CV: Elizabeth MacGregor: Director of the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham

Elizabeth began her career in art exhibitions by driving a bus around Scotland. In 1995 she was on the judging panel that awarded Damien Hirst the Turner prize. Now, aged 39, she has just presided over the Ikon Gallery's move to a new building.
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The Independent Culture
My dad is a bishop, he converts people to religion; I convert them to art. Growing up as a vicar's daughter I had to be a bit of a rebel but my mother swears she knew I would do something like this because I was good at painting when I was five.

I grew up on the Orkneys, which had a good school-music tradition: I learnt five instruments and that was my big love. But it was very difficult to take music or art if you were planning to go to university, and that was a tension. My maths teacher told me that going to music college would be a shocking waste of a good brain - when you are 15 that is quite a difficult thing to resist.

I went to Edinburgh to study languages, and I took art history as a minor subject. I selected it out of the blue, but I liked it so much that in the second year I made it my main degree. I got involved with the education department at the National Galleries of Scotland and volunteered to do guided tours. That was when my interest in how people respond to art began. I applied to do a post-graduate course in Museum and Gallery Studies at Manchester University and was fortunate to get a place - it was the gallery experience that stood me in good stead.

We did a series of placements while on the course and I must admit I found the idea of working in a museum rather depressing. A lot of museums become custodians for treasures rather than getting people involved. I didn't feel like going into a museum and working my way through to the stage where I could make a difference.

It was like dream when I got the job at the Scottish Arts Council driving their travelling gallery. Painted bright green and red, like the circus coming to town, it was the opposite of the aura you get around an art gallery. I spent three weeks getting my HGV licence - physically it was hard work, especially in the winter when we had some pretty hairy moments in the snow.

In 1985 I moved to the Arts Council of Great Britain as Regional Galleries Visual Arts Officer. I spent most of my life on the train travelling to act as an adviser to galleries throughout the country. After several years I began to get frustrated: I was advising and setting up schemes but not actually doing it myself. I wanted to get back in the front line. The job at the Ikon came up at the right time; I'm a great believer in fate.

Getting into the field is all about demonstrating your enthusiasm and commitment. That voluntary work I did as a student got my foot on the ladder; I could say I didn't just sit through my degree and hope for the best. It is very, very competitive, but you must be prepared to go for it.

This is the height of my career. In the new building, the Ikon has the potential to be world-class. It is wonderful to see people come through the doors. At the end it is not about my career, it's about providing a facility for the people of Birmingham.

Judging the Turner prize was traumatic - I will continue to defend the prize, but the whole idea of judging one artist against another is a nightmare. I think it is important that you have things that are controversial; it would be very boring if everybody agreed.

What I would like to see is people coming in and making up their own minds - not just reading about it in the tabloids. Galleries are not about a few people having a nice time looking at exhibitions; there is a real social and educational need for the things we do.

Interview by Michael Greenwood

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