An open letter to new Museum of Fine Arts Director Matthew Teitelbaum:
Congratulations on being named the next director of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts—and welcome back to Boston.
One of the most interesting things I’ve heard about you is that your dad, the artist Mashel Teitelbaum, was known in the 1980s for picketing outside the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Toronto museum where you are presently the director. Your dad, I hear, “despised” the museum’s elitist stance and lack of support for contemporary Canadian artists.
“When Mashel demonstrated at the damn place, artists didn’t feel they belonged there. There was tremendous anger and resentment against the AGO,” your mom has said.
This is an amazing, inspiring thing your father did. I wish I’d had a chance to meet him.
In a similar vein, here in 1971, six Boston artists snuck their art into a men’s room at the MFA for a renegade, one-night joke exhibition called “Flush with the Walls.” A report in the newspaper Boston After Dark at the time said the guerilla show ingeniously and wittily pointed out “that the men’s room seems to be the only place in the Museum of Fine Arts that an exhibit by contemporary local artists can be seen.”
Not long after, the museum launched its contemporary art program—though it has still since had a spotty record of showcasing art made in our region.
On the night of the 40th anniversary of “Flush with the Walls” in 2011, it seemed like the MFA might let this landmark in its history, and Boston art history, pass unnoted. So I stepped up as, let’s say, a guest curator. With the theme of the original show in mind, I got 21 Boston-area artists and collaboratives—including three artists from the original show: Bob “Sidewalk Sam” Guillemin, David Raymond and Jo Sandman—to sneak their art into the MFA for a guerilla exhibition in a bathroom there. (Check out that impressive lineup of artists!)
It was a fun evening—and attracted national notice. For me, it was part of a larger effort that I call Yokelism. Here in New England, so close to the light and gravity of New York, we often slip into envy and low self-esteem. Our museums especially. It’s a kind of second city syndrome, and really the worst kind of provincialism, the kind in which too many people seem to operate under the belief that if art is made here it can’t be much good, by definition.
One sad result is that our major local museums, world class in so many ways, often ignore art made here. Or at best make occasional, token acknowledgement of what we’re doing here. Not because of merit, but because, as your dad knew, too many people leading our institutions can’t see the quality of local art. Because they somehow lack the vision. Because they often don’t even bother to get out into our communities to look.
The Museum of Fine Arts has gotten a bit better about this in recent years—reinstating its Maud Morgan Prize, including locals in its permanent collection display in the contemporary wing. But there’s still room to grow.
Yokelism is about being proudly provincial. Please don’t get confused and think it means being blind cheerleaders or grading on a curve. That is not Yokelism. Yokelism is about tough love, because we Yokelists have ambitions for our creative community. Yokelism is about recognizing when we produce amazing stuff and championing it. There are lots of talented artists here—including a number of living local artists already in the history books, but still often overlooked by our museums.
“My father taught me the value of the creative life, and passed on a skepticism of authority,” you’ve said. “I was always curious about how values and judgments are made in the art world,” you’ve said.
I gather that, with your dad in mind, you’ve tried to make art made in Toronto, art made in Canada a significant part of your programs at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
I hope that as you take on the leadership of our great Museum of Fine Arts that the museum will continue to be a place to see great art—as well as an institution newly committed to fostering great art making in our community. I hope you’ll help the MFA play a greater role in incubating local art—by showing art made here in small exhibitions, group shows, big retrospectives, and in the histories the museum tells every day in the permanent collection displays.
If you need help finding dazzling artists active here, I’d be happy to help.