Located on one of the world’s most spectacular sites on the edge of Sydney Harbour, the Museum of Contemporary Art opened its doors to the public in November 1991. Established through a bequest by Australian expatriate artist John Power (1881-1943), who left his personal fortune to the University of Sydney to inform and educate Australians about international contemporary visual art, the MCA is dedicated to exhibiting, collecting and interpreting contemporary art.
The vision of the founding Director Leon Paroissien and Chief Curator Bernice Murphy was manifest from its earliest years – a commitment to innovative programming with ground-breaking exhibitions of contemporary art from Australia, the Asia Pacific region and around the world.
In 1998, the first phase of expansion began when the Museum had access to the whole building and created galleries for solo exhibitions by Australian artists. In 2001, the New South Wales Government and the Australia Council replaced the University of Sydney and the Power Bequest as key stakeholders.
A strong emphasis on making the MCA a museum that engages artists with audiences led to a program of significant solo shows by Australian and international artists as well as thematic and group exhibitions. The MCA is a major partner of the Biennale of Sydney. Attendances increased to over 580,000 in 2010, leading to the need for further expansion.
The MCA also sought to engage with audiences beyond the building by developing a program of touring exhibitions and C3West, a collaboration with galleries and non-arts partners in Western Sydney.
Today, the MCA houses an entire floor dedicated to the MCA Collection, offering a major national resource for education and interpretative programs, as well as two floors of galleries for exhibitions. The National Centre for Creative Learning includes a library, digital and multimedia studios, a seminar room and lecture theatre. The MCA also presents new site-specific commissions.
The MCA is located on the traditional lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. The site which is now called The Rocks was known then as Tallawoladah.
The site of the MCA on the western side of Circular Quay was the landing point of the First Fleet, a flotilla of eleven ships that carried convicts and soldiers from Britain to Australia in 1788. As such it is an extremely significant site in Australian history, marking the location of First Contact between Indigenous and European peoples, as well as the beginning of the country’s colonial history. During early settlement by the Europeans, they built houses, wharves, a gaol, a hospital and Commissariat Stores (established to administer supplies to the burgeoning population of convicts and soldiers) in the area now known as The Rocks. The Art Deco building which the MCA has occupied since 1991 was originally built for the Maritime Services Board, and stands on the site of the Georgian-era Commissariat Store designed by Lieutenant Colonel Foveaux.
The western side of Circular Quay also became a hub of boat building and naval trading activity. Important archaeological remains of the first government dockyard in Australia, established in 1797 by Governor John Hunter RN, lie underneath the new extension to the Museum.
North Sydney Council Historian Ian Hoskins suggests that the presence of a contemporary art museum on this site was an ‘ideal outcome – the creation of a threshold for ideas on a site that had long served as a threshold for people and goods; a place saturated with historical currency after two centuries of change, renewal and debate’.
The Site publication is available for purchase through the MCA Store online.