Elizabeth Ann Macgregor doesn't run the most iconic, or most popular, art gallery in Sydney – let alone in Australia. But with her gallery, the Museum of Contemporary Art, re-opening today after a stunning $53 million makeover, her star is burning brighter than almost anyone else in the Australian arts world.
When the flame-haired Scotswoman took over in 1999, the MCA was in crisis – starved of cash, widely perceived as elitist and suffering in a sandstone building too small to house a permanent collection.
Since Macgregor took over, visitor numbers have sky-rocketed, corporate sponsorships have increased and the gallery now has 50% more floor space thanks to the new Mordant Wing, designed in the shape of a stack of cubes.
Convincing politicians to allocate money to the arts is notoriously difficult – even when the economy's booming. So it took serious chutzpah for Macgregor wrangle $26 million of government funding during the height of a global financial crisis in 2009.
"She can be a pain in the arse, but that's one of the reasons we've got the building," says an MCA insider. "A normal person wouldn't have persevered. A normal person would have given up. She's tenacious."
After being knocked back by Peter Garrett, Julia Gillard and Anthony Albanese, Macgregor lobbied then-Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner for funding after the pair appeared together on Q&A. Surprisingly, Tanner, a Melburnian, came through with $13 million. The NSW government kicked in the same amount while MCA chairman Simon Mordant, a top investment banker, contributed $15 million of his own dough.
Although some in the arts community accuse Macgregor of guarding her contemporary art turf too jealously, no-one denies that her 13-year reign has been a success.
According to former Sydney lord mayor Frank Sartor, she should be made a national treasure.
As well as prying money out of the hands of politicians and businesspeople, Macgregor's other major achievement has been opening up contemporary art to the masses. She scrapped entrance fees, lured big name artists and formed an innovative partnership with the Penrith Panthers, a working class rugby league team.
Macgregor has also used her idiosyncratic fashion sense (she often dons a tartan skirt) and life story (her first gig was driving an art bus around Scotland) to win media attention for the gallery. The MCA now attracts half a million visitors a year. That's still a long way from the National Gallery of Victoria's 1.55 million or the Art Gallery of NSW's 1.27 million, but it's a major improvement since when she took over.
If she keeps up the momentum, Macgregor is sure to storm into the top ten on The Power Index's Arts and Culture list. With her MCA contract not due to expire until 2016, we expect her to be a force for a long time to come.