Tim Cornwell: Scot who plays to the gallery on Australia’s artistic scene

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THE Power Index, a website that aims to reveal “who really runs Australia,” typically tracks the doings of the high and mighty, from James Murdoch to Cate Blanchett. This week’s “one to watch”: Dundee-born, Orkney-raised Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, after the opening of the new $53 million (£34m) wing at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney.

The “flame-haired Scotswoman” – Macgregor’s usual newspaper tag – has turned the MCA around from a failing gallery to a top Australian attraction since becoming director in 1999, with annual visitor numbers soaring from 100,000 to 600,000. She’s a culture power broker for the future, the website reckons.

The new Mordant wing, with its striking cubed design, is named after gallery chairman, Simon Mordant, who personally stumped up $15m (£10m) for the project. But the tenacious, famously tartan-skirted Macgregor also pulled in $26m (£16m) in public funding in the depths of the financial crisis.

Macgregor began her career driving the “art bus”, a mobile art exhibition, around Scotland. She keeps a fond eye on the Scottish art scene, but will skip Glasgow International this year.

Berlin-based Scot Katie Paterson takes a prominent place in the opening displays, with work including Earth–Moon–Earth, a self-playing grand piano that produces a version of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, from a broadcast of the music reflected back to Earth from the Moon. Paterson says she’s “thrilled” to be part of Marking Time, the kick-off show in Sydney which also features The Clock, the exceptional 24-hour video work by Christian Marclay.

Artist Brook Andrew, who is of Scottish-Aboriginal descent, is also featured, with a sculptural LED zig-zag arrow which directs viewers to lines of poetry reflecting the “heritage significance of the colonial naval docks” now under the new wing.

After earlier plans for an overhaul twice fell through, Macgregor compared her persistence, in a telephone interview, to Robert the Bruce watching the spider. “It’s something I’ve always been quite good at, persuading people of my case, you can’t just stick your hand out and deserve it,” she said.

The first work of art that inspired the former Edinburgh University student, director of the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham before moving to Australia, was Salvador Dali’s famed Christ of St John of the Cross in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. “We were always in and out of Kelvingrove whenever we came south on holiday, it terrified me and absolutely enchanted me as a child, it’s probably my earliest memory of any art work,” she said.

Indian runner

Speaking of Scots abroad: the NVA’s founder and creative director, Angus Farquhar, recently returned from an enlightening Indian tour. His organisation is preparing Speed of Light for this years festival, an expected highlight of the Cultural Olympiad, with thousands of illuminated runners and walkers streaming over Arthur’s Seat. Farquhar ran the Auroville Marathon in the darkness of the jungle in Pondicherry, South India, in a non-competitive event.

“There was no winning or losing, it was great,” he says. “You started in the darkness, and ran into dawn.”