What We Learn From the Past
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 22 Apr 1999, p. 480-491
Teitelbaum, Matthew, Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
Sharing some thoughts about the changing nature of museums by thinking about the past and wondering what doors it might open at the close of the century. The speaker's reflections on the past, and by what they are framed. Museums in the midst of great change; the experience of art in its true and most immediate sense not changed at all. Increased museum attendance worldwide, at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and why it has increased. The upcoming 100th anniversary of the AGO. Addressing the question as to whether or not the AGO has changed very much in its history. The key to the future of the AGO. Three beliefs shared by the founders of the art museum of Toronto in 1900. Some history of the AGO. How the AGO will grow and prosper in the next years. Being an advocate for Canadian art. A brief review of just some of the AGO's achievements. The next few months, and the next few years. Education programmes. The AGO Education Resource Centre. Why we must learn from the past. Doing more to celebrate the achievements of the AGO. What stands at the centre of the museum experience.
Date of Original
22 Apr 1999
Language of Item
Copyright Statement
The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
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Full Text
Matthew Teitelbaum Director, Art Gallery of Ontario
Chairman: George L. Cooke, President, The Empire Club of Canada

Head Table Guests

Rev. Dr. John Niles, Victoria Park United Church; Matthew Donovan, Sculpture Student, Ontario College of Art and Design; Anne Libby, Owner, Libby's of Toronto Art Gallery and a Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Rose Wolfe, Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Dr. Frederic Jackman, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Art Gallery of Ontario, President, Invicta Investments Inc. and a Past President, The Empire Club of Canada; Margaret Godsoe, Art Gallery Volunteer for the past 53 years; William Withrow, Director Emeritus, Art Gallery of Ontario; and Joanne Tod, celebrated Toronto Artist.

Introduction by George L. Cooke

It is a pleasure for me to introduce as guest speaker today, Matthew Teitelbaum, Director of the Art Gallery of Ontario. Mr. Teitelbaum was appointed to this position in September 1998, and he is the fifth director in the history of the Art Gallery.

The Art Gallery of Ontario is the eighth-largest art museum in North America. Its collection comprises more than 24,000 works representing 1,000 years of extraordinary European, Canadian, modern, Inuit, and contemporary art.

Mr. Teitlebaum was Chief Curator at the AGO from 1993 to 1998 and served as Acting Director in 1995. As Chief Curator, Matthew Teitelbaum led the Gallery's curatorial, exhibitions, collections and programming departments, and participated on all strategic planning Board committees. In recent years, Mr. Teitelbaum has played a key role in the unprecedented growth of the AGO's permanent collection. In 1995, the AGO committed to building core collections of senior contemporary artists as a means of celebrating the study of contemporary art.

The AGO has had an active and far-ranging exhibition programme during Mr. Teitelbaum's tenure as Chief Curator. He worked closely with his colleagues at the AGO, developing collaborative relationships with the Whitney Museum of American Art for the Keith Haring exhibition, the Warhol Museum for The Warhol Look, the Courtauld Institute in London for The Courtauld Collection at the AGO and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam for Art in the Age of van Gogh.

Mr. Teitelbaum also has been a champion of Ontario artists. In 1997 he revitalised the AGO's Artists with their Work Program, designed to sustain vital connections with artists and communities throughout Ontario. He has greatly expanded the AGO's educational programmes, establishing a teen intern programme as well as enhancing teacher developmental programmes.

During his career, Mr. Teitelbaum has taught at several leading institutions, including Harvard University, Lesley College in Cambridge, Massachusetts and the University of Western Ontario. He has served as Curator and Co-Acting Director at The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, Curator at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon, and Curator of Contemporary Art at the London Regional Art Gallery in London, Ontario.

Mr. Teitelbaum, welcome to The Empire Club of Canada.

Matthew Teitelbaum

Today I want to share with you some thoughts I have had about the changing nature of museums. I want to do so, however, not by casting about in the future for new trends but, rather, by its opposite: by thinking about the past and wondering what doors it might open for us at the close of the century. My reflections on the past are framed by my understanding of two seemingly contradictory thoughts: that, while art museums are in the midst of great change, the experience of art in its true and most immediate sense has not changed at all.

We know from varied experience that museums are about new forms of engagement, new strategies of presentation, new representations of the images of art; all of this is true. And yet, over the centuries, the experience of the work of art has the same ineffable, deep and resonant quality it has always had. To encounter a work of art is to encounter a distilled creativity. At its core, we experience the artist's belief: a belief that deep feeling and meaning may be communicated through the creation of objects. At a time when images come upon us in ways unimaginable 10 years ago, a time when technology allows us access to representations of images 24 hours a day, a time when museums might easily find themselves replaced by representations of art so comfortably presented to us on computer screens at home--the material experience of art seems more powerful than ever. Why is this so?

Museum attendance has increased worldwide. At the Art Gallery of Ontario our attendance has increased by just under 20 per cent in the last year alone. Again, why is this so?

Perhaps it is this: in this very age of easy accessibility to the flattened image, to the world, literally, of the non-depth of the computer screen and the newspaper page, we hunger for confrontation with real objects that contain within them the aura of the imaginative life. In the original work of art we have evidence of values I believe are broadly cherished and understood to be markers of living: uncertainty, changes of heart and evident processes of decision making. Great works of art invite us into the creative process of making an image real before our eyes. We know this as we stand in front of the magnificent marble bust of Pope Gregory XVI by Gianlorenzo Bernini, as we look upon the 16th-century German wooden carving of an old man now on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario from the collection of Ken Thomson; when we experience the gouged surface of a painting by Paterson Ewen; or reflect upon the washes in a drawing by Betty Goodwin. We know that a work of art is the sum of a set of hard fought aesthetic decisions. Seeing the object tells us that.

As the Art Gallery of Ontario comes upon its 100th anniversary next year (and who among you can imagine Toronto without the Gallery which so many of you have done so much to build?) as we celebrate all that has been achieved in the 100 years of exhibitions and collecting activity, there is much to reflect upon. Many memories are the sum total of adventure in that once-small museum's walls; many friendships have bound together the experiences of more than 500 board members, 5,000 staff and 10,000 volunteers. It is a museum that has changed so very much in its history. Or is it? And that is the question I want to work around today.

The idea, of course, that museums have not changed in many years is a willfully mistaken one, for they have changed in public and private purpose many-fold since their origins in 15th century Italy. Since the Palace of the Medici's was founded as a private museum to herald wealth and status, museums have become many things for many people, responding to a basic need for order and classification. Perhaps most poignant of all, museums respond to a need to materially reflect the path of achievement that civilisations leave for posterity. At various times museums have been both privately funded and publicly funded. They have been both virtual Kunstkammers which combine every sort of art imaginable and exclusive museums focused and dedicated in their purpose. They have been formed from the idea of community and they have been formed from the will and desire of single, visionary individuals. Some museums have presented artworks as discreet objects on display solely for aesthetic contemplation, while others have presented art only as anthropological objects, signposts for political and social change. Some museums are free; some charge for each visitor. Some welcome school-age children; some discourage their attendance.

Art museums come in all sizes shapes and purposes, but we commonly believe they have been unchanging in our midst because their central function has indeed not changed: the presentation of art objects for some form of pleasure and learning. Art museums, that is collecting institutions, have presented to us the constant idea of the treasure for many years. The idea of treasure being that art objects are preserved to give to their culture an embodiment of values held at a particular time. I want to rest here at this central value of the museum for a moment, because I think it might tell us something about where the Art Gallery of Ontario has come from, and where it is likely to go, as it enters both the next millennium, and a celebration of its second century. But I will rest here in a moment.

Jerry Porras and James Collins in their groundbreaking book, "Built to Last," profile a handful of major corporations that have grown and prospered over many generations, seeking to identify the keys to their success. In a fascinating journey, the authors have distilled success to one essential, shared quality--namely an adherence to the core values and purposes of the organisation. What do they mean? The organisations that have year in and year out had the greatest success have been those that have held to the founding vision--the vision that gave the business its reason for being in the first place. What has come afterwards, the year by year accommodations and anticipations of the market, the re-invention of connection to consumers, the decisions to develop one product over another, to launch in one market rather than another, to use new technologies to reach customers; these are all clever and essential strategies of fulfilling that vision, and in successful companies strategies are always subservient to vision. And, argue Porras and Collins, strategies mean nothing if they are not rooted in the core values and purpose that give organisations their reason for existing.

And now, here, perhaps you can see where I am going. I have long felt that the key to the future of the Art Gallery of Ontario lay in a reinforcement of the essential values of museum life, that is the contemplation of objects. Contemplation and engagement perhaps, together, suggesting that the art object could in fact, in some way help us understand the values of a culture in new ways. As I began last month to work with my colleagues to meet the arduous challenge of constructing a budget that would lay the foundation for the future, we returned for a visit in the mind, to that moment when a leading businessman, Sir Edmund Walker, and a leading artist, George Reid, and their friends amongst artists and collectors of the time, decided that an art museum was what the city of Toronto needed.

What were they thinking, these men of ambition, when they built a community-based institution founded as the art museum of Toronto in 1900? What did they desire for themselves and for their city, when they carved with words the very foundations of the museum? The legal frame they left behind tells little: "The cultivation and advancement of fine and applied arts by means of the establishment and maintenance of a building or buildings devoted to such arts..." The dry prose of the Museum Act reads, but a review of the Walker Papers and the papers of George Reid in the archives of the Art Gallery of Ontario tells us more.

These men of international travel, of curiosity about the world of art in its widest frame, shared three things above all else:

• A belief in the power of the art object;

• The conviction that the experience of art had an essential purpose in the educational process;

• And a desire to link Canada to the rest of the world through the languages of art.

The very idea of creating a museum for Toronto--and calling it an art museum and not an educational museum (as had been founded in 1857)--was a sign of cosmpolitaness in Sir Edmund Walker's eyes: after all, the reasoning went, every great city had an art museum. That the museum would also contain and celebrate the work of Canadian artists was crucial, for it would be a showcase for Canadianness in an expanded context. And yet, provincials they were not: the first exhibition mounted at the museum was an exhibition of contemporary Scottish painting, organised by the leaders of the museum, and imported to Canada for show. Imagine a contemporary exhibition from a foreign land as the inaugural exhibition in a city where people thought devotion to art just a little humorous.

And so, to distill: from the beginning, the art museum of Toronto established a core vision that articulated the power of the experience of art to bring about what we might call a culture self-awareness--a sense of Canadianness. Its purpose was to create these experiences by preserving the work of artists as a collection that had shape and form in some manner. And its strategy at that time, was to present works of art through displays of the permanent collection, and through changing exhibitions, that opened a window onto the world.

Not surprisingly, of course, because you know where I am leading you, I believe that this value, and its related purpose remain, today, just shy of 100 years after its founding, the key to how the Art Gallery of Ontario will grow and prosper in the next years. Let me tell you how.

I believe that we must be, more than we have been in recent years, an advocate for Canadian art. If not us, whom? We must be an institution that commits its resources to telling the many stories of Canadian art, even if these stories sometimes collide and create disquiet. Yes we must celebrate the achievement of artists, but we must do so by documenting and analysing the values of Canadianness that have formed us.

I am pleased that we are the first Canadian art museum to present the art of our First Nations peoples in our galleries, side by side with art of the European tradition. We must do more of this. We must create exhibitions that reveal the complex issues of domesticity and gender in early 20th-century Canada, and we will, with upcoming exhibitions of the unjustly forgotten artists Mary Heister Reid and Helen Galloway McNicoll. We must also take our place as advocates for Canadian art on the international stage, and so we will. An exhibition of watercolours by the wondrous David Milne will be organised by the AGO and sent to the British Museum in London and, we hope, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. This year, we are proud to be the organisers of Canada's representation at the prestigious, contemporary, Venice Biennale. Toronto's Tom Dean will exhibit his work in an exhibition which reminds us of the power and enigma of much contemporary art. We must, and we will, continue the adventurous reinstallation of our permanent collections, so that work by Canadian artists may be seen side by side with the work of their international peers.

It is important to understand the achievement of London Ontario's Paterson Ewen next to that of the German Anselm Kiefer, or Toronto's Michael Snow's next to the work of Bruce Nauman from Sante Fe, or to consider the work of Montreal artist Betty Goodwin alongside the attainment of Paris-born Louise Bourgeois. How else will we know that the language of Canadian art, no matter how much informed by the local circumstance of place is, in fact, in dialogue with new ideas from around the world? And, if we don't know this, how will we know truly who we are. We must look in a mirror to see ourselves, true, but a periscope helps too.

We must also be an institution of enlarged international ambition, not simply an institution which hosts significant exhibitions from around the world. We will be that too but an institution which organises projects with sister institutions from abroad. We must join with like-minded institutions to combine resources (which includes our remarkable staff) to present exhibitions which push at the edges of art scholarship. International ambition is not unCanadian. Ambition well used is a good and glorious attribute. It is the core of good business, for it is nothing less than a desire to make a mark that will last.

In the next number of months we anticipate a string of announcements, unveiling projects with Windsor Castle, the Tate Gallery, the Morgan Library in New York, the Albertina in Vienna, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. All projects that will build knowledge in collaboration with others. We must, in this context, continue to bring important works to Toronto. We must give our audiences access to works of art filled with resonance and meaning, but we must recognise the great diversity of world cultures in this context. One of the remarkable aspects of this wonderful, multicultural city is that we enjoy real and intense bonds with cultures around the world. The mirror of diversity in our city is a real connectedness to communities elsewhere. We must take advantage of this connectedness through a wider definition of partnership. And we will.

Over the next few years I believe that you will see the Art Gallery of Ontario take its place as one of the great educational institutions of its kind. We can, and we should, be a leader in the presentation of ideas through art. We must be adventurous and experimental in our interest in art history and art appreciation as disciplines of learning. But, I believe we will truly make our mark by exploring art in its true cross-disciplinary functions linking art to other areas of intellectual inquiry. We must create and build educational programmes that start with an appreciation of the art object--the aesthetic understanding of objects is so very special to us--but we must strive to peel back the layers of meaning by asking questions of the art object that link to history, social science and theory.

Many of the educational programmes we have in development are examples of just such inquiry: two recently launched youth internship programmes have provided the model for an ongoing programme for teen interns at the AGO. As the secondary system turns to us for support through the placements for co-op students, an internship programme for teens at the AGO will allow us to provide meaningful activities for young people, both during and outside school hours. Teens will be trained for gallery interpretation, both as "ask me" docents and as volunteers for touring programmes for elementary programmes.

An AGO Education Resource Centre will be created for the use of school teachers with and without their students; students, in class groups or on their own; university and college instructors, professors and students, as well as independent researchers, artists and individual members of the public. The resource centre will provide a classroom for group projects, before and after school tours, further encouraging full-day visits by school groups. It will also be a centre for teacher education and training, offering workshops and seminars on visual arts and culture, art education and methodologies for integrating the arts across the curriculum. Eventually, working with the Ontario College of Teachers, it is our hope that ERC courses will be approved as a source of coursework for teacher accreditation.

In recognition of the special relationship that the AGO has with post-secondary institutions in Ontario, we will develop a formal internship programme. Working with the staff in the New Media Centre, our Education Department has begun to implement a new approach to training for volunteers which will allow us to provide greater resources to teachers and students through posting self-directed learning modules on our website for all temporary exhibitions and selected areas of the permanent collection.

These are some of the programmes that are our strategies to meet new audiences at the end of our century. They will utilise new technologies a great deal for, through the Internet and through the remarkable capacity to present the ideas of art through the computer screen, we can and will bring audiences closer to the experience of the work of art. We will utilise the capacities of technology as a strategy to achieve our goal: a renewed connection to the life of art.

To be an advocate for Canadian art in bold and stimulating ways, to create partnerships that bring important art and new scholarship to Toronto, and to create educational programmes that return us to works of art are our core values, and they have been for generations.

Why must we learn from the past? Not to return to old ways of doing things, not to recreate a nostalgia for the past for its own sake, but because we know the past is about the honour of objects, and their preservation for the future. That we dare to present the work of Francis Bacon instead of Laura Knight, or present the work of Latino youth close to the work of the Group of Seven in ways George Reid would never have imagined are simply strategic choices to link to audiences in our time. These are worthy endeavours. Those of you who have worked hard to build the Art Gallery of Ontario over so many years, will know what I mean. We have a remarkable staff committed to the experiences of our visitors. We have a volunteer community that is the envy of sister museums around the continent. And, as we enter a new time of active volunteer recruitment and placement at the Gallery, it will be ever thus, more and more.

In the public sphere, we know that we have to do more to celebrate the achievements of our Gallery and we will, for while none of us can likely imagine our city without the Gallery, it must be a common value of all who call this city home.

What stands at the centre of the museum experience? Perhaps it is mine when, with my father, I came to my childhood art gallery, the Art Gallery of Ontario and looked, transfixed, at the still life by Chardin, "Jar of Apricots," and looked again and again at the knife which is placed ever so casually at the edge of the table. Oh, what a precarious balance it has, that moment of visual poetry. That moment is a microcosm of museum life. And we must remember that all we do to connect the Gallery to its public comes back to this: We present experiences that sometimes seem un-namable, indefinable, something that we know when we see it, or feel it, something that we hold on to for ourselves when it is given to us, and that is the experience of the work of art. Such experience is a right that the art museum has given to our audiences for many years, and it is an obligation I am aware of every day.

Thank you.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Anne Libby, Owner, Libby's of Toronto Art Gallery and a Director, The Empire Club of Canada.

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What We Learn From the Past

Sharing some thoughts about the changing nature of museums by thinking about the past and wondering what doors it might open at the close of the century. The speaker's reflections on the past, and by what they are framed. Museums in the midst of great change; the experience of art in its true and most immediate sense not changed at all. Increased museum attendance worldwide, at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and why it has increased. The upcoming 100th anniversary of the AGO. Addressing the question as to whether or not the AGO has changed very much in its history. The key to the future of the AGO. Three beliefs shared by the founders of the art museum of Toronto in 1900. Some history of the AGO. How the AGO will grow and prosper in the next years. Being an advocate for Canadian art. A brief review of just some of the AGO's achievements. The next few months, and the next few years. Education programmes. The AGO Education Resource Centre. Why we must learn from the past. Doing more to celebrate the achievements of the AGO. What stands at the centre of the museum experience.