After 22 years at the MCA, Liz Ann Macgregor looks to the future

Flights to Ballina are booked next week, where she will join her friend Lindy Lee, who lost her husband, photographer Rob Scott-Mitchell, to cancer two months ago. “I promised Lindy,” she says. “I just have to do it.”

The MCA opened in 1991, originally funded by a grant to the University of Sydney by artist John Power, who wanted Australians to be able to see more international contemporary art. When Macgregor arrived, the university had withdrawn its annual funding, leading to a financial crisis.

Before taking up the job at Sydney, her former boss – then director of the National Portrait Gallery Sandy Nairne – had warned: “I’m training out there and it’s a snake pit. “I think he was referring to the art world,” she adds.

In Birmingham, Macgregor had had a baptism of fire with the British tabloids. Her political opponents in NSW mistaken red hair, tartan and Doc Marten boots for youthful naivety, unaware that Macgregor’s boots had steel caps.

In her signature tartan, a self-brand that began as a joke in Birmingham.  She still has a pair of Doc Martens

In her signature tartan, a self-brand that began as a joke in Birmingham. She still has a pair of Doc MartensCredit:James Brickwood.

Nevertheless, Sydney was a shock to the system: “I was shouted out a lot. I had never been shouted out, ever, ever in my entire working life until I came to Sydney,” she recalls.

“The number of visitors was down to 100,000 a year. One in the government said, ‘We have the harbor, why do we need a museum of contemporary art?’

Former Prime Minister Bob Carr gave former mayor Frank Sartor the job of saving the museum, and Sartor announced an international design competition that never went ahead with construction.

Macgregor shows me a cartoon she’s loved since then, which shows Sartor at a detonator, MCA a smoking rubble. Carr jokes, “Yes, Frank – but is it art?” She met Sartor for lunch last week and they enjoyed the joke.

The turning point in the MCA’s fortunes came in mid – 2000, when Macgregor secured Telstra sponsorship to make admission free.

Yoko Ono hosted the Sydney Biennale. “I did not sleep for a week and was worried that no one would come,” she says.

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“As soon as we opened the doors, we were packed. People were curious. I went through the galleries the first day and people talked and discussed the work of John Mawurndjul’s barking, Tracey Moffatt’s photographs and Gerhard Richter’s paintings. “

From his first day, Macgregor set out to demystify contemporary art in her easy Scottish brogue. She connected with artist circles in western Sydney. The MCA’s curators showcased Australian work and introduced the audience to Maria Fernanda Cardoso, Shaun Gladwell and Moffatt.

Eventually, she and President Simon Mordant raised $ 53 million to build a new east wing with gallery space and commercial venues from which the MCA could raise revenue and secure its future.

But her biggest challenge came from a global pandemic. “I have to admit, when COVID-19 hit, I just thought, I can not do this again. I can not pick it up again. We have to go down the gargle. The first month of COVID-19 was as bad as anything. , ”Says Macgregor.

Before COVID-19 hit, the MCA received more than one million visitors a year, half of whom were under the age of 35. Downstairs from her cozy office is the amazing solo show by American artist Doug Aitken, drawing a thin center. -uge audience.

JobKeeper saved MCA from an operating loss last year, and state aid and philanthropic support of just over $ 5 million will cover this year’s commercial revenue loss. Next year, commercial leases are to be renegotiated. Overall, public funding is on the decline, falling from 30 to 22 percent of all revenue, a commitment that is “a little on the loose side,” Macgregor says.

“We are actually expecting a deficit next year.”

The call for philanthropic donors is urgent, as interest in contemporary art crosses venues. Sydney Modern opens in a year. All of these questions await Cotter, a friend and an art historian. Macgregor is convinced that the MCA’s long – standing programs in Western Sydney and its social impact through art programs will differentiate the MCA. It has come through the pandemic without using its reserves.

MCA President Lorraine Tarabay nominates the National Center for Creative Learning, a joint acquisition program with the London Tate Gallery, and the strong representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists in MCA’s growing collection as among Macgregor’s achievements.

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A compelling fundraiser, one of Macgregor’s last acts was to secure a donation from Keith Kerridge in honor of his late wife Maureen, to fund Lindy Lee’s outdoor sculpture, Secret World of a Starlight Ember.

Macgregor plans to stay in Italy and return to live on NSW’s mid-north coast. “My big love now is conservation,” she says. “I’m a diver, so I’ve always been a fan of ocean conservation, and I’m really interested in stopping logging, chaining myself to the trees and stuff. I’m jokingly saying I should run a wombat reserve.”

The world according to Liz Ann Macgregor

Tartan: It started in Birmingham as a joke and I continued the first few years here but it’s too hot! I still use it a few times in the winter. And yes, I still have a pair of boots. Doc Martens is very comfortable.

Advice for her successor: Do not worry about the critics – they have no influence on the public!

Low light: Five years later, at the end of the first five-year financing agreement, someone in the NSW Treasury decided that now that we were stable, we did not need the grant. I had to fight the battle again, this time very out of the public eye. [And] COVID closed the museum and had to tell Lindy Lee that we had to postpone her exhibit to an unspecified date.

Highlight: When we saw the crowds start to build up as we went free and opened the new wing with the National Center for Creative Learning at the center.

What makes her angry: Inaccuracies about my role in the NSW Government’s plan to move the Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta. The original idea came out of discussions with cultural workers in western Sydney about how to tackle the significant imbalance in art funding, with over 80 per cent of the NSW government funding going to institutions in the CBD. I have always spoken out strongly in favor of greater equity for Western Sydney.

Tears or champagne? Veuve Clicquot hopefully!

What’s next: Participates in the conservation campaign to stop deforestation.

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