It was fun but exhausting,” says Stephan Jost, sitting down in an Art Gallery of Ontario meeting room with a view of Grange Park for his first sit-down interview since being named CEO of the Art Gallery of Ontario.
“Here’s the process,” he explains. “You walk into a room. It’s a corporate office space. There are more than a dozen people, all members of the AGO board. They’ve done a lot of work, setting out the criteria.”
The key player on the inquisitors’ side of the table was Maxine Granovsky Gluskin, doing triple duty as president of the AGO board, chair of the search committee and part of an interim team filling in after CEO Matthew Teitelbaum left.
At this point there were a lot of things Jost didn’t know, including how many candidates were in the running for the job.
But he did know that Toronto is a hot spot in the cultural landscape. Jost, 47, had grown up in East Lansing, Mich., just hours from the Canadian border. And it was at Osgoode Hall 10 years ago that Jost married his Toronto-born partner, Will Scott. The judge who married them was Dennis O’Connor, a friend and neighbour of his new in-laws.
When a Toronto arts institution does cross-border shopping for a new leader and finds a far-flung candidate with an itch to move on, the exercise can play out like a TV game show. Think part Wheel of Fortune and part The Bachelor.
Take the frenzied and secret courtship between Jost and the AGO before they went public, sealed the deal and let the world know they were ready to commit.
In the beginning, there was a good reason the New York headhunters hired by the AGO to fill Teitelbaum’s shoes could not proposition Jost directly.
In 2011, Becky Klein and Sarah James of Phillips Oppenheim, the executive search firm, had put Jost in Hawaii, where he was running the Honolulu Museum of Art. (Before 2011, Jost was director of the Shelburne Museum in Vermont.) It would have been against the rules of the game for the searchers to poach him just four years later.
But when Jost heard the Toronto job was up for grabs, he applied without being asked.
Adding to the all-in-the-family, almost incestuous aspect of the deal-making was that Phillips Oppenheim was the same firm that lured Teitelbaum away from the Grange by recruiting him for Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
Jost’s first session with the AGO board may have been gruelling, but he obviously made a good impression because he was invited back to Toronto for another round of “Getting to Know You.”
By the time he arrived in Toronto again, Jost had spent 11 hours in transit (flying economy class and watching British TV detective series Broadmoor and Taxi, a German movie) and had passed through so many time zones it’s surprising he could be alert, calm and coherent. But apparently he was.
“My strategy was to be blunt and transparent,” he explains. “I don’t believe in telling people what they want to hear.”
Among the issues discussed: how to manage change; the candidate’s taste in art; the question of governance and how the CEO works with the board; and whether a potential leader can be compassionate with staff yet still make tough decisions.
For the board it was a gamble to take a chance on a candidate coming from a much smaller museum. HoMA has an annual budget of $13.8 million (U.S.), less than one-third of the AGO budget of $60 million Canadian. HoMA has a staff of 261, compared to 656 at the AGO. And HoMA’s annual attendance is less than 300,000, compared to almost 800,000 at the AGO.
According to one insider, the board was relieved to hear that Jost is a fiscal conservative but not sure what to make of being told that he’s a creative risk-taker who likes to balance guaranteed crowd-pleasing shows with out-of-the-box, risky exhibits.
The courtship continued with a cosy dinner for six at the Forest Hill home of Gluskin and her husband, wealth manager Ira Gluskin.
As for managing Jost’s wealth, he was offered — and accepted — an annual salary of $350,000, just slightly below what Teitelbaum was getting but modest when you think of it in U.S. currency.
As for the length of his contract, Jost told me there isn’t any specified.
“I serve at the board’s pleasure,” he says with a smile, meaning he is at the Grange until the board asks him to leave.
Even after the contract was delivered and signed, all by email, the deal remained a secret. One day before arriving in Toronto for his coronation, Jost joined colleagues in the Association of Art Museum Directors at a conference in Los Angeles, but his lips were sealed. Not even Teitelbaum knew who was about to be named his successor.
Jost and his new employers are hoping it won’t be long before federal immigration authorities clear him to live and work here. The fact that his partner and their adopted daughter, Monique, are Canadian should help.
Meanwhile Jost and Scott are trying to buy a house on Markham St., within walking distance of the AGO, with enough room for them, their daughter and their 90-pound dog Humphrey.