News & Commentary, Visual Arts

Charm offensive: Nick Mitzevich and Tony Ellwood’s race to the top

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When Nick Mitzevich (above) was appointed director at the University of Queensland Art Museum in 2007, he was 37, and had already been director at Newcastle Region Art Gallery for six years.

Charming without a doubt, driven and smart, he arrived in Brisbane almost at the same time as Tony Ellwood, who was appointed director at Queensland Art Gallery soon after the opening of their magnificent Gallery of Modern Art.

Both men had the happy knack of appealing to patrons and punters: they schmoozed with aplomb government and business and spoke easily and well with the populace at large about the excitement and value of art.

Both men had already gained reputations for “turning around” the fortunes of regional galleries, Mitzevich in Newcastle, Ellwood in Bendigo. Interestingly, it required a further step – for Mitzevich into the role of director at Brisbane’s second-string gallery, and for Ellwood into a deputy role at the National Gallery of Victoria – before each of them landed a major gallery directorship.

Now, with Ellwood at the NGV helm and Mitzevich at the Art Gallery of South Australia, they are, to use a sporting metaphor, at the top of their game, and, you’d have to think, pondering some time in the future the premiership win – the directorship of the National Gallery in Canberra (its current director Gerard Vaughan has announced his retirement in October 2018).

Or not.

Certainly Mitzevich now has his work cut out for him, with the news that Adelaide will build a contemporary art gallery on the defunct Royal Adelaide Hospital site on North Terrace, not far from the Art Gallery of South Australia.

When Mitzevich flagged the idea for a new gallery, the figure of $260 million was suggested.

As it was for Brisbane, this is an extraordinary opportunity to expand and augment the current gallery. While Mitzevich himself mentions the drawcard that is Hobart’s MONA, a more apt comparison is with the dual-gallery expansion that took place in Brisbane, in such a superb location (flood-risk notwithstanding) alongside the river and completing a suite of cultural buildings that includes the performing arts centre and the library.

The SA announcement calls for expressions of interest from architects to design Adelaide Contemporary. While this is still a proposal, there appears to be some urgency for the plans to be progressed, with a shortlist to be named in December, and the design team appointed in May 2018. No budget has been given beyond a “stage-one” $1.9m, although last year, when Mitzevich first flagged the idea for a new gallery at the other end of town, the figure of $260 million was suggested.

The new site has been the subject of a fair amount of argy-bargy, with the Advertiser reporting that a $1billion consortium deal has fallen through, prompting Premier Jay Weatherill to announce the government was taking control of the site.

According to the Advertiser, the government is now looking to have contracts for the site, including educational facilities, an extension of the Botanic Gardens and commercial buildings, in place before the likely March election. This may well mean that the construction – indeed the concept – of a contemporary art gallery will be an election issue for South Australia in 2018.

Mitzevich is going to need all his energy and passion to steel himself for what lies ahead. The negotiations to get Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art completed fell to the director who preceded Tony Ellwood, Doug Hall, whose resilience was sorely tested by the pressures imposed by Peter Beattie’s Labor government.

Contemporary art has the attraction of being risqué and rude enough to be controversial in a predictable way but also breezily in-your-face enough to be considered good for young people.

Hall managed to stick it out until the opening had taken place and handed over to Ellwood six months later. It was during his tenure that QAG instituted the fabulous, courageous, game-changing Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, heading for its 9th event next year. Fair to say, no director, not even Tony Ellwood at the magisterial National Gallery of Victoria, has pulled off such a stunning and important revision of the rules for blockbuster exhibitions.

Sensibly, in his media statement to re-announce the proposal in light of the new developments for the RAH site, Mitzevich refers to Adelaide’s cultural strengths.

“This city has done an excellent job of hosting and developing events and festivals with intense bursts of activity,” Mitzevich says. “To truly make a national and international creative impact we need a new permanent cultural anchor for the state.”

He has also spoken often about the strength of benefaction in the state, a legacy of its history.

Melbourne and Sydney, with sneering condescension, tend to refer to the “venerable dowagers” who support Adelaide’s art gallery, as though it’s more pleasant to accept money from blokes with shiny shoes. The same reports usually mention Mitzevich has turned around what former director, Christopher Menz, called its “relegation to the status of a provincial gallery” caused by government underfunding.

Funding and visitation figures released by the gallery support the suggestion that Mitzevitch is doing a good job. Like Tony Ellwood did in Brisbane, he has focused a great deal of energy on attracting schools and families, saying that the under-18s now are the highest percentage of visitors.

NGV director Tony Ellwood

Contemporary art has the paradoxical attraction of being risqué and rude enough to be controversial in a predictable way (and both Ellwood and Mitzevich know a handy controversy when they see one) but also breezily in-your-face enough to be considered good for young people.

Colour, movement, noise – the art gallery as playground is not a new idea and while reviews of Mitzevich’s use of the lovely old SA Art Gallery buildings make it clear he has managed to balance the old and new, beautiful and bold, looking-back and looking forward to an impressive degree, a brand new building squarely aimed at being “contemporary” would give him grand scope.

Whether the government is really behind his vision, and whether Mitzevich has the puff to pull it off remains to be seen.

It would be difficult for him not to say yes if, sometime in the future, he were offered that premiership role in Canberra, but, truth be told, his particular wonderful competence may be best utilised where he is right now.

5 responses to “Charm offensive: Nick Mitzevich and Tony Ellwood’s race to the top

  1. Rosemary Sorensen always loves POWER. No one ever talks about the UNDERSIDE of what they do, how they “achieve”. I have had to deal with Ellwood and Nick M and they can be really HORRIBLE to those they consider BENEATH THEM.

    OVERPAID PUBLIC SERVANTS who never lived through the 60s political turns and so just act as if they are the 19th Century Courtiers to Power who ran The Academy back then. Really nothing has changed for the 99% of artists and these guys SUCK UP LIKE CRAZY to the 1%. So does Rosemary really.

  2. With Lillian Ross filing her last full stop, it’s heartening to see witty and courageous journalism still lives to
    keep an eye on where all those pairs of shiny shoes are taking us.

  3. The one thing that none of the reports about this new Adelaide contemporary art gallery venture seem to mention is that last year Adelaide’s two publicly funded contemporary art spaces were not granted on-going funding from the Australia Council. They were casualties of the swathe of cuts that saw funding cut to many contemporary art spaces in what is these days described as the Small 2 Medium sector. One of these spaces began in 1974 as the Experimental Art Foundation, while the other had long links back to the Contemporary Art Society. Of course, a new building with a price tag of a couple of hundred million is no big deal really – except that what is shows is that there’s almost always money for an exciting new building, even when it seems impossible to find the cash to keep long standing contemporary spaces going (doing what they have done for decades on very little money indeed). Now just how much was pulled from the Australia Council budget to precipitate the 2016 S2M crisis? … and yet around the country there is currently a good $100 million or more being spent on new regional gallery buildings (or building developments just completed). Some galleries have gone through 2 or 3 major redevelopments in the past couple of decades (Bendigo, for example). While some parts of the S2M sector struggle for want of a few hundred thousand, others are spending multiple millions. And of course, expenditure on gallery development doesn’t always go to plan – Newcastle Art Gallery, for example, seems to have had a $21m development proposal in various states of disarray for well over a decade … now who was Director there when that plan was first proposed? Sometimes it seems that the measure of the success of a gallery director is not just ticking off an increase in ‘bums on seats’, but the size of the budget for redevelopment and expansion. Although expensive new gallery developments can also court controversy – Hell O AGNSW!

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