Changing the fortunes at Australia’s Museum of Contemporary Art

Towards the end of the 1990s, almost a decade after it opened to great acclaim, the MCA was facing financial difficulties, with the initial founder of the Museum, the University of Sydney (through a private bequest, the Power Bequest), reducing and ultimately ceasing its contribution to core costs.

Without core funding, the Museum was unable to develop the kinds of programs that attract sponsors and donors, leading to a downward spiral, with decreasing audiences and a lack of community confidence.The first challenge was to stabilise the Museum’s financial position by negotiating core funding from a government that had hitherto taken little interest in supporting a contemporary art museum other than providing a building. Key to this was to be able to demonstrate the Museum’s appeal to a wider audience – to challenge the negative perception that a museum of contemporary art could only appeal to an elite group. After a determined campaign that involved focusing everyone’s efforts on making the Museum more engaging for visitors and re-connecting with artists, the core funding was achieved and the donations and sponsorships followed. The third element of the funding was the development of a venues business, taking advantage of the Museum’s extraordinary location on Sydney Harbour opposite the Opera House, utilising areas of the building for commercial offices and expanding the retail that was built into the original renovation of the building. This funding model served the Museum well, allowing a period of expansion in the ambition of the exhibitions programme,increased education activities and the beginning of a renewed focus on collecting. However, over time, as government grants remained static and costs rose, it became apparent that further income generating capacity would have to be created.

Furthermore, the Museum’s success had led to a substantial increase in visitor numbers, putting pressure on a building that had many drawbacks, not least in terms of its poor circulation and accessfor visitors with special needs. In 2004, the Board agreed that the Museum should investigate an expansion, as long as the business plan could demonstrate ongoing viability through increased revenue generation. The expansion therefore had to have additional income generating facilities as a key objective, in addition to the resolution of the circulation issues, the provision of a more welcoming and visible entrance, improved gallery spaces and dedicated education facilities to respond to the exponential rise in demand for the museum’s programs for schools and other groups.

The site is complex, with many stakeholders, adjacent historic buildings and the remains of the 19th century docks under the site. The existing building also presented many challenges. Over the next three years, the MCA team worked closely with selected architect Sam Marshall to develop and refine a series of options. An intense consultation campaign was simultaneously undertaken to explain the Museum’s objectives. This was particularly critical given the public outcry over previous plans to substantially alter or even knock down the existing building.

In 2007,the plans were unveiled and the capital campaign publicly launched, with the announcement of major donations by two private donors – before any approach was made to government. As a result of the MCA’s success in building audiences and changing perceptions of the role of a contemporary art museum, the NSW Government was convinced to commit to the campaign in response to the private funding. Timing was not ideal however – the GFC hit shortly after, with less than half of the $53m budget committed. Interestingly, although the task of generating funds from the private sector became even more difficult, and the Museum’s dependence on its venues business made it vulnerable in an economic downturn, the MCA survived a difficult year as visitor numbers continued to climb. People turned to art in a time of gloom and negativity. In reality, the Australian economy escaped the worst of the financial crisis. One of the original donors,Simon Mordant, who with his wife Catriona had become passionate champions of the Museum’s expansion plans, substantially increased their pledge on condition the remainder of the budget could be secured. After some intense lobbying, the Federal Government was persuaded to contribute stimulus spending to complete the campaign and allow the expansion to commence in 2010. The new MCA opened to the public in March 2012.

With its new spacious galleries, highly visible entrance with a commissioned wall painting, new creative learning facilities, venues on the roof of the old building with spectacular views and a café on the top of the new wing, the new MCA blends together the old and the new in a dynamic and highly functional way. No longer do people have to look for the galleries in the labyrinth of the old building – the new access system leads them straight to them. The public spaces take advantage of the site, with views out across the harbour and into the historic Rocks precinct. The proof of success is in increased visitor numbers – 750,000 in the first nine months.

Creative learning is at the heart of the Museum’s expansion. The new National Centre for Creative Learning offers a range of programs to enable the next generation to cope with the major changes that will take place in the workforce and society over the next 25 years.The forms of education and training that will be needed are those that develop the powers of communication, creativity and innovation. Contemporary art is a wonderful context and catalyst for developing those skills and attributes.

The new centre also embraces new audiences for the Museum. The Bella Room is a dedicated interactive space for students with specific needs to explore the work of contemporary artists. Each year a different artist will be invited to design an interactive artwork for the space in collaboration with MCA staff, teachers, community groups and support agencies. The centre also provides cutting-edge video conferencing facilities opening content to communities in regional and remote Australia, giving the MCA a truly national reach. The expansion of the MCA website and the development of digital resources also encourage visitor interaction.

Of course the MCA with its outstanding location on Sydney Harbour has the good fortune of being able to offer wonderful venues for business and the public to use for events. This revenue stream is the lifeblood of the Museum and a long term strategic plan for maintaining and enhancing these spaces is part of the MCA business plan, along with the growing success of the MCA Store. The buzz that the re-opening created and the increased visibility has attracted new donors and sponsors. The MCA is now focusing its fundraising efforts on specific campaigns for collection development and digital resources.

While the new building has been critical for the Museum’s development, it is important to acknowledge that programming and a commitment to artists and to community engagement lies at the heart of the MCA’s success. The challenge for the future is to consolidate, taking full advantage of the new building, deepening the engagement with audiences through quality exhibitions, developing creative relationships with artists and communities and ensuring that the long term strategy has the funding to match the aspirations.