What’s it Like to Run the MCA?

Take five with Sydney Museum of Contemporary Art director Elizabeth Ann Macgregor.
May 25, 2017, 4:28am

Elizabeth Ann Macgregor has one of the most enviable art careers in Australia or the world. She's the director of Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art, otherwise known as mecca for anyone interested in local and international artists who are making work right now. It's the real deal—not a Frederick McCubbin in sight.

Macgregor is an expert and a legend. Since joining the MCA in 1999, she has completely rejuvenated and transformed the once-ailing gallery and introduced free entry to patrons. Last year, she was invited to apply for a director position at the Tate, but turned it down to stay close to Australian art.


It's no surprise Macgregor was asked to speak at this year's Semi Permanent. Ahead of her appearance at the festival, we shot her some quick questions about life at the MCA.

Creators: What drew you to a career in the art world?
Macgregor: Having studied art history, I was fortunate to meet a group of artists when I left university knowing nothing about art post 1910! They introduced me to a whole new way of looking at the world and when I got my first job driving a Travelling Gallery around Scotland, I knew I had found my passion—introducing audiences to this exciting world of contemporary art.

What have been your MCA career highlights so far?
I have been so fortunate to work with many wonderful artists—personally curating shows by Tracey Moffatt, Maria Fernanda Cardoso and Anish Kapoor. But as Director, with so much else to do, I don't get too many opportunities! Other highlights were the opening of the Mordant wing which includes the National Centre for Creative Learning which has allowed us to make an impact beyond our exhibition program, giving access to creativity to people of all ages and from all sectors of the community.

What's good about working at a major contemporary gallery as opposed to state art gallery?
We focus entirely on working with living artists. We also employ artists as educators, as hosts to greet and engage visitors and to install exhibitions. This gives the MCA a very special vibe.


You turned down an opportunity at the Tate to stay on at the MCA. Do you ever feel the pull to take your skills overseas?
Well I didn't turn it down, but I was encouraged to throw my hat in the ring [and didn't], which was very flattering. In the end though, I love that I am still very engaged in the curatorial, creative learning and public engagement programs from a planning perspective. The bigger the institution, the further away from the art you get! Looking around the world at the various contexts that art museums are now operating in, Australia looks pretty good, if challenging nonetheless. I have recently been voted President of CIMAM, the international professional organisation for museums of modern and contemporary art, and it's fascinating to meet with colleagues from around the world to discuss issues of common interest at our annual conference. I am lucky to be able to travel to international art events such as the Venice Biennale, but Sydney is home now.

What excites you about the year ahead for the MCA—any hot tips?
I'm very excited about this year's Primavera, our annual show for young Australian artists curated by the dynamic director of Parramatta Artists Studios Sophia Kouyoumdjian, and we will end the year on a high with the incomparable Pipilotti Rist, who took the New York art world by storm earlier this year. Her name may not be so well known but I guarantee it will be the hit of the summer!

Semi Permanent is happening May 25 - 27 at Carriageworks Sydney. VICE and Creators are partnering once more with the festival in 2017—absorb the full program and buy tickets here .

Related: The Third Indigenous Art Triennial is Powerful and Political How Do Australian Art School Grads Feel About the Future? Tracey Moffatt's Venice Biennale Show Tackles Global Issues with Personal Stories