Despite 20 years as director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, there are times this leader still feels “terrified”.
Current role: Director, Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia
Previous roles: Director, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, England; arts officer, Arts Council of Great Britain; curator and driver, Travelling Gallery, Scottish Arts Council
How do you define good leadership?
A clear vision and an ability to communicate both internally and externally. The more I’ve advanced in my career, the more I’ve realised how much you get back from the time you invest in your staff.
Do you think some people brush over that?
Leaders often get to their office and shut the door. But leadership is about being lateral more than hierarchical.
Do you surround yourself with those who will challenge you?
You’ve got to have different viewpoints around the table. In the arts, people challenge you because that’s just who we are. There’s always lively debate within my field and I revel in that.
Can people push you too far?
Absolutely. I’ve had to learn to listen and to not jump in and immediately contradict [laughs]. I move very fast and I have a tendency to go, “Right, this is the path; let’s go down it.”
What are the biggest challenges facing the arts right now?
I’m going to turn that around: I think there are great opportunities in the arts right now because of societal changes, the changing world of jobs and the impact of artificial intelligence. All these things are beginning to affect people’s lives and I think that’s where creativity can play a big role. Encounters with artworks can be transformative. Also, artists can teach us how to have empathy, which will be a major skill in the future because that’s the kind of thing robots can’t do.
You raise more than 75 per cent of the gallery’s funds annually through corporate and philanthropic support so clearly you’re very good at getting lots of money out of people...
Yes, well, it’s not the thing that gets me out of bed in the morning, I have to say. How we talk to philanthropists and sponsors is critical but so is how we think about keying into what they’re interested in, how we make them feel connected and how we trigger nice warm feelings towards us that will actually unlock the potential for funding.
How did you learn that skill?
On the job. You can go to any number of fundraising courses and they can tell you all the techniques – such as you have to “touch people” 20 times before you get the big gift – but ultimately it’s about building relationships with people and understanding what makes them tick.
Are the conversations you have with government similar?
They’re nuanced. Philanthropists are interested in making an impact and then there are those people who just love art for art’s sake. With government, it’s more about public impact. It’s not just about numbers through the door anymore; it’s about who those people are, how diverse they are and how we’re connecting with people on different levels. It’s a spectrum.
What’s your view on the rate of philanthropy in Australia, particularly corporate philanthropy?
Individual philanthropy is growing exponentially but corporate philanthropy doesn’t really exist. Corporates are much more about transactional exchanges where they give you money and you give them something back. That’s fair enough but it’s becoming much harder.
You’ve been in the role for 20 years. How have you changed as a leader in that time?
I think I’ve learned to listen. And there’s more expectation of feedback now – it’s a constant feedback flow. People need to be told they’re doing a good job. I think there’s more anxiety or uncertainty than when I started working.
Do they need feedback in the form of praise?
It’s just about acknowledging people. When I was in my earlier leadership roles, we were perhaps more formal – you had to create that distance from staff – and that’s breaking down now. But you can’t be too informal, either.
Do you have quite a diverse leadership team?
We could do better in terms of cultural diversity but we’re about to become an all-female team because we just lost two men. I can’t help it – the best people got the jobs and we’re now officially a leadership team made up of six women.
Liz Ann Macgregor with Micky Dorrng’s Djirrdidi wall painting for an exhibition at the MCA in 2000. Credit: Brett Faulkner
Managing creative people can be tricky. How do you do it?
With patience [laughs]. And knowing when to draw the line. I work with curators and I encourage them to take risks but I also know where the limits are and what we have to do in relation to an audience. I have a lot of experience and sometimes you get young curators who think, “We should just do it this way” and I have to mentor them through it. Creative people are not the easiest to manage. They’re passionate – that’s the good thing – but they can be slightly stroppy or opinionated, shall we say.
When you look back on your years at the MCA, what do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
The extraordinary increase in audience numbers and the diversity of that audience. When I came, the museum was being hammered; the numbers were really low and there was a lack of confidence. I wanted to bridge that gap between artist and audience – we talk about making challenging ideas accessible. Who would have thought that one day we’d be the most visited contemporary-art museum in the world, which we are now?
What’s one thing you’d do differently if you could have your time again?
I wouldn’t waste so much time fighting with political beings in those first couple of years. I hadn’t been exposed to NSW’s political culture and I had to learn very quickly. I think I would handle it a bit differently now. I might actually be a bit more stroppy than I was back then – it took me a while to realise the sexist nature of a lot of what was going on.
In what way was it sexist?
I’d be the only woman in the room and the only one who knew what they were talking about. And no-one was listening. I thought I was drowning; you know, I couldn’t get my voice heard. I realised I had the double whammy of being in the arts and being a woman.
So how did you get your voice heard?
Eventually I had to stand up and shout, “You have to let me work this through – this is how to make the museum viable.” I had to stop worrying about being gentle or less strident but the focus on my appearance was pretty hard to handle. [At the time, the Australian media devoted a lot of column inches to Macgregor’s fiery curls, tartan skirts and steel-capped Dr. Martens boot.] I’d never been in such a high-profile job but even so it was still quite tough.
It sounds like that was a very difficult time for you.
I look back on it now and think, “Wow, I’m amazed I didn’t get on a plane and go straight back home.” But I had a network of people I trusted and I loved this place. I had a vision and a passion and I knew it could be done.
Is it hard when you’ve been in a role for so long to keep innovating?
It is if you have to think about it. We’ve been through phases – there was the rescue phase, the consolidation phase, the expansion phase and now we’re moving into a new sphere of thinking about what’s really special about the MCA. It’s an evolution rather than thinking about having to do new things for the sake of it.
How do you carve out time for strategy?
Block out the time – you have to be very diary-conscious. I’m quite disciplined about time. I don’t have the phone in the bedroom at night and I’m strict about holidays. People send around emails saying, “I’m going away but I will be on email.” Don’t say that because then people don’t think for themselves. It’s a real disease. As leaders, one of our biggest challenges is to cut down on the amount of stress that we put on people through the demand to be on 24/7.
How do you deal with intense stress?
I try to just chill out but it’s not easy. I started scuba diving because Peter [Le Gras, her partner] said, “You need to learn to do something that will shut you off completely.” The first year I was here I worked seven days a week around the clock and eventually he said, “Do you really have to go to work on a Sunday? Can’t you have a day off?” That’s when I realised the importance of downtime because I wasn’t effective. I was in here because I was panicking and trying to manage all the things that kept getting thrown at me. Taking time out was really the big lesson from all that.
Has there been a time when you’ve genuinely been scared?
The whole of the first year I was terrified. I really didn’t know whether we could pull it off. We were being kept alive by people helping us with cashflow so it was really on a knife edge.
How will you know when it’s time to move on?
The board will probably tell me [laughs]. I think it’ll be when I wake up in the morning and can’t face asking someone for money anymore. Obviously it’s something I’ve discussed with my chair [Simon Mordant, whose tenure ends in 2020 after 10 years in the role]. We’ve had an amazing partnership. Geoff Dixon [former Qantas CEO] was my mentor for a while and I asked him once how long a CEO should stay. He said Australia suffers from short-termism and there’s nothing wrong with longevity within a role as long as things are moving on.
What’s something your team would be surprised to know about you?
They know most of my secrets but I think they would be surprised to know how terrified I feel sometimes.
Even after all these years, I still wake up and think, “Maybe I’ve got this wrong. Maybe it’s all going to go horribly wrong this time and maybe I’m really not the person I think I am.”
That’s extraordinary to me that you would think that.
Women do. It can be a good thing – it stops you being arrogant, you know. I think people would probably think, "Oh, she thinks she knows it all.” But I know I don’t – I still have fear of being found out.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give a brand-new CEO?
You can’t have an open door all the time but don’t underestimate how much more you will get back if you actually listen and spend time with your staff.