Jul 23 2013

Digital Technology Opens Doors at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art

by Michael Young

Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, 2013. Courtesy MCA

Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, director of Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia (MCA), has put in place a new management team in what she described to ArtAsiaPacific in May as a “radical restructure of personnel,” in order to support the museum’s move toward digital technology and e-publications and to promote the MCA as a destination for visitors.

The current heads of artistic programs and marketing are leaving the gallery, and four new assistant director positions will be created to take charge of the regular museum departments, and also manage the gallery’s digital content.

“We want to be the hub for people wanting to know more about contemporary art,” Macgregor said. Under the new team, the MCA will become a 24-hour virtual gallery, something Macgregor sees as critical for the museum’s future. The old leadership structure of the museum had not changed since she took the reins 13 years ago, and she now feels that rapid developments in digital technology require a rethink of how things are done.

“The digital age offers different ways of engaging with people and gives us a fabulous opportunity to deepen relationships with audiences,” Macgregor said.

While digital technology and its use to disseminate information will figure crucially in the MCA’s future, they will not compromise the gallery’s core role and purpose, which remains to engage with art. “We will continue to position ourselves as a museum which has artists at its core; everything we do is driven by artists. That remains our territory,” Macgregor emphasized.

She cites the recent MCA e-publication, Anish Kapoor’s “living catalogue,” as a strong application of digital technology. The catalogue is unashamedly interactive and was published in three editions over the run of the exhibition. As well as containing essays and photographs, the book also included videos, curator and artist interviews, and allowed for audience interaction, which was incorporated into the final edition.

The inclusion of this information in the catalogue, which was available to download for free, brought the exhibition to life, Macgregor says. “Anish wanted a very pure space within the gallery with limited information on the walls but didn’t want to lose that wow factor when standing in the space. It is not enough now just to put art on the walls; curators spend a lot of time in artists’ studios, which informs their decisions and judgments about works of art. Why should we deny that information to the public? Digital content allows us to tell the stories behind the exhibitions.”

Macgregor sees a holistic approach to art gallery management as a way to reduce reliance on blockbuster exhibitions. It is a view she shares with the director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Michael Brand, who has also recently introduced major changes as he struggles with the reduction of the gallery’s government-funded annual budget. Macgregor and Brand are positioning their respective institutions to complement one another rather than to be seen as rivals in order to meet these challenges. Sustainability will also entail meeting the expectations of the digital community, realigning existing systems to reflect the different ways audiences want to engage with art.

While the MCA’s future therefore remains firmly predicated on digital technology, Macgregor herself is the first to admit there are some aspects of technology she doesn’t like. She doesn’t use Twitter, for example, but, as our conversation comes to she reveals her love of Instagram, which fits well with her philosophy of revealing life behind the scenes at the MCA.  “I can take a picture and if it is any good send it out immediately. This gives people a real glimpse behind closed doors.”