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"My love of art meant I was defined as a freak..."


Art Gallery of SA director Nick Mitzevich talks to Rooster Radio about accidentally discovering art, shaking up the Adelaide establishment and why his proposed Adelaide Contemporary “energy pill” could be the symbol the state needs to rediscover its confidence.

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It may not exactly have been suffering for his art, but Nick Mitzevich certainly invested heavily in his obsession.

As a child growing up in regional New South Wales, the son of a Greek/Macedonian farming family, his parents had no interest in art.

Nor did his broader community.

“We didn’t have any art in our world… my love of art meant I was defined as a freak at my high school and a second-class citizen,” he says.

“It wasn’t something that was part of the local community I grew up in – I should have played rugby league or cricket… but I didn’t really enjoy them.

“Growing up in a country town, you were put in a category and people accused you of being a bit of a freak, a bit feminine and derogative terms that were kind of woven around that… but you know what? It didn’t bother me… I was benign to it.”

Mitzevich, the director of the Art Gallery of South Australia since 2010, found art by chance.

“I remember when I was 12 or 13, I went to the Art Gallery of NSW and I saw this amazing exhibition called Gold of the Pharaohs,” he told podcast Rooster Radio.

“I wasn’t there for an art experience, I was there because I was a history student and I loved history… when I was 12, I wanted to be a film director or an archaeologist!

“And I saw this amazing show and I just was so rapt in how it was this amazing vignette into the past and history, and how people lived… that was a really memorable experience for me. I could see how art was this amazing time capsule that could take me to all these different places.”

Perhaps that was the epiphany.

“Art became this magical thing that could transport me to any place in the world,” he recalls.

“I still can’t forget that moment… if I didn’t go on that history excursion, maybe I wouldn’t be here today, being custodian of this amazing gallery.”

Mitzevich describes himself as “self-motivated”, though “driven” could be more accurate.

Once art found its way into his heart as a teenager he regularly bussed himself to the gallery to sate his appetite for it.

That involved catching three busses – four to five hours each way for a two-hour visit.

“If you connect with something, you become obsessed by it,” he reflects.

“I have friends who are like that about sport… or fashion, or medicine. They kind of share the same obsessive-compulsive behaviour to immerse yourself in something you connect with, and it’s something I don’t think any of us can define.”

He sees the best art as “opening a door that I didn’t think existed”.

“That’s when art for me is at its best: 99 per cent of the time it doesn’t happen… but that 1 per cent is so potent and so rich and so engaging that it keeps you looking and thinking and feeling.

“They’re the things I think are important when it comes to learning about art.”

Of course, that involves challenging and being challenged as well.

When Mitzevich began at the gallery in 2010, he was SA’s youngest ever director, a fact he says helped rather than hindered his reforming zeal.

“It was a total badge of honour in some ways,” he says.

“People here in Adelaide wanted progress and wanted change, and in some ways it made it easier because they could just say, ‘Oh isn’t he just crazy! He’s so young and crazy!’

“I was allowed to get away with so much more… if I was as silver-haired as I am today, I may not have been able to get away with it, but being fresh-faced and someone who just sort of crash-landed in Adelaide gave me the scope to ask questions, to suggest what at the time [seemed] ridiculous things… to try things that the institution’s never tried.”

He says he’s never more excited than when “buying things on the very edge… where you’re not sure it’s actually art, you’re not 100 per cent sure if it’s acceptable”.

But while he wants patrons to be confronted with works delving into man’s inhumanity – a recurrent theme of art through the ages – Mitzevich insists while “the world is a confronting place I generally argue things on the 6 o’clock news are more confronting that things you might find in your local art gallery”.

“What we try to find is a sense of poetry, a sense of history and a sense of emotion as well as provocation,” he says.

And his zeal at the moment is in pushing for a second site to convey those elements more completely – the much-touted “Adelaide Contemporary” gallery.

The Art Gallery of SA, he insists, is “bursting at the seams, both physically and with visitors”, with as little as 1.5 per cent of the gallery’s works on display at any one time.

“The whole idea of a second site is being able to use our gallery’s collection for educational purposes, tourism purposes and creative pursuits,” he says.

“At the moment, our collection sits in an anonymous storehouse that the public can’t visit… I think that’s a huge missed opportunity.”

Moreover, he says taking a risk on Adelaide Contemporary would give Adelaide a much-needed injection of confidence.

“The symbol of this is really important, because the ripple effect will be to encourage [people] to be more ambitious,” he says.

“I think this state needs important symbols of progress for its own wellbeing internally and externally, because we’re all weary of listening to the fact we’ve got our unemployment rate growing and negatives about industries closing… I think what’s super exciting is there are these great opportunities that aren’t traditional, that are at the grassroots and that are about collective achievement.

“There’s a multitude of entrepreneurs that are wanting to take risks, and a project like Adelaide Contemporary is the energy pill to both motivate them to be more ambitious and motivate people inside and outside the state to think differently about the potential of Adelaide.”

Rooster Radio’s podcast appears regularly on InDaily.

Nick Mitzevich will address the SA Press Club at the Hotel Grand Chancellor tomorrow.

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