At work with artists & audiences

Jacqueline Millner talks with the MCA’s Elizabeth Ann Macgregor

Elizabeth Ann Macgregor

Elizabeth Ann Macgregor

Elizabeth Ann Macgregor

Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) since 1999, and previously director of Ikon Gallery in Birmingham for 10 years, Elizabeth Ann Macgregor says she came to contemporary art ‘by accident.’ Majoring in languages at university, she took art history as an ‘outside subject’ and quickly fell in love with it. Yet her focus was traditional art history, with its attendant disdain for the contemporary. After a stint as a volunteer in public programs at the National Gallery of Scotland and a Diploma in Museum Studies, she began developing a passion for facilitating audience engagement with museum collections. That passion grew during the first job that brought her in contact with contemporary art—curator/driver of a gallery housed in a converted bus that toured regional Scotland. Macgregor learnt on the job about contemporary art and the conceptual side of curating, while also handling every other aspect of running a gallery. But it was her experiences with the general public, who were far more open to ideas than she had suspected, and with artists, who awakened her to an entirely different perspective on the world, that cemented her desire to work with contemporary art.

Access and understanding

Where do you think that passion for access, for audience development comes from?

Because I didn’t come at contemporary art from an academic route, I built up my understanding and enthusiasm by direct contact with artists. I’ve always felt myself, even now, as a bit of an outsider. I haven’t studied contemporary art as a discipline. Because I come at it from that outside perspective—and because I’ve had to justify my professional interests to my family, in particular my father who used to tease me, as in ‘Is that the air-conditioning unit or the artwork?”—I learned how to explain art to outsiders. My family was always quite questioning, philosophically, so that tradition of wanting people to think for themselves also played a role. I’ve always seen art as a very useful tool for developing discussion and dissent. If people have the skills to discuss and debate aesthetic issues, that can flow into everything.

And meetings with artists fed into my preoccupation: how to make manifest, as a curator, all that information that you have? The orthodoxy has often been that the art speaks for itself, but I think that’s nonsense. Curators don’t just choose exhibitions on the basis of looking at the work, but rather on the dialogue they have with the artists, which informs the curator’s critical decisions and selection processes. We expect the public to come in without any of the benefits of those clues. So without saying we should be putting up interpretations, what we should be doing is giving the audience some of the insight that we as curators have had.

Sometimes that sense of befuddlement and wonderment can be a positive experience…

If you’re used to it, but if you’re not…! You can be very intimidated. But if someone can provide you with some idea, you start to engage with it. I think the best way of providing that information is to have people talking about the work—both artists and critics. We’ve just started a DVD project called The Artist’s Voice, where we’re getting the artist into the institution ‘unmediated’ as a talking head. The first program is currently in the Level 4 collection.

But that emphasis on access was also hugely important when I came into the director’s position in 1999. I realised that a concerted vituperative attack on contemporary art had dominated the agenda in the major media outlets. And because people were not coming to the museum—because of the door charge, because it was perceived to be in a spiral of decline—critics were able to highjack the agenda. I felt immediately that I had to counter the main message, to demonstrate the breadth and diversity of contemporary art. Although now there isn’t one orthodoxy: contemporary art itself has moved on, there’s more acceptance of different approaches.

To what do you attribute that?

In the UK, for example, the influence of artists such as Damien Hirst was quite profound. He took things out of the normal sector, created media interest and eventually attracted wide audiences. I couldn’t believe how many people came to the Tate the year I judged the Turner Prize and Damien won it! In other words, there was a complete disjuncture between the reality on the ground and the media representation of popular opinion of contemporary art. Who would have thought that Britain, of all places, would now have a contemporary art gallery as one of its biggest tourist attractions? People now rush to be associated with contemporary art.

Sensation and success

Do you think there’s any down side to that popularity?

Absolutely. There’s a problem with the rise of the sensational. I’m very wary of doing things just because they’re sensational. For example, when the National Gallery of Australia cancelled Sensation [the controversial exhibition of young British artists from the Saatchi collection] there was pressure for us to take it. But why should we? First, the MCA had already done a very good show on British contemporary. Second, the show was not really that sensational, it was just being portrayed that way by a particular media spin. I didn’t think we should take it just because it would get a lot of sightseers coming through: what would that really mean in the end? We want to develop a long term engagement with our audience. If you have to keep providing sensation, you are likely either to oversell—and disappoint the audience—or to run out of possibilities. I call it the Lego syndrome, after a gallery in Bradford UK that put on a show with artists doing Lego sculptures that was HUGE! From then on the poor gallery staff spent the whole time explaining to their councillors that they couldn’t do another Lego show, or thinking up ideas of what would be as popular. We all have our benchmarks of attendance for the MCA—it’s exhibitions by Tracey Moffatt and Wim Wenders. But I think these are easy to replicate, whereas if you go too far out of your patch, how do you ever replicate it?

What about the argument that sensationalism creates a particular kind of audience experience that is different in kind to what you hope to encourage as a response to art?

I have changed my position on this somehow since my purist stance in Birmingham. I do think you have to give the audience some kind of visual buzz, although you can’t apply it to everything. Now we think very much about the importance of the visual—it has become more of a mantra, because of the way that conceptual art did eventually disappear up itself—but not as a sensational experience. People expect a more fulfilling experience from the museum. The other thing is that people used to complain there wasn’t enough in the MCA, particularly when there was an entrance fee. What people can do now with free entry is to sample, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I have been accused by certain quarters of the art world of pandering to the suits. What’s wrong with people wearing suits coming in at lunchtime, I ask myself?

Directing, curating, listening

Can you describe how the curatorial program is put together, and how hands on you are?

I’m very hands on! [Laughs] I’m a curator, occasionally they let me do projects! No, I have always been a director, never solely a curator. I was director of Ikon, and because it was a much smaller gallery, I did about half the curating. But now my input would be more like 80/20-80% directing, fundraising etc, and 20% artistic and curatorial. I think it’s incredibly important that the artistic side drives it. If I’m out trying to raise funds for the museum, I need to be able to talk about the program from an informed perspective, not just from having attended a briefing by the curators. That way, you can convey knowledge and enthusiasm about the program, and when you get thrown the curly questions—such as ‘Tell us about that pile of bricks at the Tate’—you can answer them. We have a very collaborative process here that involves the curatorial team, head of marketing and head of education. We also pay a lot of attention to what our front of house staff say. I’ve really tried to foster that sense of openness, about listening to criticism.

In developing the program, marketing might remind us of the need to include a few big names, or of striking a chord outside the art world. We are also mindful of giving the curators opportunity to do projects they want to do, as well as bringing input from outside at times, as with Primavera. We also try to respond to the reality of what artists are currently engaging with. We set up artist and Indigenous advisory groups, where we have robust discussion about what we should be doing. These groups comprise 7-8 members from around Australia, and meet 4 times a year, chaired by a board member.

The exhibition Meridien 3 years ago came out of discussions with the first artists’ advisory group, where there was a feeling that mid to late career Australian artists were under-represented in the program. Artists also give us feedback, and a sense of what’s being said out there, the mumblings in the corner. It’s a good forum for us to be held to account for our decisions. At the same time, these meetings are an opportunity for artists to learn about the processes of mounting exhibitions and running a museum—it isn’t that easy—and for artists to acknowledge that they form only one part of the MCA audience.

There are no rules, no criteria as such in putting the program together. It’s ultimately about what we judge to be the most interesting work at this moment in time.

What do you think are some of the key debates at the moment for artists?

I think Russell [Storer] tapped into a very interesting thought in Interesting Times: artists are thinking very carefully about how to make work in a climate where so many of their values appear to have been forsaken. The impact of Tampa, and the refugee crisis: even if artists are not political as such, they are wondering, how do we respond to it? Do we take to the streets, or make work about it? There are aesthetic issues as well. There are always discussions going on about the ‘return of painting.’ Where did it go? That’s my question. Another key debate is about the physical longevity of video and DVD art. Tapes from the 70s are already deteriorating. How to preserve this work is a big issue. The whole new media area is another talking point.

Uniquely MCA

Where do you position the MCA relative to national and international institutions, and what museums do you look to as models?

The MCA is unique. We are the only institution in Australia that is dedicated exclusively to the exhibiting and collecting of contemporary art. Because of that unique focus, the experience of contemporary art is different at the MCA—it’s holistic, you’re immersed in it, as opposed to the state galleries where your experience of contemporary art is necessarily framed by the historical. And now with the extension of Level 4 to show the permanent collection, it gives the experience another dimension.

We draw inspiration from international museums. The MCA has always seen itself up there with MoMA and the Guggenheim: I’ve always been amazed at how Bernice and Leon [Murphy and Paroissien, founding directors of the MCA] were able to position it way above its actual reality. While we have good relations with the Tate and MoMA, that’s not really where we are positioned. In reality, our peer group comprises the likes of Hammer in LA, the New Museum in New York, MCA Chicago; MCA Kanazawa and Mori Museum in Japan; and the Whitechapel and Serpentine in London. We’re also trying to build up links in other parts of the world, such as South America.

Who are some of the artists who inspire you?

I did two shows recently that I’m very proud of. One is Maria Fernanda Cardoso (RT55, p10): I love the way she takes those natural materials and infuses them with another narrative. Her work has that strong sensual and visual quality that I respond to very well. The other is Mona Hatoum (RT66, p10), whom I’ve known for a long time: I was alarmed to think, when looking at the dates of some of her performances, that I was actually there! Her early works were so visceral and angry and political, yet she’s adapted her new work to a different kind of politics, while maintaining the sensual, the visceral within it. And I have also always been a big fan of painting. I was personally thrilled to pull off the Brigid Riley show. And I’m a huge admirer of Callum Innes and Ellen Gallagher.

What are your ambitions and future plans for yourself and the MCA?

Well, I never plan, so for myself I’ve got a contract for another five years. As for the MCA, the big challenges are to build the collection; to keep the program quality up; and to develop some innovative projects outside our physical confines, with other institutions such as Penrith Regional Gallery and Casula Powerhouse, and outside the building. And we need to fix the building: access is shocking; it’s working against everything we want to do. And it can be done without knocking down the building and starting again!

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 50,

© Jacqueline Millner; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2005