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Toronto museum head picked to lead MFA

The MFA’s new director, Matthew Teitelbaum.
The MFA’s new director, Matthew Teitelbaum.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Canada’s Matthew Teitelbaum — whose Art Gallery of Ontario has been dubbed Toronto’s “hippest hangout” by one publication — was named Thursday to take over as director of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

The announcement came after a nine-month international search that included dozens of candidates. Teitelbaum, 59, will replace MFA director Malcolm Rogers, whose tenure of more than 20 years will end when Teitelbaum starts Aug. 3.

Teitelbaum, now director and chief executive of the Art Gallery of Ontario, has a history of successful museum expansion and fund-raising, an inventive approach to audience engagement, and an expertise in modern and contemporary art — a potent cocktail that could bring a fresh spirit to the MFA.

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“I think the most important thing a museum does is create an audience,” Teitelbaum said during a recent interview in Boston. “I’m very interested in that, how can I increase the utility of the museum to its community.”

Teitelbaum, who worked in Boston in the early 1990s before returning to his hometown for a 22-year stint at the Toronto museum, becomes the 11th director in the MFA’s 145-year history.

“We were looking for someone with a proven record of leading a complex arts organization. Someone committed to the highest levels of scholarship and education. Someone who was an effective fund-raiser, civically minded, and collaborative,” said Lisbeth Tarlow, who chairs the MFA’s board of trustees and served as cochair of the search committee. “Matthew hit all of those things and then some.”

Teitelbaum has been at the Art Gallery of Ontario since 1993, first as chief curator before being appointed director in 1998. He significantly expanded the museum’s collections, paying particular attention to contemporary artists. Visitors to the museum increased dramatically during his tenure, and he worked with architect Frank Gehry to complete an expansion and renovation of the museum, increasing gallery and exhibition space by 47 percent.

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“He’s one of the few people who has worked with Frank Gehry and come in on budget,” said MFA trustee Roger Servison, who cochaired the search committee. “He has a style and personality that fits well in our culture. He’s open, engaging, self-effacing, a good listener. He has a reputation for hiring good talent and being a good leader.”

Under Teitelbaum’s leadership, the Art Gallery of Ontario raised $306 million Canadian during a capital campaign. It hosted some 862,000 visitors in fiscal 2013-14.

Still, the MFA, with its recent expansion, its deep collections, its more than 1.1 million visitors annually, and its total operating budget of $101.7 million, represents a much larger venue for the new director.

“The depth of the collections at the MFA are so extraordinary,” said Teitelbaum, who wore a vintage skinny tie and heirloom cuff links (“so I could be with my grandfather”) during the wide-ranging interview. Thoughtful, curious, and with an open demeanor, Teitelbaum said he hoped to increase visitors at the MFA by reaching out to new communities and organizations while also exploring new avenues of scholarship.

“If you believe, as I do, that art can change the way people think about things, and you can put art into conversations in groups that already exist, you’ll increase commitment to your institution,” he said. “That inspires me, that thought.”

In recent years, his Toronto museum has cultivated younger, more diverse audiences with everything from late-night parties featuring Patti Smith and Grandmaster Flash to life drawing events, mobile apps that enhance the museum experience, and a touring exhibit on David Bowie.

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Himself the son of an artist, Teitelbaum comes by his appreciation of modern and contemporary art honestly. While he was a young intern at the Art Gallery of Toronto, his father, the Canadian painter Mashel Teitelbaum, demonstrated outside the institution, protesting what he perceived as the museum’s lack of representation of contemporary Canadian artists.

“He literally had a placard and was walking back and forth in front of the museum,” Teitelbaum recalled. “He said, ‘Don’t worry, Matthew. I’m only doing it for two days. It’ll be OK.’ ”

Teitelbaum said his father’s beliefs about museums and contemporary art have in some way shaped his own.

“My father’s push against authority and institutions was really to ask the question: ‘Could things be different? . . . Could more people be engaged?’ ” he said. “I took that to heart, which is to say: Who actually owns institutions? Who do they serve? That’s helped me a lot, I think. He was a skeptic. I’m not a skeptic, but I’m a questioner.”

In many respects, Teitelbaum is inheriting an institution in good standing. The MFA experienced significant growth under Rogers, who raised more than $500 million and oversaw the opening of the Art of the Americas Wing and the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art, the latter tripling the MFA’s display of contemporary work.

“He’s a wonderful professional,” Rogers said of his successor. “He has a great vision, and I’m sure the MFA is going to be in great hands.”

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Still, challenges remain. Board members said the museum must complete a five-year strategic plan and perhaps develop a use for the neighboring Forsyth Institute building, which it currently rents to Northeastern University.

“We’re in the second year of a three-year, $200 million capital campaign,” Servison said, noting there was “a lot more” the museum could do with technology. “There’s also a desire to strengthen our collections overall, but in particular our contemporary art collection.”

In that respect, Teitelbaum would seem well positioned. He holds a master’s of philosophy in modern European painting and sculpture from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. He also worked for several years as a curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston before returning to Toronto. As chief curator there, he built collections of great depth devoted to five significant Canadian artists.

Under his directorship, the Toronto museum has mounted a host of exhibitions devoted to modern and contemporary artists, from Picasso to Ai Weiwei, Francis Bacon, and Henry Moore. It is currently exhibiting “Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time,” the first major retrospective in Canada of his work.

Teitelbaum also helped secure a major gift from collector Ken Thomson, including one of the world’s great collections of Gothic and early Renaissance ivories.

Teitelbaum, a past president of the Association of Art Museum Directors who has also taught at Harvard, holds an expansive idea of what qualifies as contemporary art. “All art comes alive in the contemporary moment, it comes alive in the connection with the viewer,” he said. After all, he explained, all art was contemporary upon its creation, and it remains contemporary in how it is interpreted and presented in shifting contexts.

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“There is no way that you can go to the Art Gallery of Ontario today and see the Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition and not think about Ferguson. Just the same as there’s no way you can see the extraordinary Islamic collections at the MFA and not think about the destruction that’s going on at the hands of ISIS,” he said. “That contemporary context in which you understand something makes that work contemporary. And our obligation is to figure out those connections, and to push them and to play with them and to deepen them, and I think it’s deeply possible at the MFA.”


Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay