Ms Elizabeth Ann Macgregor OBE
About the speaker
Our speaker today is Ms Elizabeth Ann Macgregor OBE.
Elizabeth is the Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art. She has held this position since 1999, and has transformed the museum into a thriving public gallery with a solid financial foundation and dramatically increased patronage.
Elizabeth began her career as curator and driver for the Scottish Arts Council’s travelling gallery. She worked at the Arts Council of Great Britain, when she was appointed Director of the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham.
She has received numerous awards for her contribution to the visual arts and has been recognised with an Order of the British Empire in the Queen’s 2011 birthday honour list; the Australia Council Visual Arts Medal; the IMAGINE Museums and Galleries NSW Individual Achievement Award, and was named by the Australian Financial Review as one of Australia’s top 100 Women of Influence.
Elizabeth is member on the Advisory Board of the UTS Business School and on the Design Advisory Panel of the City of Sydney. She holds a Master of Arts in History of Arts Honours from the University of Edinburgh.
It gives me great pleasure to invite Ms Elizabeth Ann Macgregor to deliver the occasional address.
I’d like to begin by acknowledging the Presiding Chancellor Professor Vicki Sara, Presiding Vice Chancellor Professor Peter Booth, Presiding Dean Professor Mary Spongberg, UTS Staff, distinguished guest, graduates, family and friends.
I would also like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land and waters we meet upon, the Gadigal and Guring-gai people of the Eora nation.
When I was preparing these remarks to you today I thought back to my own graduation day in Edinburgh – a very long time ago...
And of course how much has the world changed! The impact of technology has been phenomenal and is accelerating. I remember when I arrived at the MCA in 1999, the museum had only just got email and a PowerPoint was something you put a plug into!
However despite this amazing change in the way we live our lives, I think the challenges you face today are very similar to those that all graduating students face. Some of you will know exactly what you want to do with your lives - and you may be right and some of you will still be hesitant.
So I thought I’d share with you a bit of my story.
When I was in my final years at school I had a great passion for music. I thought that I’d rather like to go to music school. Then one day I was called in to see the maths teacher who told me in no uncertain terms that he thought studying music would be a shocking waste of a good brain and that he had high hopes for me in the field of mathematics!
That did get me thinking about what I would actually do if I studied music... and I realised he was right.
I went to university – not to study maths though to study languages... but I had to take another subject. I flicked through the syllabus and quite by chance I discovered art history. And signed up on the basis that it looked interesting, the lectures didn’t start too early in the morning. This was a major turning point – I loved it!
4 years of studying the glories of Byzantine and Renaissance art, I still had no idea what to do... at the end of my degree I went through the usual career counselling and someone suggested that I apply for an internship at the prestigious Warbug Institute in London... as an art librarian. Well Suffice to say I went to London for the interview and as soon as I walked in the door I knew it was all wrong. I didn’t want to spend my life in the hallowed chambers of an elite institution.
So I did what all students do when they don’t know what to do next and applied for a post grad – in museum studies. Thinking that I quite liked the idea of working in a museum..
Well this course which was very much about researching and displaying objects rather than interacting with an audience, and at the end of it, I decided I didn’t want to work in that kind of museum.
Then luck intervened.
On the very day I graduated, someone sent me an advert in a Scottish newspaper for the Curator Driver of the Scottish Arts Council’s Travelling Gallery. Perfect for you they said… Now I have to admit that at this point I knew nothing about contemporary art and very little about Scottish Art…. So I had to do a crash course in both in the couple of days prior to the interview. The job was to involve organising and taking exhibitions on board a specially converted bus taking exhibitions all around Scotland and – yes, I probably am the only curator with a heavy goods vehicle license.
This bus took exhibitions around Scotland to many different places, both to the remoter areas and, in the inner cities, to housing estates, reaching people who have little opportunity or indeed inclination to go to art galleries.
This experience enforced my commitment to the possibilities of engaging audiences with the art of today. Being a bus-driving curator was rather a unique experience. Not only did I organise the exhibitions, I then had to spend time on the bus talking to the public I was in the unique position of being able to observe for myself just how the visitors responded to what I'd put on display. Arriving in town in a large green and red bus and flinging open the door first of all encouraged everyone to come and see what on earth was going on, if only out of curiosity.
Looking back on it I still can’t quite believe that I got a job that I really was not qualified for! Sometime later I asked my boss what had spurred them to back me. He laughed and told me that my passion for taking art to the audience had shone through and more than made up for my lack of experience. You can learn the ropes he said but enthusiasm and passion come from the heart.
So there it is - that word passion. I’m sure many people will be saying to you – find your ‘passion’. Yes it is terrific to find a passion in your work. There is a wonderful book by renowned education professor Ken Robinson called How Finding your passion solves everything. Which is actually a critique of the way in which creativity is not taken seriously in our exam results focused schools. I feel very lucky. I never looked back from that beginning and taking art to audiences has indeed been my lifelong passion. But don’t despair if you don’t feel that you have found yours because it may not be in that first job that you take. And you find it outside of your chosen career…
I went on from my days as a bus driver to spend some time working in the arts funding system, but again helping galleries to set up contemporary programs that engaged new audiences. In 1989 I got to run the show for myself for the first time when I was appointed director of a gallery in Birmingham. A scary prospect. Not Birmingham but managing a staff of 20!
I spent ten years there before taking the plunge and moving to the other side of the world to take on the MCA, which at that time was undergoing a lot of difficulties - mainly financial. Because of course wonderful as it sounds – taking art to audiences and being a museum director means having strategic management and financial skills as well as curatorial. Passion only takes you so far!
Finding your path in life needs lots of things - it needs persistence (another often mentioned word) but it may also need patience. You may need to try out a few things out before you find one that fits… one that feel right for you. And don’t be afraid to walk away if it’s not working. This is probably the time in your life when you can do that – before you have other responsibilities. I am full of admiration for my brother who spent 7 years doing a medical degree only to finally admit that he loathed the idea of being a doctor. He is now a very fine Primary Head teacher working in a tough inner city school in Scotland.
One of my proudest moments of my career when was when we welcomed our one millionth visitor to the MCA less than a year after we re-opened in 2012. Like Ken Robinson, I am a great believer in the importance of creativity to our society. When I began driving the bus I not only found my passion I found a mission! My vision now is even bigger than it was when I drove the bus!! I think that we can reshape society if we begin to put creatively at its heart. My bus driving days also connected me with the wider community and this is my final message to you today, all of you having been exposed to the teaching of this great university - a university which prides itself on being entrepreneurial, innovative and performance-oriented. So as you go out today, think about how you can contribute, by not only finding your passion but by engaging in your community wherever that might be. I wish you all the very best.