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As he prepares to take the reins as artistic director of the National Gallery of Australia, Nick Mitzevich talks about a fresh and controversial approach to the nation’s largest art collection. “As a national institution that has a responsibility in leading debate and a cultural agenda, it’s important there is a strong point of view. I don’t mean bias, I mean passion for putting artists at the centre of things.” By Steve Dow.

Nick Mitzevich’s vision for the NGA

Nick Mitzevich
Credit: Sven Kovac

Nick Mitzevich’s parents never talked about the past, about the war. The world he knew was Newcastle, New South Wales, being the eldest of four children, first-generation, learning discipline by rising before dawn, tending cattle, pigs and chickens on the family’s farm at Abermain, outside Cessnock.

As he grew older, however, his Macedonian and Greek heritages have assumed a greater importance. “You can’t escape the nose,” he says, laughing, turning his head to the side to reveal his profile. “You can’t escape the Slavic chin.”

Mitzevich still starts the day before dawn at home in the Adelaide Hills. Eating, gym, eating again, then at his desk as head of the Art Gallery of South Australia by 7.45. As a child, he first wanted to be an archaeologist, inspired by Indiana Jones movies, before studying fine art and education at Newcastle University, and making his own short-lived stab at being an artist.

The arts were not a prominent part of family life on the Abermain farm, where his Macedonian-born father, Nick snr, still lives. His Greek-born mother, Chrisoula, passed away a couple of years ago. “I was the black sheep of the family,” Mitzevich jokes. His three younger sisters serve in police, armed forces and hospital roles.

Eight years ago, after stints directing the Newcastle art gallery and then the University of Queensland Art Museum, Mitzevich was appointed head of South Australia’s state gallery. Let loose on 38,000 pieces of art, he discontinued the traditional chronological hang in favour of corralling contemporary and historical works together, aiming to illuminate our lives through a thematic cross-fertilisation of 2000 years of art history.

Renovating this eccentric state gallery mansion room by room, Mitzevich would make classicism radical by placing a life-size nude sculpture of transgender porn actor Buck Angel by British artist Marc Quinn alongside French artist William Bouguereau’s haloed Virgin and Child painting from 1888, idealised in the Greek and Roman and Italian Renaissance traditions. Both works pursue bodily perfection, but while Mary and baby Jesus are piously presented, the confident, cigar-smoking bronze Buck, with his hulking chest and shaved vulva, is undermining societal constructions of normality.

 

Today, Mitzevich, 47, wears blue jeans, a blue denim-style dress shirt and a thick ribbed grey tie. His greying hair and beard are clipped short. Having helmed the country’s second-biggest state art collection, in a gallery with $11 million in yearly government funding, his past is once again being packed up. On July 2, he begins a five-year tenure at the National Gallery of Australia, which has more than 166,000 works and government funding three times greater. He replaces Gerard Vaughan as artistic director of the biggest art collection in the country.

Cultural institutions, Mitzevich argues, should nurture difference, even celebrate it, reflecting on his own success as the child of migrants who prospered in Australia. A regular visitor to South Australia’s remote north-west APY Lands – run by Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara – Mitzevich opened the doors in 2015 to the inaugural Tarnanthi: Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, held every two years.

Standing atop the steps leading down to room 13 in the Art Gallery of South Australia, thematically named “Being Human”, Mitzevich smiles and suggests it would be fun for me to seek out the press coverage in the local Murdoch-owned Adelaide Advertiser about the room’s centrepiece, Berlinde De Bruyckere’s We Are All Flesh. Consisting of two horse carcasses intertwined and hung from a metal pole, Mitzevich sees this sculpture as a symbol of the fragility of life, given the close relationship of equine and human.

The Belgian artist is a pacifist and vegetarian who cast skins from horses that have passed away, but one Advertiser commentator described Mitzevich, who purchased the work with funds raised from the contemporary collectors’ group he established, as the “Butcher of North Terrace”. Another wrote that the piece had turned the gallery into a slaughterhouse. On the days those articles appeared, visitors packed the gallery.

Between 2010 and 2016, under his directorship, attendance numbers at the Art Gallery of South Australia almost doubled, from 420,000 to close to 800,000, and where once under 18s were the smallest group of visitors, they are now the largest. In 2014, Mitzevich curated the Adelaide Biennial, Dark Heart, bringing together 28 artists to examine the darkness of Australian identity. 

Mitzevich is a generally confident and an oft-smiling talker whose eye contact can nonetheless sometimes shyly avoid capture. “But I think if you court controversy, it’s one-dimensional. If you acquire works about the world we’re in right now, that makes a big difference.”

I wonder if the conservative Canberra climate might require him to temper his innate temptation to reinvent, to change how art is presented. “Not at all,” he says. “It actually provides a bigger canvas, because the collection is so much better. It has so much more depth. The NGA has an extraordinary number of international masterpieces in its bowels, so you have a greater responsibility to be ambitious and to be adventurous, to get the most out of what you have.”

 

Italy invaded Greece in 1940, then the Nazis followed in 1941. In 1944, Macedonian nationalists unsuccessfully attempted to declare an independent state. Mitzevich knows there was displacement for his grandparents and parents, with both families deciding to make a new life in Australia after the war, heading for Newcastle, where there was a sizeable postwar community of Greeks and Macedonians. But he has been told little of the traumas that occurred.

“They just talked about that Australia was such a wonderful place. They never talked about the past. Because I think it was difficult. Particularly my father was focused on being Australian. He didn’t view himself as a Macedonian man; he viewed himself as an Australian farmer. That permeated how he lived.”

Mitzevich is still close to his three sisters; they talk every day. Is there a sense of his childhood past when he visits his father on the family property in Abermain? “I’m never held by possessions or memories. The last 20 years, I’ve been like an itinerant worker: Newcastle, Brisbane, Adelaide. Maybe I’m a FIFO. I fly in, stay for a time, then I fly out. But I’m never limited by memories or geography or the past. I always like to be in the moment.”

Mitzevich says there has never been any regret about abandoning his own artist career early. He recalls his photography, moving-image and sculptural work, including a “crazy installation” called restrain/restraint, which he showed solo at Newcastle Art Gallery in 1993, credited as Nick Christou Mitzevich.

“I did seriously want to be an artist, but the great thing about the uni I went to was it had a student gallery. I had a show there and became involved with the gallery, and I worked out that I was really good at hanging exhibitions, organising stuff and talking to people about art.” Was he a good artist? “No, I was a terrible artist,” he laughs. “I was very self-indulgent.”

When given the nod for the Art Gallery of South Australia gig in 2010, Mitzevich hit the ground running, vowing to take up every invitation, unless there was a diary clash of more than one. He held true to his word and ran himself ragged in the process. But the schmoozing earned loyalty in the Adelaide arts community.

He disputes that an early decision to cancel a Bauhaus exhibition and replace it with a Saatchi British exhibition was a misstep. Later, Turner and fashion icon shows proved to be blockbusters. Nor is he wistful about leaving Adelaide just as six architectural firms have been shortlisted to build the planned Adelaide Contemporary gallery on the old Royal Adelaide Hospital site.

“To elevate the debate, to get six amazing firms on the start, is something I feel really proud of. It will be up to the future to take them forward. I’m really sure it will get up. We’ve shown demand; this gallery is bursting at the seams.”

The stone house Mitzevich shares with his partner in the Adelaide Hills, a modernist building from the 1930s, with a garden in which Mitzevich has lovingly tended 15-metre elm trees, a cosy grotto and towering Magnolia grandiflora, has been put up for sale as they prepare for the Canberra move. “I’m not restrained by that stuff. It was fun and a great pleasure, but I’m quite happy to hand it over to someone else.”

Mitzevich has used the words “abundance and prosperity” to describe his garden, which sounds almost like a religious mantra. “It’s what the son of a farmer says,” he laughs. “When you’re not the son of a farmer and you’re saying that stuff, it sounds like you’re being fuzzy and spiritual. But when you grow things and you’re at the mercy of the environment, those things are really important.”

Is he religious or spiritual? “No, no,” he says, smiling. “This is my church.” He is referring to the art gallery. “That’s a line from a British DJ – what are they called?” Faithless, I tell him, recalling the group’s 1998 release “God Is a DJ”. “‘God Is a DJ’!” he repeats, and recites the lyrics. “This is my church, this is where I heal my hurts.”

 

In a speech to the South Australian Press Club in 2016, Mitzevich spoke of the Louvre relocating some of its Paris-based collection to a former coalmining town, Lens, in the Calais region. Might he be tempted to ship part of the National Gallery of Australia’s collection to a new home in regional Australia?

“It’s a pretty gutsy move by the Louvre. I spoke to [former Louvre director] Henri Loyrette about that. It’s about sharing things with the nation. I think it’s a bold thing to do. Very, very costly. And so, I haven’t answered that question on purpose, because I don’t want to set expectations for people, but I just think you shouldn’t be limited by your past and your present.”

As Mitzevich heads to Canberra, he says he needs to focus more on his role as the “glue that connects people”, delegating more than he has done in his time in Adelaide. Still, he does not rule out curating a show.

“As a national institution that has a responsibility in leading debate and a cultural agenda, it’s important there is a strong point of view. I don’t mean bias, I mean passion for putting artists at the centre of things. Don’t make apologies for what you think the best is. It’s important for a gallery director to have a point of view and to not be shy about it.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 28, 2018 as "Hanging judge ". Subscribe here.

Steve Dow
is a Sydney-based arts writer and the author of Gay: The Tenth Anniversary Collection.

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