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MCA Chair Lorraine Tarabay

This month Lorraine Tarabay steps into the role of Museum of Contemporary Art Chair with the blessing of the incumbent Chair, her mentor and longstanding MCA benefactor Cav. Simon Mordant AO. Equipped with an international career in investment banking, and holding board positions with the MCA, Tate Museum’s International Council, the Venice Council for Australia and Global Women Leaders Strategic Philanthropy, Lorraine is driven by a burning passion to share the transformative power of contemporary art.

Naomi Tosic asks Lorraine to share her vision for the role of the arts in our society.

NT: Lorraine, the MCA is heralded as one of the largest employers of artists in the country and the most visited contemporary art gallery in the world. How has COVID impacted on the gallery, its people, programming and operations?

LT: The MCA takes seriously its mandate to assist in developing a creative Australia. We employ over 220 staff, many of whom are artists working across casual, part-time and full-time teams. Many of our casuals also work in hospitality to make ends meet so it’s been an incredibly hard time for them. We are grateful for the support of the JobKeeper program, but the MCA also only receives 20% of its funding from government so we are very reliant on the generosity of our supporters.

We are the only museum in Australia that focuses exclusively on collecting living Australian artists but we do include international contemporary artists in our exhibition program. Due to travel restrictions for artists, museum closures and issues with international freight, we have also had to rework our next two years’ of programming. As a result, our exhibition calendar for the next few months is Australian-focused. We reopened in June with the 22nd Biennale of Sydney and we are hosting major components of the NIRIN exhibition until September. After that, we will be opening the largest exhibition to date of Chinese-Australian artist Lindy Lee.

I think Australians at the present moment would like to support Australian artists and I think it’s fitting that our first major show post COVID-19 is a renowned and important contemporary Australian artist.

NT: Compared to other countries (and allowing for our size and GDP), the arts sector has been grossly underfunded in our country.  Why do you think this is?  

LT: I don’t believe we truly appreciate the importance of art in our culture. This is something that all artists and arts institutions in our country must contend with. It’s not just a funding issue but a lack of focus on the arts in our culture. It’s not a core part of the curriculum in our schools but is in many countries overseas. There is a focus on STEM in schools. [MCA Director] Liz Ann Macgregor talks about STEAM rather than STEM, to include the Arts. We think it is critically important to increase the focus on art and creativity in education.

As an example, the team at the MCA heard of the new Inner Sydney High School opening. Liz Ann contacted the new principal and indicated we’d love to do a collaboration which commenced this year. This collaboration goes beyond art programs – it encourages different way of thinking – bringing creativity into how mainstream subjects such as Maths, English and Science are taught.

We may not have art and culture embedded in civic life as strongly as other countries, but we do have the opportunity to be more forward-thinking and more focused on contemporary art and creativity, how it leads to innovation and can shape our society.

NT: Lorraine you are an ardent advocate for contemporary art specifically.  Contemporary art can be confounding and confronting.  Why are you so drawn to it? 

LT: I am attracted to contemporary art because it is so socially engaged. Contemporary artists are our conscience. They bring to light the issues of social injustice: refugee crises, mass displacement, immigration, racism, climate change, discrimination against the LGBTQI+ community, food security issues and more. Artists have a unique way of engaging the general community to think about these issues–illuminating the personal and the global experience. Contemporary art also helps us celebrate our own differences, uniqueness and diversity.

Contemporary art practice plays a role in teaching creative thought which is extremely important for fostering critical thinking, innovation, problem solving, teaching empathy, self-expression, communication and bridging gaps. Contemporary art museums and forums are a safe space for the community to come together and contemplate, discuss, debate, and address issues and social themes.

NT: Let’s explore that further. Tell us about the MCA programs that contribute to this social impact and identity.   

LT: One of the MCA’s key programs, C3West, works strategically with local communities across Western Sydney to address social issues and open up new conversations. Led by Senior Curator Pedro de Almeida, the program takes artists beyond the walls of the gallery to create projects that give voice to community issues in Greater Western Sydney. Since 2006, we have engaged countless Australian artists to deliver workshops, performances, exhibitions and interactive installations across Penrith, Liverpool, Goulburn, Blacktown and Hurstville which explore social issues within these communities.

Another example is our schools access program with schools in Greater Western Sydney. Our Director of Audience Engagement, Gill Nicol and her team work with school principals in parts of Sydney where there is greater socio-economic disadvantage to help increase access of these children to contemporary art. We remove real and perceived access barriers that can prevent people coming into the Museum, such as providing transport into the city and creating immersive programs tailored specifically around their needs and interests. It is a transformative experience that can change the course of a young person’s life.

One of the initiatives I am championing at the museum is the MCA’s new philanthropic venture, the Social Impact through Art Fund. It is focused on attracting philanthropic support for the Museum’s social impact and access programs including early learning programs, GENEXT for 12-18 year olds, the Bella program for those with disability and access requirements, and Artful which creates enriching experiences through contemporary art for people living with dementia. I am keen to appoint members to our new Social Impact through Art Fund–which will assist the Museum in being able to deliver (through philanthropic support) its existing social impact programs and potentially the development of new ones. These programs are delivered by MCA artist educators, adding to the employment of artists in Australia.

NT: What is the role of Contemporary Arts in an individual’s and a community’s health and wellbeing?

LT: Engaging with art is proven to have a positive impact on mental health. It can change your mood, increase serotonin levels, stimulate parts of the brain that may have gone to sleep and even increase lifespan if engaged with regularly. Engaging with art is increasingly being used as therapy in hospitals, nursing homes and even crisis zones (for trauma).

Contemporary art can connect you to your senses, body and mind and make the world felt. It helps us deal with contemporary issues but can also be a form of escapism and pausing of reality. It can give us hope, imagining the world beyond a crisis. Engaging with contemporary art in a museum context is not simply a solitary event, it’s one of the few areas in our society where people can come together to share an experience even if they see the world in radically different ways. It can therefore create a sense of community and helps connect us both at a local and global level. It helps us identify with one another, builds bridges and makes us more tolerant.

Contemporary art plays an important role in social change. It gives a voice to those who may be marginalised or live on the edges of society. It can also spur those engaging with the art into social action which in turn changes lives. It can take us out of our comfort zone in a safe space for the exchange of ideas and encourage civil discourse about contemporary issues.  

Engaging with contemporary art has been transforming for youth in our school access programs, many of whom come from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds. It has given them a sense of belonging, increased their confidence and given them exposure to greater possibilities.

We have seen the very positive impact on people living with dementia in our ‘Artful’ program at the MCA. Participating in this program has led to reduced anxiety, increased quality of living and even awakening of parts of the brain that may have gone to sleep amongst participants in the program.

Last month we hosted a 3-hour GENEXT online. GENEXT is our youth-led program for youth 12-18 years old. The participants were able to explore themes that many of our youth are currently facing, for example: isolation, lack of connection, mental health issues. They were also able to explore online many of the themes present in our current Biennale of Sydney exhibition NIRIN, an exhibition centred around First Nations artists from around the world.

I have also seen the powerful therapeutic impact of art through my humanitarian work with NFP Global Women Leaders, Strategic Philanthropy. I travelled into refugee camps with the International Red Cross where art was being used to treat trauma for those hospitalised. I also attended an art therapy program where participants all had a family member or members that were missing through war and conflict, many for years, and they hadn’t had an opportunity to deal with their grief in a tangible way. Their task was to decorate a chair with the assistance of artists over six weeks to represent the person they had lost. At the end they presented their artwork, describing it and how the work represented the person. For most of them, this was the first time that were able to grieve for the missing person, memorialise them and come to terms with the absence of someone they loved.

NT: This is a hard question … How can we justify arts giving when there are clear and pressing humanitarian needs?

LT: This is an issue I have given much thought to over the years. My two passions are contemporary art and humanitarian causes, for me the two are linked. Whilst there are almost two billion people in the world living below the poverty line without the basics of security of food, shelter, health and safety, contemporary art plays a role in giving a voice to these marginalised communities and those living on the edge. It can give a voice and platform for humanitarian issues – whether on a social scale like war, poverty, racism and refugees, or with the individual sense of identity and dignity. This platform often impels social action and advocacy for humanitarian issues, thus playing an important role in transforming society.

Image supplied by Lorraine Tarabay
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