Elizabeth Ann MacGregor OBE

Transforming ‘a venue for wankers’ into one of our most respected art museums, Elizabeth Ann MacGregor’s twenty-two years at the MCA have shown that making contemporary art accessible is more than a vision. Resigning from the MCA this year, MacGregor will leave a radiant legacy, and an institution deeply connected to its local, national, and international communities.

Your first public appearance as Director of the MCA was to launch an exhibition at the Penrith Regional Gallery in 1999. You spoke about making contemporary art accessible. Looking back, what has Western Sydney meant for the MCA?

There’s an untold story about how Western Sydney saved the MCA! In those days, when the Museum was accused of being elitist and irrelevant, I really wanted to challenge that misconception. From my early career taking art on a bus around Scotland, I have been passionate about breaking down the barriers that prevent people from all backgrounds having access to contemporary art. I made lots of contacts in Western Sydney and we began to help Blacktown develop its own arts centre. We developed a partnership which included the Blacktown Festival running buses to the Museum for the 2000 Biennale of Sydney. We had, by this time, introduced free access thanks to Telstra, something I had argued was essential so that people would not be put off by an entry fee. Blacktown became the spokesperson for MCA accessibility, even writing to the state government to endorse the MCA, much to the politicians’ surprise.

Is this why C3West is in Western Sydney?

I felt it was really important to develop an ongoing relationship with organisations in Western Sydney. We didn’t want to parachute the MCA in, putting exhibitions into venues which were already doing great work. We preferred to partner on something specific to Western Sydney. We developed the concept of C3West – projects with artists responding to the local context, working with local communities. It was critical that we worked collaboratively with Campbelltown Arts Centre, Penrith Regional Gallery, Casula Powerhouse and Blacktown Arts Centre. We have now done over twenty projects which demonstrate what artists can contribute to society. C3West is a ground-breaking program and it shows that Western Sydney can be a world leader in arts practice.

Artists solving problems …

Artists ask questions that other people don’t. You can employ a consultant to find out what people think but if you employ an artist, they ask a different set of questions and they get much more productive answers.

You often repeat in speeches that the MCA places artists first. Has it actually changed the culture outside the MCA?

I think it has. There is now much greater acceptance of contemporary art and I believe that focusing on the artist has contributed to this. Other institutions have been saying the same things recently, which is great. They say imitation is the best form of flattery!

We believe the delivery of high-quality exhibitions comes down to the desire to make an artist’s work look the best it can – that comes from the curator. We don’t have a list of the top twenty artists we’d want to show; we select artists according to the passion of the curator. They form a partnership, and that is delivered by our exceptional install team, many of whom are artists, who want the best for an artist. All the artists we have worked with, Australian and international, have been effusive in their praise for the way everyone, from marketing to digital, education to public programs, gets behind the artist.

We’re probably the biggest employer of artists in the country. We employ artists as educators, as front of house, as install crew. The art educators play an extraordinary role in our learning centre. With the creativity agenda that we’ve been developing around the skills for the future, artists are absolutely critical to lead the process.

Is the scale of the MCA right?

Since we expanded in 2012, we have seen our audience double in size. We’re now the highest attended contemporary art museum in the world. What makes us special is connecting artists with that very broad audience. We do that in all kinds of ways and we have seen a great expansion in programs that engage different age groups and abilities. As we only get 24 per cent of our funding from government, we are cautious about anything that puts more pressure on our finances! We are ambitious to expand programs through partnerships.

Let’s go back to the challenges of the early days …

We’ve been through four phases. One was the establishment of the Museum, by Leon Paroissien and Bernice Murphy, through Sydney University’s Power Bequest – an incredible achievement to get a new museum open against all kinds of difficulties. Then it ran into financial difficulties. The rescue phase, when I came in, put it back onto sound financial footing, changing its image from being described as ‘a venue for wankers’ in the Daily Telegraph, shifting people’s perception from thinking that all contemporary art is weird and elitist. That took about eighteen months.

Then we needed to build on our reputation to be able to attract the most interesting international artists and to consolidate our support for Australian artists through the collection as well as exhibitions. Once our audience grew to a point where the building wouldn’t contain it, the expansion had to happen. Then there was a period of reflection and consolidation in the expanded building, putting in place the staffing structures to support the new ambitions, especially around the activities in the National Centre for Creative Learning, a key focus of the expansion. Now we are doing some serious thinking around the next phase as we respond to the challenges locally and globally.

You and the Chair, Simon Mordant.

The most important thing is that Simon is passionate about the Museum and respects the boundaries between the Chair and CEO’s roles in relation to artistic decision-making. That’s not to say that he doesn’t challenge or question, but he is very clear that artistic decisions rest with the curatorial team. It’s incredibly important to me. He makes it clear that he backs the staff, which is empowering for everyone.

What I find really interesting with the Tate, MCA and Qantas partnership is how you were able to turn the Qantas collection into an international acquisition for Australian artists.

When Qantas decided to sell its collection, it decided to put the proceeds into a fund to benefit artists through travel grants. The scheme was administratively burdensome and after a few years, Qantas decided to wind it up. They wanted an ambitious idea for using the money that was left and were interested in something international. I pointed out that for a number of reasons, despite being in many international exhibitions, Australian artists were not being purchased by the major museums.

I rang Sir Nicholas Serota, Director of Tate, and asked if the Tate would be interested in partnering with us in a co-acquisition scheme. In four years, we have co-acquired twenty-three works by sixteen artists. Tate curators have made many visits and, because of their commitment, the works are being displayed, not left to languish unseen in storage!

I’m curious about how, working in an intense creative environment, you manage the emotional culture.

Inevitably MCA is an organisation where staff have strong feelings and passions – from the Director down! I am known for my forthright views! We all have to be sensitive to other people’s positions, to listen to other viewpoints. I do encourage people to argue passionately for their ideas, because that’s what we’re about. But in the end, I am the one who has to take responsibility and ensure that what we are planning is in line with our objectives and can be delivered. Understanding the vision and wider context is really important for all staff.

What’s surprised you the most in your time at the MCA?

A million visitors, the diversity of the visitors.

I’d like to end with your thoughts on the importance of consistent face-to-face contact with colleagues in major international art organisations.

The answer to getting Australian artists represented in the international artworld is to get curators here. It’s all about building up knowledge and fostering contacts, which means being visible at those important events. Building networks is essential – the Tate co-acquisition partnership is probably the most important thing we have done internationally. Not only are our artists now in the Tate alongside their international peers, but we have been able to stimulate Tate thinking around collecting Indigenous art.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 48, 2019

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