Friday, April 24, 2009

About Last Night... Matthew Teitelbaum & the $20,000 MOCCA Award

So I got a press invite at the last minute to the MOCCA Award ceremony last night, and I went to see what the award recipient, Matthew Teitelbaum, might mention in his remarks.

After all, MOCCA announced it was bestowing the $20,000 award on Art Gallery of Ontario director Teitelbaum back in December 2008, while the gallery was still basking in renovation afterglow--and well before the gallery laid off 23 workers. Seeing as how the gallery didn't decide to rehire any of those workers following a surprise grant of $18.6 million from the provincial government, which was announced just days after the layoffs, there was some speculation (see Gabby Moser in a past comment here) about just what Teitelbaum would do with the $20,000 prize.

Answer: Teitelbaum did the quite politically wise thing of turning around and donating the $20,000 back to MOCCA, an institution which, though its name sound grandly national, is a much smaller, younger, closer to the ground museum than the AGO.

Overall, the evening seemed to have the tone of a roast or, really most readily for me, a bar mitzvah. Photos from Teitelbaum's youth were displayed, as were images of the first places he worked like the London Regional Museum and the Mendel Art Gallery. (Generating laughs were images of Teitelbaum with Keith Richards in real life, and with his head pasted onto Andy Warhol's Elvis silkscreens.) Quotations on each wall provided testimony to why Teitelbaum deserved the award. It seemed that many funders of the AGO and of the MOCCA were in attendance--the ceremony itself being a $500-a-ticket funder for MOCCA--and there was a sense of pride for certain.

But were the layoffs mentioned? No. "Challenges," yes. "Optimism," yes. "Inspiration," yes. But "layoffs"? No. Adding irony to the situation was the fact that one speaker spoke fondly of how Matthew knew the first name of every one of his staff. It's hard to reconcile that "affectionate family" tone with what has been going on there of late.

The criticality was slightly upped by a post-award conversation between TVO pundit Allan Gregg and Teitelbaum. Gregg did ask some key questions about the current mania for museum renos (Teitelbaum rationalized the AGO's reno as "providing a better home for art") and also asked Teitelbaum to rationalize the millions his institution has recently received (his answer included the observation that the government knows "As the AGO rises, so do the prospects of all cultural institutions.... You can't let your flagships fail.")

So besides a couple of piquant attempts, the back-and-forth was mainly a soft-lob affair. To be expected, really. And it truly does seem that Teitelbaum has done some hard work and served as an inspiration to the local funder community. But when the AGO has been unprestigiously named on an international timeline of museums and recession impacts, and when they're turning their fall/winter season over to an exhibit of King Tut (a move prompting newly forgiving media supporters to backpedal) to bring in the cash, there are a lot more questions that remain to be asked.... and answered.

Image of (L to R) the AGO's Matthew Teitelbaum, the MOCCA's director David Liss and the BMO's Gilles Ouellette from Canada Newswire


Anonymous said...

You did forget to mention that Matthew specified that the $20, 000 be put towards a show dedicated to Toronto-based artist.

Leah Sandals said...

Sorry Anonymous! Yes, that's right.

I also forgot to say that my biggest thrill of the evening was seeing Susur Lee in person. Corrected!