Those early days of taking art to the masses on the road helped form her scorn for art being elitist or expensive. It also sparked a “light-bulb” realisation: when you talk directly to artists, their work comes to life in phenomenal ways. “I used to take artists on the bus with me, so they could demystify what they did [for the public]. Art is like a game—you need to learn the rules. If you’re a new cricket spectator watching for the first time, you think: what is this game that goes five days then ends in a draw? Then you learn about cricket, the...rules, and suddenly you see the game completely differently. It’s the same with art. Some art requires you to understand the philosophy behind it and what the artist was trying to say. Then you get it.”
That’s one of the reasons the MCA is one of the biggest employers of working artists in Australia through its National Centre for Creative Learning. “Artists have a different way of looking at things—they don’t just teach creativity, they teach creatively,” says Macgregor. “We have a team of 40 to 50 artist-educators [employed as casuals] who we train to work with many different people. Liam Benson, for example, has done the Jackson Bella Room [a space within the MCA for audiences to engage with contemporary art through sensory experience] for children with special needs. Another example is Janet Laurence’s 2019 [MCA] show, which did so much to bring [awareness] to climate change. We have to try to have people outside the usual [scientists, politicians, activists] telling us what’s happening in the world. And artists have to be in this mix.”
Macgregor has also led the MCA’s deep-seated commitment to Australia’s first people and been a tireless champion for Australian artists both here and overseas. “We only buy Australian work. We show international artists, but we invest the small money we have into Australians,” says Macgregor. “We’ve developed an incredible partnership with the Tate [Modern, in London] over the past three years, thanks to Qantas, to co-acquire work. Now you see Australian artists in the hang there like [the late] Gordon Bennett—a fabulous Indigenous artist, one of our greatest—Vernon Ah Kee, Susan Norrie and Juan Davila.” Other young Aussies making waves include installation artist Nell, whose wife is celebrity chef Kylie Kwong. “She’s doing really, really well,” says Macgregor of the popular single-monikered creative. Likewise, Shaun Gladwell. “He was in Primavera [the MCA’s annual exhibition showcasing emerging artists under 35], then we gave him a big show where the director of MoMA [Museum of Modern Art, New York] saw one of his videos.” Gladwell’s work was secured for MoMA as a result. “In this year’s Primavera we had two brilliant young Indigenous artists from Maningrida in the Northern Territory: Rosina Gunjarrwanga and Kenan Namunjdja. They are our next generation of bark artists.”
Still, it’s not always been easy for Macgregor to work her magic. “The biggest frustration at work for me, certainly in the beginning, was what I call the double whammy: being a woman and being in the arts,” she says. “We have to deal with the misogynist elements in politics and in business…I once had a woman take me aside and say, ‘Now, when you’re dealing with X, Y, Z politicians, why don’t you try a different strategy’ [suggesting Macgregor use feminine wiles for a better outcome]. I was horrified.”
Despite all the fanfare, it’s the quiet pinch-me moments she’s experienced in the past 20 years that have paid off. “When people tell me stories about their child who’s autistic, or teenager who doesn’t have any friends because they have a disability, who comes to the learning centre and feels like they’re part of the MCA family…those are the moments that matter,” she says. “We have a program for people with Alzheimer’s and their carers, showing what art can do for them, and how it helps them feel better in the world when they’re losing their memory. We run a program with the refugee kids and Syrian families, who come here and learn what it means to be Australian through art. That’s the great thing about art: it can make people feel part of society. It can make them feel empowered and confident. It’s not just a nice thing that people who’ve got money or spare time can enjoy on a Sunday. I really believe that art can change lives—and that means difficult art, art that makes people think, not just nice pretty landscapes. It’s fundamental to who we are as human beings and who we’re going to be going forward. That’s what I saw very simply on that bus in Scotland all those years ago.”
Elizabeth Ann Macgregor has been an InStyle and Audi Women of Style Awards judge for more than 10 years.