Sunday, October 21, 2018

Critics Circle’s in conversation with Nick Mitzevich

Nick Mitzevich outside the NGA

THE final guest in the Canberra Critics Circle’s 2018 ‘In conversation’ series was Nick Mitzevich, the new and sixth director of the National Gallery Australia, who joined the circle on Monday, October 15 at the Canberra Museum and Gallery.
Usually these informal sessions begin with a few questions from the critics to the guest, but Mitzevich took the lead, leaping in to give a frank snapshot of himself, his background and his working methods.
Characterising himself a simple farm boy from the Hunter Valley whose father had desperately wanted him to stay on the land, he told those present that while capable in the agricultural arts, such as slaughtering an animal, he was effectively dyslexic and not much good at spelling or writing.
After studying at the local state high school he had gone to the University of Newcastle to study Education and Fine Art, later becoming a lecturer there before moving on to become director of the Newcastle Region Art Gallery for six years, the University of Queensland Art Museum from 2007 to 2010 and the Art Gallery of South Australia from 2010 to 2018, where he lifted visitation figures, got the average visitor age down from 55 to under 40, rehung the galleries and spearheaded a successful educational program, one of his great passions.
Mitzevich depicted himself as an administrator who ran a tight ship. With a strict, conservative regime that begins daily with his arrival at 8am, extensive periods of dictation to his secretary – he still considers spelling not his long suit –rounds of meetings, a time to review what had been dictated and further appointments.
He was, he reminded the assembled critics, not only director of the National Gallery but its chief curator. With this in mind, he said, he was determined to see the gallery return to a focus on art-form specialists rather than generalists. He had already made changes to that end and others would follow.
Pre-empting questions about the decorative arts, which has no dedicated head curator, he declared that while he worked out how to reinstate a specialist in that area, he would rehang the Australian galleries in chronological order, but incorporate art from different genres, so that decorative objects might  well be installed with conventional two-dimensional art.
Education, he made clear, was his chief thrust. During the conversation he returned several times to his intention to get serious about programs for young people. He said he had consulted with the founding director, James Mollison, who had explained his educational motives for establishing a small collection of Old Masters—most of those, incidentally, had now been returned to the NGA after having gone on loan around the country under a previous director.
As for the building itself, designed by architect Colin Madigan, while he was aware that some previous curators and directors had found it too ‘brutal’ and concealed some features, he was a fan and would restore elements of the original.
It was his 76th day in office at the NGA, he  told the critics, and  he believed he was well on the way to fulfilling the 100-day plan for change which the gallery council had asked of him.
Helen Musa