9 August 1999

Where the art lies in the challenge

BURNING QUESTION: Why can't Sydney support a contemporary art museum? 

SYDNEY'S declining reputation as a favourable environment for contemporary art, lagging behind not only that of Melbourne but increasingly Brisbane and Perth, is clearly illustrated by the Museum of Contemporary Art's near-death experience.

On Friday, Premier Bob Carr finally came to the party, announcing a $750,000 bail-out which will see the MCA clear to the turn of the millennium. And Sydney University, the MCA's parent body, has deferred a $600,000 debt.

The 11th-hour reprieve had much to do with incoming director Elizabeth Macgregor. But as usual, the politics of arts funding always comes with strings attached.

Describing Macgregor as "energetic" and "renowned for popularising contemporary art", Carr also set out the criteria by which his Government will judge her tenure at the museum: "Her task will be to attract new audiences to contemporary art in Sydney."

Macgregor, a Scottish arts administrator who starts next month, inherits an organisation characterised as an economic basket case and a cultural failure.

Born out of private bequest and public sector largesse, the MCA has always laboured under the unreal expectation that it could pay its own way as a self-funding commercial enterprise.

Its job should have been to develop a balanced program which would bring the true diversity of Australian contemporary art to a wider public, but instead of developing a grass-roots support base it was out chasing corporate dollars or seeking to entice social-climbing yuppies with free champagne.

Meanwhile, back at Sydney Cove, the most congested public precinct in the nation, the general public preferred the free views of the Opera House to the MCA's $9 admission fee.

Of course, there's a popular view that the problem is simply contemporary art itself. Making art isn't illegal yet, but you'd be forgiven for thinking that our artists stand guilty of crimes against culture, such is the dismissive vitriol heaped by conservative critics over the years.

Controversy-seeking philistines will always be ready to peddle the view that contemporary art is a sick joke pulled at the public's expense by a crew of talentless, shameless shysters.

There's no denying it can be mighty puzzling if you turn up expecting pretty pictures and are confronted with a room full of bored half-naked women, or a 30m puppy made out of shrubs. But challenging our expectations is what the best art has always done.

Sydney can support a museum of contemporary art, but it needs more champions of the art itself; more critics who actually like and understand contemporary art, and are able to convey their passion and insight to the rest of us.

Meanwhile, Macgregor is being hyped as the art-world equivalent of Police Commissioner Peter Ryan. But it beggars belief that an Australian with local knowledge, a passion for art and a talent for business could not be found.

We can host an Olympics but we can't run our own art galleries.

MICHAEL HUTAK (editor of Australian Art Collector Magazine)

Date: 08/08/1999

Words: 535
Publication: Sun Herald
Section: News
Page: 46

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