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The MCA is in many ways the gateway to Australia, situated on the edge of the harbour at Circular Quay, a site with huge historical significance as the location of the first contact between the settlers of 1788 and the Aboriginal population.
The person credited with the extraordinary turnaround of the MCA, and with the boundary-pushing, the institution has continued to do since is Director Liz Ann Macgregor OBE. She talked to us about the reputation of Sydney as a flourishing home for arts and culture and the importance of this in the context of our city’s future.
The MCA has a simple remit – to engage a broad audience with the incredible work of contemporary Australian and international artists. The last 20 years have seen a major expansion of the museum’s audience, from under 100,000 visitors a year to over 1.1m today, through a range of initiatives and evolutions, big and small.
I think the best way to describe the approach we have taken is that we don’t shy away from presenting difficult work but we make sure that the visitor experience is engaging. Indeed one of our mantras is that we make challenging art accessible. We are an avenue for people to experience contemporary art and ideas. Exhibitions are key to the Museum’s reputation but the success of the museum goes beyond the galleries. The whole visitor experience matters: the building with its stunning location and views, the café and shop, the creative learning programs, our welcoming hosts who can talk about the work, our online resources including artist interviews – these all contribute to making the MCA accessible and engaging for people from all backgrounds. It’s always been a personal priority of mine to break down prejudices not just about the arts, but also around the type of people who can ‘appreciate’ art. Art should not be exclusive or only accessible to a few and so it’s important to create a welcome, open and inclusive atmosphere.
Before I took the position in Sydney, I was warned that it would be a struggle to get people’s attention focused on contemporary art and away from an obsession with real estate and the beauty of the harbour! But I’ve always felt that Sydney people are welcoming, open and curious – outward looking and interested in art. Of course, they go to the beach. Of course, they love the outdoor life. Why wouldn’t you? But there is also this desire to engage with art and ideas and our visitor numbers speak for themselves.
The arts scene in Sydney is dispersed, which is a defining and important characteristic. We do have major institutions in the CBD, but away from the harbour there is Carriageworks, White Rabbit in Chippendale and in the west a network of important galleries including Campbelltown, Blacktown and Penrith Regional Galleries. We have great infrastructure and innovative programming across the whole city.
I think this diversity has fostered greater collaboration between arts institutions. And collaboration rather than competition is crucial if Sydney is going to be the preeminent city of the arts – this can only be achieved together. We can build on what we already do well, for example the MCA is a key partner of the internationally significant Biennale of Sydney and we also work closely with the Art Gallery of NSW and Destination NSW on the Sydney International Art Series over summer. Recently we started a new joint initiative with Carriageworks and the Art Gallery – the National is a biennial survey of Australian art presented across all three venues. We do so much more by working together.
Something that has really differentiated us has been our long term commitment to working with cultural partners and artists in Western Sydney and regional NSW. C3West is one of the MCA’s key programs, predicated on the belief that artists can bring unique value to situations beyond the gallery context.
Our program in Western Sydney began with Penrith Panthers in 2004 and we have had many amazing partnerships since in Penrith, Liverpool, Goulburn, Blacktown and Hurstville. For example, Transforma in 2014, a partnership with Campbelltown Arts Centre was a seven-week residency by New Zealand-based artist Michel Tuffery. Located in Airds in South Western Sydney, it aimed to raise local awareness of the links between river health and behaviours such as arson, dumping and littering. To our knowledge, no further illegal dumping of cars in the river has happened since that project. Art can change lives!
Like any cultural institution, our biggest challenge is funding – we are so ambitious in what we want to do, and simply don’t have enough core funding. We are lucky to have attracted significant philanthropic support and we work closely with corporate partners. Businesses are starting to understand the importance of arts and culture in contributing to wellness in a holistic sense. We see an opportunity in developing the MCA as a place where companies can offer their workers wellbeing programs, a place to come to revive and refresh thinking. We have offered yoga on the terrace here and are working on ideas around creativity.
We believe that the museum can play a role in fostering the skills that will be needed in the workplace of the future (good judgement, ethics, empathy, creativity – all things that artists do. Art is play, but it’s play with a purpose, which is about unleashing creativity and encouraging you to think differently. In our National Centre for Creative Learning, working with our amazing team of artist educators, you can learn about the process of taking an idea and realising it into a physical object. At the MCA we understand that process can be just as important as the end result. I think the business sector recognises that having a thriving arts and culture community is vital to a city. For Sydney to be a sophisticated city, a leader in the region, it needs the range of arts activities, from the more traditional art-forms like opera to the more innovative. A great city needs the whole ecosystem to be truly international and to attract the talent that we need to compete.
The best way that business can help develop the arts community is by being a little less conservative in what and how they support. Corporate sponsorship is so valued, and it could be even better if companies would commit to developing longer term relationships that can evolve over time, going beyond the transactional to achieve results that are mutually beneficial.
Politically, there has been an emphasis on funding for arts infrastructure, which is much needed. But there is a strong demand for investment in programs. Funding for the arts is often positioned as an ‘either/or’. Would you like funding for health, transport, education, or for the arts. Obviously the arts comes last in that context. But if we ask ourselves “Do we want Australian children to be creative?” then the answer and funding balance will be very different. We need to give our children the skills of the future and creativity is very much part of that.
For the Sydney community, I would challenge everyone to ‘take it one step further’. If you are already coming to the museum, take part in something, find out about the creative process, meet an artist – join a members program and get behind the scenes, go online, contribute to the dialogue. Take the experience you’re having and see how you can engage further and more deeply with us. I can guarantee it will be worth it.
Deloitte’s ImagineSydney series sets out to contribute to the conversation around how we can create smart, flourishing and productive communities through exploring strategies that will drive economic and social development in Sydney. Our third Edition, ImagineSydney:Play is available now.
This article was also authored by Louise Kelly.
Niki Alcorn is the Office Managing Partner for Sydney. She is a Technology, Media and Telecommunications specialist and a Strategy Partner in the Consulting team. Niki has over 12 years of experience in corporate and business unit strategy, digital strategy and business transformation projects, working with many leading Australian organisations within TMT and more broadly.