Ku Klux Klan, even though Guston was championing social and racial justice through his work. What was your rationale?

The exhibition has been reset, and it is opening in Boston [in May 2022], and we’re doing a lot of interesting talking and thinking and consulting about what it means to present this exhibition in Boston at this time. Then it’ll go subsequently to the other museums.

We heard “cancellation”, which was never contemplated. We heard “censorship”—I would argue the opposite. And we heard “lack of courage”—I would argue the opposite. The discussion was not around Philip Guston’s acceptability: did he make images that are in their ethical commitments acceptable? They are in my judgment deeply so. The question was whether the way in which museums present images that are aggressive, challenging in their content, that touch on issues of representation that engage with the lived histories of our audiences—have we done enough to create the context for understanding? Our judgment and the reason why we [postponed the show] was that we believe that [we had] not.

Hooded Klansmen figures, as in Blackboard (1969), prompted the MFA and three other museums to delay a Philip Guston exhibition © The Estate of Philip Guston

What exactly will be different about the show that opens in 2022?

I don’t know yet because we’re just starting the process.

Kaywin Feldman, the director of the National Gallery of Art, said that the exhibition was missing the presence of a Black curator. Has a curator of colour been recruited to assist?

We won’t at the MFA necessarily have a Black curator engaged with us in that way, but we will certainly have a range of diverse voices around the table as we finalise the checklist and we realise the narrative threads of the exhibition, the staging of the exhibition.

Will the show change as it travels, or will the vision be the same throughout?

It’s going to be a bit different, because the size of our available space changes from one institution to another. Then you immediately realise the presentation has to be different in the United Kingdom, because all those issues are thought through in different ways. What we had to think about was how to present it in relation to our audiences, our different audiences in different places.

In November your staff voted overwhelmingly to form a union. Were you in any way resistant to this campaign and where do contract negotiations stand now?

We're just beginning–we haven't actually sat down on the table yet, [and] that'll take a number of months I'm sure. And we entered them with an open mind and with a spirit of collaboration. We have some very specific restraints–which are largely, but not only, monetary–and we'll see where those discussions take place as we go forward.

We enter as colleagues: I mean, these are people I work with. Do I think that we can get to someplace that is workable and positive? Of course, I do. That's the spirit which I bring to work every day and it's certainly the spirit with which I've led institutions, including my previous institution [the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto] that was highly unionised. And I think that we have to align the interests of all of our workers with the sustainability of the institution, and we will do that.

Can you tell us about any additional exhibitions that you have in the works that you'd like to highlight?

Well, a number. We are very much looking forward to Fabric for a Nation, which is an exhibition on quilts that is an alternative history of America as told through quilt-making traditions from the 19th century to the present day. It's very powerful. It's got a real narrative story that is about the openness of the art form and the deep meaning of images and symbols that these artists use. It goes completely up to the present day with really extraordinary works that have been recently made. Very much looking forward to [an exhibition about] Cy Twombly and the antique. We're really interested in that notion of how tradition gets passed on. I'm very much looking forward to Philip Guston Now. His message deserves to be heard. So, very much looking forward to being an articulate advocate for his work.

We are doing in the longer term an exhibition on John Singer Sargent and fashion that we're organising with the Tate that I think has the potential to really reinvent our understanding of a historical artist by looking at the way in which he worked within both the traditions and tastes of his time, but also worked across cultures and reached out in ways that were inventive, creative.

In retrospect, are there any silver linings that redeem this difficult period?

I don’t want to be overly simplistic and talk about great art coming out of adversity, but I would say, adversity forces a certain kind of reinvention and there is such energy in various artistic circles. I think that’s very inspiring and that’s a silver lining—that we’re reminded that the human spirit is infinite.