Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

LizAnn Macgregor on 22 of MCA’s 30 yrs

Liz Ann Macgregor, outgoing Director MCA. Photo Anna Kucera.

Gina Fairley, Director’s farewell as MCA turns 30, ArtsHub, 10 November 2021

As the MCA celebrates its 30th anniversary, we spoke to departing director of 22-years, Liz Ann Macgregor on legacy and the future.

While a chapter of Elizabeth Ann Macgregor’s past was driving a bus for the Scottish Arts Council to introduce contemporary art to regional audiences, a more recent chapter has seen her driving the future of Australia’s most celebrated contemporary art museum.

The Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) turns thirty this week. And while today it is an institution that enjoys international respect, it wasn’t always so. When Macgregor joined the gallery in 1999 it was financially challenged, attendances were waning and many either viewed contemporary art as elitist, or with a kind of contempt.

Reflecting, Macgregor said: ‘I think people were grateful to me to take it on.’

‘The politics of it was a bit weird. I thought I understood what it would be like, on the surface it seemed similar to Birmingham [where she had been director of Ikon Gallery for ten years] in terms of shuffling over funding ownership, but I hadn’t foreseen the issues of ownership.

‘I stepped into three levels of government, each wanting to hand it over to the other. What I quickly realised is that what we had to do was to demonstrate our value and what we give to city and the nation,’ said Macgregor. Today only 23% of the MCA’s funding today comes from government grants.

Anniversaries are a great moment for any organisation to reflect on value and legacy. MCA Chairman, Lorraine Tarabay said that it was also time to celebrate MCAs, ‘Thirty years of challenging us to see and think about the world differently; 30 years of transforming lives through contemporary art.’

SHOCK OF THE NEW

Before Sydney and Birmingham, Macgregor had worked for the Arts Council of Great Britain for three years.

‘When I took the job [in Sydney] people said, “What! You are going to Australia.” My colleagues were horrified,’ she told ArtsHub.

When asked how difficult it was to crack the Australian art scene coming in from abroad to shape a key institution’s future, Macgregor explained: ‘I loved that challenge of that misconception of who might, and who might not be, interested in art.’

Lindy Lee, Secret World of a Starlight Ember, 2020, installation view MCA. Image courtesy and © the artist, photo: Anna Kucera.

‘Birmingham was all about challenging the white male art world. I had been to Australia several times [before starting], and had looking at the work of Gordon Bennett; I met Lindy Lee in 1996, as well as Lyndall Jones in Melbourne and Mikala Dwyer, so I had a good sense this was not a “cultural desert” I was coming to … My colleagues were all too white basically, and didn’t understand what Australia could be.’

In a nice circle, Macgregor’s last curatorial project with the MCA was the major solo exhibition by Lindy Lee earlier this year, and this week, to mark the 30th anniversary, Lee’s sculpture Secret World of a Starlight Ember – presented on the forecourt to the museum  at Circular Quay – was formally acquired thanks to a donation from the Kerridge Foundation in memory of Maureen Kerridge.

Twenty-two years later, Macgregor has firmly situated the Sydney institution as part of international discourse.

From 2016 to 2019 she served as President of the Board of the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art, and established a signature – and ground breaking – collection sharing relationship with the Tate in London.

‘Our Aboriginal arts policy at the MCA is one of the most far reaching in the country. We ran the CIMAM conference with a First Nations thread through it and our European colleagues were amazed with the acknowledgement to Country and commitment of our staff.

‘I just got an email this week from someone who had seen the hang of Australian work currently at the Tate. That John Mawurndjul is there was inconceivable five years ago – that was a big journey we took them on. We treated him as a contemporary artist.

‘I have been criticised for being “so fixated on the Tate” that it is too colonialist. My view is let’s not be so cold faced about this. Before they just had two works by Australians in their collection, now they have 28,’ she added.

CULTURAL EVOLUTION AND FINDING MCA’S STRIDE

Macgregor didn’t hesitation in pinpointing the moment that cemented the future of the MCA.

‘Number one was establishing free access,’ she said.

Before free access, the MCA attracted fewer than 100,000 visitors a year. In the past two decades, Macgregor has turned that around to over one million visitors annually, pipping the audience numbers at international institutions such as London’s Serpentine Galleries, MCA Chicago and Los Angeles’ MoCA, and truly finding an identity on the world stage.

How did she do it? By brokering a sponsorship deal with Telstra in 2000 and further building a rigorous philanthropic framework around the museum, in particular her relationship with Simon and Catriona Mordant, who in 2012 donated $15 million towards a much needed building expansion.

Macgregor added that one of the greatest barriers in the early days of the institution was pushing against media perception.

‘Their knowledge of contemporary art – critics for the tabloids – was disgusting. I was used to this with the terrible commentary in the UK around the Turner Prize. But here it was just a constant hammering of contemporary art all the time. I was recently looking back at some of those headlines – “money for wankers” and “great gallery, shame about the art”.

‘I knew what we had to do was to get underneath the media and to get to people directly. And free access meant that people came in and started to realise that there were things here that they liked.

‘The flipside of that has been criticism from the art world saying that we were talking too much about access and not enough about art. My response was “Have you ever spoke to a politician? If their constitution talks about art then they will fund it.’

Magregor said that one of the things she is most proud of over her tenure and the history of the museum, is that it has never swayed from its vision.

‘When we went free, my head of marketing said, “Let’s not do the Biennale. They are another negative brand. Why can’t we do something more acceptable?” If we try to second guess [public tastes] we are sunk. Our mantra is that we make challenging art accessible. So much has changed in the art world in the past 30 years, especially on the firm grip of conceptual art.’

Macgregor believes that we are still faced with challenges in the language that surrounds the presentation of art.

‘It is an Australian disease to this day, that the language we use is outdated and overworn, and it is the young artists and the young curators now who are pushing this. It comes back to the art schools. The show that people still struggle most with at the MCA is Primavera.’

Macgregor’s thinking clearly links to her early days of driving a mobile gallery around Scotland to bring art to the people. Over the last two decades, she and her team have chipped away at those barriers, starting in the simplest ways.

Macgregor can be found staffing the front desk one day a month, a cross-institution policy. One of the legacies she leaves the museum is the practice of having a non-art staffer read all labels before they go near a wall. Macgregor explained, ‘They are not for the art world. They are read by the many people who come through the door and do not have a degree in art or theory. I learnt a long time ago from an artist “to write the way you talk to me in the studio – why would you want to put people off?”.

Alex working on an installation of light and materials in the NCCL creative studios. Art & Wonder pilot project, 2018, photo: Anna Kucera.

LEGACY AND NUTURING FOUNDING ROOTS FORWARD

Macgregor was sure to pay a nod to the museum’s roots, which reach back a half-century earlier to the another expatriate, artist JW Power, who provided for a museum of contemporary art to be established in his 1943 will. She also gave respect to the vision of the founding Director Leon Paroissien and Chief Curator Bernice Murphy, and major patrons along the journey – Cynthia Jackson, the Wallaces and the Mordants.

Despite the support, the challenges were great to take that legacy and build it forward over the institution’s 30 years.

‘There has always been different challenges at different times,’ said Macgregor. ‘First there was the rescue plans and the 18 months to bed that down. Then the focus was to continue to expand our audiences, and part of that was starting C3 West.

‘Once the museum was free it wasn’t over. We wanted a demonstration of what art can do, and dispel the feeling that it is not for me. This is where C3 West really got its stride. That program talks to people in the East[ern suburbs of Sydney] as much in the West[ern Sydney]. To this day I meet people who say contemporary art “is really not for me”, and dismiss it. Fair enough, but come along and check it out before setting an opinion,’ she continued.

‘Then very reluctantly I had to do the building. That became real when I got a call saying, “I can’t get in the building, there are two school groups blocking the foyer”. There had been two attempts to expand, but it had become clear it was imperative or we would start to go backwards.

‘We had great disability programs, but we had to put people in the goods lift to get them in the building. So we decided to embark on the idea quietly – it took six years behind the scenes. We had a very robust business plan underlaying the build as my big fear of putting into deficit again,’ she told ArtsHub.

Designed by local architect Sam Marshall, from 2010 the MCA underwent an $58 million expansion and re-development, reopening in March 2012, adding the ‘Australia’ to its name.

‘I am so proud of our building … We have never had an artist that has not loved working in this building.’

Macgregor added that the creation of the NCCL (National Centre for Creative Learning) and interactive Jackson Bella Room was that next chapter in the institution’s journey, one that has had a stratospheric impact on how artist educators can take their programs to audiences.

And in September this year, the MCA launched the publication Art & Wonder: Young Children and Contemporary Art, which tracks the findings of a five year collaborative study (2017-2021) between the museum, Macquarie University, working with children, families and teachers from Mia Mia Child and Family Study Centre, and Blacktown City Council.

Today the spectrum of learning starts from under-5s and through to dementia programs, and sits across CALD communities to digital access. If one was to examine the legacy of an institution, then this has to be its future.

Macgregor’s parting words for the institution she has held so dear: ‘I think most important is to continue to be unique. For me, the process – and using artists as educators – is so important. There is a big opportunity there for making an argument for art in age of AI.

‘These things will differentiate us for our deep-centred commitment to remaining distinctive, and not just to follow,’ she added as a closing note.

And her advice to her younger self, stepping into the role today? ‘Not to care so much about what people were saying, and to cope better with some of the criticisms and the misogyny.’

Macgregor was awarded the Centenary Medal in 2003 for services to the Australian public and contemporary art and in OBE in 2011. She left the MCA last week.

Council of Australasian Museum Directors, c/o Ms Daryl Karp, Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House PO Box 3934 Manuka, Australian Capital Territory 2603 Australia, © CAMD 2021
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