TORONTO — It’s a Wednesday afternoon in Toronto, and the air is suddenly filled with the sweet smell of hair gel. A young man runs his hands through his ’do, zips up his sports bag, and returns to a circle of break dancers. A chunky beat spits from the speakers as he waits for his turn to perform.
We’re downstairs in the Art Gallery of Ontario, a bustling civic museum that is about to lose the man who has led and shaped it for 17 years, Matthew Teitelbaum, to Boston.
Last month, Teitelbaum — a 59-year-old Canadian who combines admirable conscientiousness with a bright, disarming smile and a well-placed confidence in his ability to charm almost anyone — was appointed to replace Malcolm Rogers as director of the Museum of Fine Arts.
It’s hard not to think, after spending just a couple of days here, that the MFA is about to undergo a major cultural shift.
The break dancers, about two dozen of them, are in the Toronto museum’s Weston Family Learning Center, a multipurpose space that opened in late 2011. It was the second phase of an expansion that began with a $276 million redesign of the AGO by Frank Gehry in 2008. (Both projects, Teitelbaum tells me, were delivered “on time, on budget, and fully funded the day they opened.” He grins. “I’m just saying.”)
The Gehry expansion, replete with gargantuan twisting staircases and a long curving exterior facade, gives the museum a new physical dynamism and a touch of glamour. The Learning Center is different. It has the improvised, purposeful feel of a termite mound.
Stuff happens here: There’s a crèche-like space for small children that’s filled with objects they can touch and play with. There are also studio spaces for art classes, three seminar rooms, an artist-in-residence studio, and a center where 15- to 25-year-olds can hang out and do homework.
Down the corridor is a desk and a series of racks with original art by contemporary Canadian artists that you can rent or buy. There’s also a “commons” with lunch tables and an open space where kids and young adults can play Ping-Pong or make art.
Or breakdance. The museum not only lets everyone in for free on Wednesday evenings; it also allows free entry to high school students after 3 p.m. on weekdays. Many of these students find their way down to the Learning Center.
The space has been thrown open to various community groups, including Unity Charity, an organization that uses graffiti art, break dancing, beat boxing, and rapping to engage youths and address tough issues in their lives.
What has any of this to do with art?
On the face of it, not so much. Teitelbaum told me that the Art Gallery of Ontario’s partnerships with local communities are partly just about “being a good neighbor.”
Yet not much at the museum seems to happen in isolation from anything else. And so it’s not merely by accident that the AGO’s big spring exhibition is a retrospective of the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the black artist who was inspired by rap, jazz, and graffiti, and who dealt fearlessly in his work with racial politics — including police brutality against young black men.
Basquiat became a star of New York’s art world in the 1980s before dying of a heroin overdose at 27.
The AGO’s show, titled “Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time,” is not the kind of exhibition Boston audiences have come to the MFA expecting to see over the past 20 years — and you could say the same about recent AGO exhibitions devoted to Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, comics artist Art Spiegelman, pop star David Bowie, or the anguished British modernist Francis Bacon.
Rogers’s exhibition programming has been determinedly populist, but he has tended to pander to mainstream (and aging?) conservative tastes — artists such as Jamie Wyeth, John Singer Sargent, Edward Hopper, Winslow Homer, Alex Katz, and David Hockney.
The AGO’s Basquiat show, which Teitelbaum tells me is one of the achievements of which he is most proud as the museum’s director, was planned in consultation with an advisory committee made up mostly of African-American intellectuals.
It’s presented in a way that encourages younger audiences to claim Basquiat for themselves. Video screens outside the exhibition show people from all walks of life speaking about what Basquiat means to them. Another screen shows a Twitter feed keyed to the hashtag #basquiatago.
The AGO, all this is to say, has an imaginative approach to what museum folks call “audience engagement” and “visitor experience.” And so it’s impossible not to speculate on what Teitelbaum’s vision (which obviously impressed the MFA trustees who selected him) might mean for Boston.
The MFA, which is almost entirely self-funded, has a far richer and deeper collection than the AGO, where the permanent collection can best be described as episodic: strong in Canadian art, not bad in international contemporary art, and so-so in European art.
The great challenge facing the MFA under Teitelbaum may be to connect audiences more meaningfully with the stupendous things that are already there. That means hiring the right curators, devising more imaginative exhibitions, and making more of some of the museum’s strongest but still somewhat underserved collection areas, especially Asian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman, and Islamic art.
In terms of audience engagement, the MFA made great strides under Rogers, increasing attendance and reaching out to different segments of the population. A recent exhibition of pages from the Koran, for instance, used wall labels written by members of Boston’s Muslim community with accompanying videos on the MFA’s website.
The MFA also offers free entry to youths age 7 to 17 after 3 p.m. on weekdays, as well as all weekend. It has its own monthly party nights (First Fridays, tickets required) and its own active program of partnerships with youth-focused community organizations such as the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, the Vine Street Community Center, and Boys & Girls Clubs in Roxbury, South Boston, Charlestown, and elsewhere.
But at the AGO — a 37 percent government-funded museum in a city where more than half the population was born outside Canada — Teitelbaum has clearly made pulling in younger and more diverse audiences a front-rank concern.
Few museums anywhere in the world, in fact, have devoted so much thought and so many resources to getting a wide variety of people to come in, engaging them when they do, and drawing them back.
Are they perhaps trying too hard? Not if you judge by the energy of the galleries, which in every corner of the museum were consistently buzzing with people while I was there.
At times, however, walking through the museum’s permanent collections, you might feel they are. Many of the galleries are busy with digital screens, wall texts in various colors and fonts, and design elements (such as blown up photographs of artworks) that overwhelm the art. Some of the installation concepts feel overwrought.
Sprinkled throughout are displays and interpretations presented by Alain de Botton, the popular Swiss philosopher whose recent book, “Art as Therapy,” uses art to prompt reflections intended to improve our lives. These interventions, while not permanent, contribute to the didactic flavor of some of the galleries.
The approach works for some people, giving them keys into art that may baffle or fail to kindle their interest. But it can easily make other people feel patronized, their private responses crowded out by a kind of interpretive white noise.
Teitelbaum believes passionately, he says, in “the act of looking.” And many other galleries do not feel didactic at all. Wandering, for instance, through the beautiful displays of small-scale Medieval to Baroque European sculptures from the AGO’s Thomson Collection — a gift to the museum under Teitelbaum’s watch that profoundly transformed its holdings — you’re encouraged to look and to marvel with minimum curatorial intrusion.
Teitelbaum says that the mantra he repeats to his staff is: “Art is at the center of everything we do.” But it’s vital, he believes, to think about how that art connects with different kinds of people. “The most important thing a museum creates is an audience.”
“Museums used to function with the assumption that there was one learning style. It was led by the professional staff of the institution communicating in a certain way, and it was largely academic,” he said during a wide-ranging interview at the museum. “Our position is that there are many learning styles.”
It is “a conscious decision,” he said, to fill the galleries with so many different styles of display and to try out different forms of engagement.
Teitelbaum wants the AGO to be as welcoming as possible. “We want the invitation to be, ‘We like who you are and we want you here as you are.’ ”
“One of the drums Matthew beats,” says Judy Koke, the AGO’s chief of public programming and learning, “is that for us to be successful we have to find interesting partnerships. . . . It’s about ‘What are you doing with your collection that’s making a difference to the life of the community?’”
And yet, she reiterates, in the end it is still about the art. “We aren’t in any danger of becoming a community center rather than an art museum!”
The AGO’s attendance has grown steadily under Teitelbaum. Throngs filled the galleries recently as the departing director performed his various duties, in some cases for the very last time. (He begins in Boston in August.)
Those duties included a full day of budget meetings, an exhibition opening, and party preparations for the AGO’s annual fund-raiser, called Massive Party HOTBED.
Massive Party has become one of the most glamorous evenings on Toronto’s social calendar. About 2,000 partygoers poured into the museum that night, spilling from the central court into the Learning Center, where live bands were playing, and lining up to take the elevators to a huge party room in the Frank Gehry extension.
On the face of it, this event, too, has little to do with art. Museum staff members are quick to point out that it’s not as meaningful to their mission as the museum’s monthly First Thursdays, which attract a less swanky art-loving crowd.
But in a way, the fund-raiser has the same oblique relation to the museum’s core mission as the gatherings of breakdancers in the Learning Center — just at the other end of the social scale. It’s about getting people in the door, so they can see what the institution is about.
Teitelbaum seems to inspire genuine affection in museum staff. He will be badly missed in Toronto, says Stephanie Smith, the museum’s chief curator. “He asks a lot of questions. He cares a lot. He has a wide-ranging curiosity and a lot of bandwidth.”
Added Alicia Vandermeer, the AGO’s chief organization officer and corporate secretary, “Matthew has a strong point of view but he’s also a very good listener.”
Asked whether there was anything he would miss about Toronto that he knows he won’t get in Boston, Teitelbaum thought long and hard before saying: “My mother.” (She is 85.)
The previous evening, he had spoken in the AGO’s courtyard in front of a huge audience, there to celebrate the opening of an exhibition of work by acclaimed Toronto-based artist Stephen Andrews.
Reminding the crowd that his own father had been an artist (one who picketed outside the AGO in an attempt to get the gallery to do more for local artists), he said that, in its support of contemporary Canadian artists, “the AGO has not been perfect under my watch, but we’ve tried our best.”
“I’ll do all I can,” he promised, “to see that you get a really cool next director who believes in you and the possibilities of this city.”
When I ran into Andrews in the galleries the next morning, he said, “I’ve seen a lot of Matthew over the years, but it was funny, you could really feel him almost trembling last night.”
• Toronto museum head picked to lead MFA
• Malcolm Rogers: Adding up 20 years at the MFA
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SebastianSmee.