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Matthew Teitelbaum, the director and chief executive of the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) Boston since 2015, will retire in August 2025, the museum announced Thursday (20 June). His tenure at the MFA—the 72nd-most-visited art museum in the world and tenth-most-visited in the US, according to The Art Newspaper’s most recent attendance-figure survey—was marked by both successes and challenges, from the overhaul of many galleries, conservation facilities and education programmes, to a racial incident involving a visiting school group, contract negotiations with (and a brief strike by) unionised workers and two pandemic closures lasting a total of more than seven months between 2020 and 2021.

In a statement, Teitelbaum praised his staff, saying that “we have held and acted upon the belief that art can change perceptions of the world, create strong belief in the power of community and centre artists as advocates for creative change”. He added: “The MFA’s best years are ahead—grounded in the commitment of its staff, board, volunteers and visitors. We join together in believing in the MFA and its ability to share joy and encourage civic understanding, which is more important than ever.”

Several initiatives Teitelbaum has launched during his tenure in Boston were aimed at shoring up the future of the MFA and the museums field more broadly. Two years after his appointment, in 2017, he launched MFA 2020, a ten-year strategic plan to better connect the museum to its communities through outreach to colleges and universities, public art projects and more. He also helped establish MFA Pathways, one of the largest fully funded paid internship programmes at a US museum, available to undergraduate and graduate students, and intended to help broaden and diversify the professional pipeline for future generations of museum workers. Since that programme’s launch in 2021, museum leaders have raised $37m to support it.

Teitelbaum’s tenure has also seen strategic interventions into the MFA’s physical infrastructure, including the opening of a new 22,000 sq. ft conservation facility in 2021. Many permanent-collection galleries have been either renovated or wholly redone over the past decade, including new spaces dedicated to Dutch and Flemish art, the Italian Renaissance, art from Egypt’s Middle Kingdom, Japanese art and the museum’s first gallery dedicated to Judaica.

The museum’s collection greatly expanded under Teitelbaum’s leadership, with enormous acquisitions of Dutch and Flemish art (via the Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo and Susan and Matthew Weatherbie collections, donated in 2017), Chinese painting and calligraphy (via the Wan-go H.C. Weng Collection, gifted in 2018), photography (with the acquisition of the Howard Greenberg Collection of Photographs in 2018) and works by Piet Mondrian (thanks to a gift of 34 pieces from Maria and Conrad Janis).

Museums & Heritage

Adversity forces reinvention: Matthew Teitelbaum on turbulent times at the MFA, Boston

Teitelbaum’s leadership was tested plenty of times during his decade leading the MFA, too. Like most US institutions, the museum shuttered in March 2020 as Covid-19 spread, and remained closed for six months, during which 57 employees were laid off and another 56 took early retirement offers. (As Covid cases surged again in late 2020, the museum closed for more than a month.) Three months after the layoffs, 90% of eligible MFA staff voted to organise under Local 2110 of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union.

One year after voting to unionise, as negotiations between union representatives and museum leadership appeared stalled, more than 200 members of UAW Local 2110 at the MFA staged a one-day strike and protest. After another seven months of negotiations, the union approved its first contract with the museum.

In the spring of 2019, the Civil Rights division of the Massachusetts attorney general’s office opened an investigation into an incident at the MFA during which a group of middle-school honours students and their chaperones visiting from the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy reported being racially profiled and harassed by museum patrons, volunteers and staff. The students, all of whom were people of colour, reported being closely followed through the museum by security staff, being loudly and offensively disparaged by another museum visitor and other incidents. A year later, the museum and the Massachusetts attorney general, Maura Healey, reached an agreement whereby the MFA would create a $500,000 fund to promote diversity and inclusion as well as working with students from the group and their school to “ensure a welcoming experience for all members of the community”.

“Working with Attorney General Healey and the Davis Leadership Academy, we have the opportunity to create a new model of inclusion and diversity to serve Boston, and we hope to set an example for others to follow,” Teitelbaum said at the time in a statement. “We have learned a great deal during the past year and through this process, and while we have more to learn and more work to do, together we will succeed.”

The Week in Art

America’s racial reckoning: inside the controversial Guston show

The MFA has organised and hosted many major exhibitions during Teitelbaum’s time there—including shows devoted to Ansel Adams, Hokusai, John Singer Sargent, Claude Monet and Jean-Michel Basquiat—though none was as closely watched as a travelling Philip Guston retrospective that was controversially postponed due to concerns about the artist’s depictions of Ku Klux Klan members. After the exhibition was shelved in the summer of 2020, amid the Black Lives Matter protests and national racial reckoning that followed the murder of George Floyd, it ultimately debuted in Boston in the spring of 2022—earning overwhelmingly positive reviews there and during subsequent stops in Houston, Washington, DC, and London.

In a 2021 interview with The Art Newspaper reflecting on the many hurdles his museum had faced in the previous two years, Teitelbaum acknowledged three types of challenges facing his institution (and, in various forms, most art museums). The first was the familiar financial obstacle of operating an enormous institution with a limited budget; the second concerned problems of accessibility and openness that were brought into focus by the 2019 incident with the visiting students—”the ways in which we deal with systemic inequities in our institution that run the range from compensation to diversity to issues of accessibility to our institutions”. Lastly, he said there was the bigger question of the role, definition and purpose of a museum in the 21st century.

“I think that’s an institutional challenge at the highest level, because we are where we are and proudly so because of the extraordinary collections that we built over generations,” he said. “The building that we have and our campus, our sense of place and history. But for us to maintain and grow that, we need to continually refine the question of relevance: What role does the museum play? How does it bring people together? How do we create a place of belonging for all of our communities?”

A Canadian art historian, Teitelbaum came to the MFA Boston from his native Toronto, where he was previously the director and chief executive of the Art Gallery of Ontario. One of his first curatorial postings was actually across town at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Canadian history from Carleton University in Ottawa, a Master’s degree in modern European painting and sculpture from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London and an honorary doctorate from Queen’s University, Canada.

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