Retiring after 22 years at the helm of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Liz Ann Macgregor still inspires mixed feelings. She arrived in 1999 in a burst of Scottish exotica, a veritable blur of tartan, and says she is now returning from whence she came.
Possibly Macgregor’s most notable achievement was to steer the institution through a very rocky patch when it was on the verge of bankruptcy. This happened shortly after she took over the directorship from Bernice Murphy and Leon Paroissien. It might be argued that by this stage the MCA had already become an established part of Sydney’s cultural infrastructure and was too big to be allowed to fail. Nevertheless, it was under Macgregor’s stewardship that a deal was done with the state government that secured the museum’s future.
She had less success with former Lord Mayor, Frank Sartor, who stymied a multi-million dollar plan for a new building. However, she bounced back and managed to engineer a major refit that opened in 2012. Sam Marshall’s design has been unkindly compared to Rubik’s Cube, but it did open up more extensive spaces in a heritage building that was never a comfortable fit as a venue for contemporary art.
These nuts & bolts matters are not especially glamorous, but they are immensely important in the life of a public gallery. Any director will spend most of his or her time dealing with matters of adminstration, courting private and corporate sponsors, and maintaining good relations with the government of the day. The latter requirement may be the reason the MCA has kept boasting about attendance numbers in the millions. I’m not at all sure how these figures are calculated but they have an air of pure fantasy.
When it came to exhibitions Macgregor demonstrated an evangelical enthusiasm for everything shown at the MCA. This may sound like an admirable trait in a director but it’s also a bit unrealistic. Nobody running a public or private gallery genuinely believes that everything they show is magnificent and beyond criticism. Some shows do not work out as expected, some are obligations rather than pleasures. But with Macgregor her belief in every single MCA project was absolute. Or so it seemed.
Obliged to review many of these shows over the past 20 years I’ve been more equivocal. Quite a few have been disappointments for one reason or another, but there have also been notable triumphs. In recent times the MCA has held a series of important surveys by artists such as Pipilotti Rist, Sun Xun, David Goldblatt, and John Mawurndjul. The Goldblatt, which didn’t draw big numbers, was the greatest show ever devoted to the late South African photographer. Mawurndjul broke new ground in the sympathetic use of indigenous language for the labels and catalogue, and the arrangement of works according sacred sites rather than simple chronology.
Macgregor’s swansong was a retrospective by Lindy Lee for which she acted as curator. The exhibition showed the artist to her best advantage and has proved resoundingly popular.
For a woman who professes solidarity with the regions and the western suburbs, and talks fondly about her time spent driving an art bus around the hamlets of Scotland, it was a peculiar move when Macgregor associated herself so closely with former Premier, Mike Baird. As the Premier’s special advisor on the arts Macgregor stood on an election platform with Baird and championed the idea of moving a major cultural institution to the west.
The Powerhouse got nominated, with apparently no consideration of the museum’s historic mission or its unique – and gargantuan – collection. This has led to an endless wrangle between a secretive government and the museum’s dedicated supporters. Macgregor has sought to downplay her part in this debacle, which reveals an amazing lack of collegial spirit, but she will never be forgiven by those activists who are still fighting on behalf of the Powerhouse.
Those who know Liz Ann well say she is a passionate person, but during her two decades in Sydney those passions have been directed towards widely differing ends. As she steps down on her own terms it’s only fair that any final overview of her legacy should accentuate the positives.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 5 March, 2021