Teitelbaum talks Tut: Extended transcript
Here's the thing about newspapers: For all the work we do as journalists, there's only space for a tiny fraction of it in the actual newspaper. For those of us blessed (and cursed) with online means, like this here blog, we can represent the spadework more fully.
That in mind, I thought you might be interested in the majority of my conversation with AGO director Matthew Teitelbaum regarding his view of the Tut show, and how it fits the museum's mandate. I've edited it a little bit to keep it relevant, but this is basically all of it. Enjoy ...
Q: I guess I’m here, Matthew, as something of a reluctant emissary; there’s an art community here in the city that had hopes for this, a recently "transformed" institution, to use your term, to take that rhetoric of reinvention to heart. For a lot of people, I think, Tut represents something counter to that.
A: Well, to the extent that any community believes that the AGO was relaunched with vigour and integrity and focus, that there would be a lot of goodwill to assume that we’re going to continue that.
And that we’re going to continue to serve the needs of people who care about art, and believe that art is central to a community’s sense of itself, and a civilization’s sense of itself. And I have confidence in that regard.
I think King Tut is part of that. I guess some people don’t.
There are only three filters for me around King Tut: Is it great art, does it create an engaging, memorable narrative of the objects, and does it do the work for the institution – financially and reputationally?
To the degree that there is criticism around it, my response would be there are many different learning styles, and many different ways in which people engage with information. And I think this exhibition is masterful at hitting as many of these as possible.
That’s what we’re about – look at objects, figure out something new about your world, or think of the past differently. To me, this does that.
Q: I’m curious to know what kind of numbers and revenue projections you have for Tut.
A: However many people we end up with, we have a hunch that at least 200,000 will have never been to the AGO before. That’s the number I’m thinking of;
The re-opening of the Ago was about many things – the improved collection, with the extraordinary Thomson gift, the improved context in which art was experienced, and Frank Gehry was the architect, thoughtful presentation of the art to engage you as the visitor – our own brand.
But in the end, it all comes to one thing: That looking at art, experiencing art can have a positive influence on your life. We feel we’ve delivered on that. We don’t feel in any way that King Tut is anything other than that – another way to look at the world, through the beauty of objects.
Q: I don’t envy your role; a lot of this really is the problem of an omnibus institution, or one that’s perceived to be one, anyway.
A: Something I feel strongly about is, the institution is big. Time is long. We should be judged on the basis that our scale allows us to do many different things.
They should all be in the context of what you might call “brand” – we’ll be judged on that.
We need to build sustainable audience, and we can only do that if we deliver over time. And we’ll see.
As I say, we’re open for judgment.
Q: There’s a lot of bewilderment about how the AGO seemed to talk a lot about re-engaging contemporary art, specifically Canadian, and Toronto, in a more committed way. Isn’t Tut a departure from that.
A: Well, Shary Boyle in our European collections, Vera Frankel in the elevator, David Altmejd in our great sculpture atrium – these are all advocacy positions for looking at Canadian artists, and artists from our community, in a new way. And in my opinion, we’ve done that powerfully, and will continue to do that.
We’re going to be announcing a program of Toronto artists fairly soon, we’re going to announcing some very specific monographic exhibitions fairly soon – these aren’t things we believe can’t be part of the mix. On the contrary, they must be.
We believe, at a very high level, that must be core to who we are, and that’s the trap: If not us, than who?
Q: Something you hear a lot is the timing – that really, this is the AGO’s first major exhibition since its re-opening; what kind of message does this send about the institution’s identity?
A: Well, you can’t choose your timing sometimes. On the other hand, I love we’re aligned with our 30th anniversary.
We couldn’t have gotten this in a year – things happen in certain ways.
Surreal Things was “modest” in its attendance. It didn’t drive the attendance we had hoped for.
My point is, institutions like ours, we’re all trying to figure out what the right cadence is. And you could argue that it’s all experimentation. But I’m happy to be able to say that we’re ahead of attendance for the year already, and we will have a balanced budget.
Q: I wonder if part of the problem is that people don’t appreciate how important ticket revenue is to your survival. To what degree was Tut a priority on that front?
A: King Tut is not saving our financial year. We didn’t do it because we thought, ‘oh, we’re in trouble, we need this to balance,’ we didn’t see this as a solution to a problem in the financial sense.
What it is is a response to my great desire to build larger audiences. We built this institution for people and art to come together. We want to express a welcome, and King Tut does that for us.
Does it help us financially? I don’t think we’d do this show if we thought we had to subsidize it. I don’t think we do this show if I can’t sit here and say ‘this is great art.’
We are prepared to be judged on the basis of our programming long term, see what the ebbs and flows are, and whether people feel if we’re satisfying the many audiences that have a vested interest in our success.
Whether or not this is core to our mission, and focused on our ultimate purpose? I say that it is.
I could sit here and defend moving that marker past King Tut well into territory where you would say, ‘come on, Matthew, that’s not even art.’
That continuum, and that pressure, to think about the spectacle, is greater than it’s ever been. And all public institutions will be judged on how well we negotiate that line. There will be huge pressure on us to just do the fashion show and call it art, and people will come, and therefore it’s a virtuous circle: People come, so you did the right thing.
Well, that’s maybe a bridge too far for me.
Q: And Tut isn’t? It’s a full import, it’s completely in its own silo. It feels like a UFO landed on your front steps, infiltrated, and left.
A: I deeply don’t believe that.
We have extraordinary numbers of school kids; we’re a week into it and we have a third of our expected attendance already booked through school groups coming through.
The fact is, this is an exhibition that will have a powerful effect on people who will be future leaders of our community. For many people, it’s going to be their very first experience of another culture in this way.
We would hope that the standard we have to meet is not that every project has to be originated here, or have an AGO curator at its core. Again, we’re prepared to be measured by whether or not we meet a reasonable standard of this. But I think it’s wrong that every project be developed in that way, because if it is, you’re going to have a relatively narrow breadth of offerings.
In the new year, we’ll have some Toronto initiatives that will have a big impact.
We have a relatively stable landscape as long as we can deliver on the programming side, which means delivering the audiences this institution deserves.