A tour of Melbourne’s Arts Precinct and the people who make it

The Stables in the foreground of the Melbourne Arts Precinct. Video still from Bison United, 2018.
The Stables in the foreground of the Melbourne Arts Precinct. Video still from Bison United, 2018.

The reimagining of Melbourne’s Southbank is a source of disruption, possibility and hope for the people and organisations of the Arts Precinct. 

By Susanna Ling

Melbourne’s Arts Precinct has had a lot of publicity of late. Cradled in a bend of the Yarra River just south of the central business district, it’s set alongside the Royal Botanic Gardens and extends all the way down to the Malthouse Theatre on Sturt Street – and it’s undergoing what state Premier Daniel Andrews has described as “a once in a generation transformation”.

But new buildings and reimagined thoroughfares, exciting as they are, are only part of the story. I’ve set out to talk to the flesh-and-bones people who work at the organisations who give the Arts Precinct its name, to see what it means to them – to get to the beating heart of this suburb.

As far back as the turn of the 20th century, what’s now the Arts Precinct was regarded as the entertainment district of Melbourne – a public space alive with dancing, a 5000-seat circus auditorium, and an ice-skating rink. Legislation to turn the area into a dedicated cultural hub was passed in 1946, but progress was slow.

The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) opened in 1968; the Arts Centre, after the negotiation of significant geographical difficulties, in 1984.

The Arts Precinct is currently undergoing huge transformation. Photo by Susanna Ling.

Today, rapid change is afoot. Barricades and bollards line Southbank Boulevard, with signs assuring us that “Southbank is still performing while we’re transforming”. Bunting hangs from power poles, and piles of rubble call to mind the inevitable scenes of destruction ten minutes into any Marvel movie.

Cranes loom over what will shortly open as The Ian Potter Southbank Centre, the centrepiece of the $200 million infrastructure build at the University of Melbourne’s Southbank campus, which will also see a new linear park connecting Sturt Street and Dodds Street.

The Ian Potter Southbank Centre, by John Wardle Architects, under construction. Photo by Susanna Ling.

With significant financial investment from the Victorian government to support Southbank’s revitalisation, plans to date include the new NGV Contemporary gallery, upgraded theatres, greened public spaces and the redevelopment of Dodds Street and Southbank Boulevard.

City of Melbourne signs bordering the Southbank Boulevard construction site. Photo by Susanna Ling.

Lights, camera, action

I’ve arranged to meet filmmaker Nikki Tran on the corner of St Kilda Road and Southbank Boulevard, because the place I’m headed first – ACMI X, where Tran is a creative resident – is notoriously difficult to find.

It’s located behind the NGV, Australia’s oldest and most visited gallery, which occupies the large corner block opposite the University’s Southbank campus. Two long white posters unfurl on either side of the entrance, advertising the gallery’s current exhibition of works from New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It’s a reminder – as is the busload of overseas travellers that’s just piled out onto the footpath – that Melbourne is an internationally-focused city.

The St Kilda Rd entrance to the National Gallery of Victoria. Photo by Susanna Ling.

Tran and I weave in behind the curved wall of the Arts Centre and cross a narrow pedestrian bridge.

Occupying half a floor of the Primrose Potter Australian Ballet Centre, home of the Australian Ballet studios, ACMI X is an open-plan co-working space dedicated – very evidently – to the creative industries. Retro arcade games beckon from the kitchen, geometric patterns cover the walls, pieces of vintage film equipment stand, unobtrusively, in corners.

Tran, a 2014 Master of Producing graduate from the Victorian College of the Arts, is into her second year of residency at ACMI X. On any given day, she’ll find herself working alongside games developers, artificial intelligence start-ups, screenwriters, and virtual reality designers.

“I first applied in 2016 with fellow VCA graduate filmmaker Simon Trevorrow, when we were halfway through production of our web series Fresh!”, Tran explains. “We thought it would be a great space to have production meetings – just to have a space to come and work that’s not our homes.”

As a filmmaker looking to bridge the gap between study and the profession, for Tran the residency is also about creating industry connections. “Working in here, you really feel like you’re part of something, and because there are other people in the film industry working here, it really opens up the possibilities for collaboration.”

We head back towards the bustle of St Kilda Road and part ways – Tran is off to pack for her upcoming trip to LA, where her web series will be screening internationally for the first time at the Los Angeles Film Festival.

Fine tuning

I decide to take a shortcut to my next destination – the recently redeveloped ABC studios – but get lost somewhere behind the loading docks of the Arts Centre, cool and dark and strewn with pallets. I catch a glimpse of the roofless alternative arts space Testing Grounds across the street. At times packed to its steel rafters, today it’s playing host to just a few coffee-drinkers enjoying the mid-morning sun.

Testing Grounds. Photo by Susanna Ling.

I’m a little late to meet Jack Schiller, who has been Principal Bassoon of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra since 2013, and for whom Southbank is a familiar stomping ground.

Jack Schiller, Principal Bassoon with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Susanna Ling.

Depending on the venue for the week’s concerts, he’ll be rehearsing either at the ABC’s Iwaki AuditioriumHamer HallSidney Myer Music Bowl or the Melbourne Recital Centre – or, as he did earlier this year for a MSO chamber music performance of early music, among a collection of old harpsichords at the NGV.

He’s also a mentor for the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music’s new Master of Music (Orchestral Performance), which pairs aspiring orchestral musicians with their professional counterparts in the MSO.

Despite working across multiple venues in the precinct, Schiller doesn’t see the links binding all of the organisations – and the area – together.

“But maybe once the redevelopment is finished, the Arts Precinct will be more connected,” he says, pausing. “And hopefully then we’ll have some better food options”.

The waiting game

I need to introduce Schiller to Godot, which opened a little over a year ago. A small café with a minimal, industrial-feel fit out, it’s tucked in a quiet spot in the shadow of residential high-rises.

As with all good Melbourne watering holes, it’s not particularly easy to find. From Sturt Street, I turn in at the Assembly Point exhibition space (the exhibitions change monthly), walk past the Creative Spaces Guild and the Melbourne Fringe Festival office, and … there it is: glass doors flung open, students and office workers lined up, a muted palette of navies and natural tones punctuated by the high-vis orange of construction workers from the many building projects underway.

The Assembly Point exhibition space. Photo by Susanna Ling.

Owner Pourya Sadr has a deep connection with Southbank. An engineer by profession, after moving from Iran to Australia in 2008 he worked in food and beverage at the Arts Centre Melbourne and the Malthouse Theatre, was a regular visitor at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, and had a show at the Melbourne Fringe Festival.

He shies away from calling himself an artist – “I’m an enthusiast” – but clearly holds the arts very dear.

“When I left the Arts Centre and started working as a builder for cafés around the city, I always wanted to come back to the Arts Precinct because of the experience I’d had in the area”, he says.

Godot owner Pourya Sadr. Photo by Susanna Ling.

Having struggled in his own student days to find places close to uni that catered to a meagre budget, he set out to start a café that did just that. The art that adorns the cafe walls has been either commissioned or purchased from student artists, and in time, Sadr hopes to set up a screen on the back wall for video projections as a free, student-curated exhibition space.

Most of the Godot staff are current or recently graduated art students, which can be problematic when the end-of-year exhibition rolls around and none of them is available for shifts.

“But it’s very pleasant place to work. Everybody is inspired. A happy team, for me, is always better than a skilled team.”

Sadr is optimistic about the revitalisation of the area. “Next year, as this whole area becomes more viable for pedestrians, I imagine there will be a lot of venues opening up”, he says, “and I’m hoping that it will create an artistic triangle.”

The show must go on

The Australian Centre for Contemporary Art. Photo by Susanna Ling.

The Australian Centre for Contemporary Art is just a short walk from Godot, on the corner of Sturt and Grant Street – a stack of giant Toblerone pieces atop a wide gravel plot. Last month the forecourt was teeming with visitors to the Melbourne Art Fair’s Vault Hall, keen to see the most exciting contemporary art of the region from within the prefab walls of a luxury tent, but today it’s mostly empty.

ACCA somewhat dwarfs the neighbouring Coopers Malthouse, an 1892 building of red brick archways and narrow windows. Once a brewery, it now houses the two theatres, rehearsal rooms, bar and café of the Malthouse Theatre. Vestiges of its history remain in the beer kegs repurposed as bar tables, and cheesy nineties pop oozes out of speakers mounted to its outside walls.

The Coopers Malthouse, home to the Malthouse Theatre. Photo by Susanna Ling.

Next, I head through the covered walkway back towards Grant Street, passing by the unassuming door to the studios of Melbourne’s flagship contemporary dance company Chunky Move.

A small sandwich board on the footpath of Dodds Street assures me the Margaret Lawrence Gallery is currently open, while across the road, paint-smeared students pass in and out of the refurbished former police Stables, recently reopened as a visual art wing and performance space.

The matrix of white tubing clinging to the façade of Melbourne Theatre Company’s (MTC) Southbank Theatre is luminescent in the sunlight, and the red LED text crawling around the corner of the building tells passers by what’s on now (Working With Children) and what’s coming up next (The Architect) for one of the city’s major performing arts companies.

Finding myself fenced off from Southbank Boulevard – a colossal drill is churning up the road – I’m unsure whether to take a left past the MTC and the Melbourne Recital Centre, or a right, past the Precinct’s recently opened art museum which houses a $10 million collection of contemporary artworks from Australia and New Zealand.

Buxton Contemporary, exhibiting The Creation of the World, 2011 by Ronnie van Hout. Photo by Susanna Ling.

A Ronnie van Hout video work on the screen above the entry to the Buxton Contemporary, in which the artist appears to be eating a smaller version of himself, decides for me.

Taking centre stage

I’ve now looped back to visit the Arts Centre Melbourne, a stone’s throw from the NGV on St Kilda Road.

Arts Centre Melbourne. Photo by Susanna Ling.

Outside, rippling flags advertise the Australian Ballet and Orchestra Victoria’s production of Spartacus, now on at the Arts Centre’s State Theatre. Inside, a piano in the foyer invites visitors, Alice-in-Wonderland-style, to “Play me – I’m yours”. Everything – carpets, ceiling, pillars, lifts, bannisters – is deep red and gold, dimly glittering under the canopy of yellow downlights.

I’m here to meet Stephen Armstrong, Creative Director of Asia TOPA, the Asia-Pacific Triennial of Performing Arts. Deciding it’s too windy to sit outdoors, we head for the café hidden behind the dazzling displays of the Australian Music Vault.

The Australian Music Vault, housed within Arts Centre Melbourne. Photo by Susanna Ling.

Armstrong points out that, in the intervening decades since the first Arts Precinct buildings were conceived – the NGV, Hamer Hall, and Arts Centre Melbourne – our notions of culture and art and community have shifted.

“We suffer from living and working in buildings that were designed with a kind of modernist principle. In the past, these buildings were shut down. You had to have a ticket to get inside. That is completely antithetical to the way we view things now, which is to put the inside on the outside as much as we can, to engage and say, ‘You’re welcome’.”

Like much of this part of the city, Arts Centre Melbourne is the process of being reimagined. Its major venues, forecourts, and public spaces will all be reconfigured with a view to becoming part of a more integrated Arts Precinct.

“So you won’t be at Arts Centre Melbourne, necessarily, you’ll be in the precinct,” says Armstrong. “Likewise if you’re attending a VCA exhibition at The Stables. And that doesn’t mean that any of us lose our identity or our sense of responsibility for art forms or our audience – it just means greater opportunity … The way that the precinct is developing geographically and spatially means that we’re closer together.”

As I walk back along Southbank Boulevard, past the rubble and swinging cranes, Armstrong’s words in my head, I’m reminded of a recent interview with composer and festival director Jonathan Mills upon his appointment as Enterprise Professor to Southbank’s Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, in which he articulates the questions – and hopes – that seem to be on the minds of many of those who work within the precinct.

“How does one make sense of opportunities of co-location that are happening? How does this Faculty relate to the many professional arts organisations on its doorstep and vice versa?”

It’s exciting to imagine what Melbourne’s Arts Precinct might look like in a few years’ time, and with so much investment in the area – of which financial is only one kind – we can all look forward to greater opportunity to open up doors, forge new connections, and celebrate our diversity in a shared public space.