A Change of Art: Melbourne's Art Scene

May 18, 2011


Deep in the labyrinth of Melbourne’s CBD, art appears in the most unexpected places. It pops up in a row of 19 glass-fronted mailboxes – surely Australia’s tiniest art gallery – in the tiled foyer of an art nouveau building in Flinders Lane. It lurks at the top of the stairs in a Georgian building where colonial artist Eugene von Gurard once lived in the 1850s (sarahscoutpresents.com). There is art in a pedestrian underpass, in pubs, in basement car parks and, most famously, lacquered all over laneway walls.

The Victorian capital’s artistic reawakening can be traced back to the early 1990s when a severe recession emptied city office blocks and slashed rents – ideal conditions for creativity to bloom. A small army of artists colonised empty buildings, transforming corporate cubes into vibrant studios or gallery spaces. One of the pioneers of the ’90s putsch was Andrew Mac, a Victorian College of the Arts graduate who captured the city’s new mood and the public’s imagination by turning abandoned shopfronts in Centre Place into a laneway art gallery. For the past 15 years, Mac has run Citylights, showcasing the work of more than 400 local and international artists in a series of permanent light boxes in Hosier Lane, the renowned street-art alley of which he is unofficial guardian.

“There were several thousand artists living and working out of the CBD,” says Mac. “In Flinders Lane, there were 25 or 30 buildings with artists’ studios in them.” Some of them went on to open businesses in the city – the first laneway bars, boutiques such as Alice Euphemia, and cafes and clubs that lent Melbourne its distinctive spirit. “Some of those businesses have been really influential in terms of the aesthetic and outlook of the city,” says Mac. “That’s what set the tone for the character of the CBD.”

Economic boom times and rising rents have forced many city-based artists to the suburbs or country in search of cheaper living, but Melbourne remains Australia’s most imaginative capital. Just how long the creative and the commercial can coexist is a matter for debate. Mac, for one, is pessimistic about art’s chances of survival in an ever more expensive city. “Artists make use of areas that no-one else wants,” he says. “While no-one was watching or cared about the city, artists came in and breathed new life [into it]. But I think we are on the cusp of losing a lot of that character.”

For now, Melbourne’s bluestone heart still beats with creativity, though it helps to know where to look. That’s where the knowledge of a passionate local comes in handy. Luckily, there are various tours that unlock the secrets of the city’s cryptic network of studios, galleries and street art, shedding light on the cultural life of the CBD.

Art Aficionado
+61 4 121 69 391.
In-house curator at the Art Series Hotels – The Cullen, The Olsen and The Blackman – Jane O’Neill is the latest addition to Melbourne’s roster of art-based tours. Her groups congregate outside the landmark Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar in Bourke Street and then visit six galleries and various public art works over two and a half hours. The itinerary covers hole-in-the-wall operations such as Gallery Funaki, where Dutch artist Nel Linssen’s sculptural paper jewellery is a highlight, and the sleek Murray White Room tucked inside an old car park. However, it also makes a pit stop at the Reserve Bank of Australia building to admire Sidney Nolan’s specially commissioned, 20m-long copper mural, Eureka Stockade. Other ports of call might include the blue-ribbon Anna Schwartz Gallery and artist-run spaces such as Neon Parc and Blindside in the Nicholas Building, one of the city’s last remaining artist enclaves. O’Neill, a freelance curator since 1995, offers a mix of history, interpretation and artist introductions. Tours run Fridays and Saturdays/$70 per person. Other itineraries available.

Walk to Art
+61 3 8415 0449.
Art consultant and artist mentor Bernadette Alibrando’s engaging excursions take outsiders inside the Melbourne art world, peering behind the hard-to-find doors of working studios and artist-run spaces. She mentors or represents many of the artists visited en route, which makes for easy introductions between creator and viewer. No two tours are the same; a typical four-hour ramble might take in quirky quasi-galleries such as Platform, a pedestrian underpass of glass-cased installations, or the Napier Hotel in Fitzroy, where artists display their wares in two upstairs exhibition spaces. She’s also well-schooled in street art, stopping to alert the uninitiated to some of the CBD’s more notable paintings and paste-ups. “I work with and manage artists, so the itineraries are always very current,” Alibrando says. “I get
to go to good art, to artists and paintings I wish to support.” Tours run Wednesdays and Saturdays/$108pp. The two-and-a-half-hour Express tour is $78. Alibrando also leads regular art walks in Manhattan. In October she will take a small group to the Venice Biennale and Tuscany.

Hidden Secrets Tours
+61 3 9663 3358.
Running since 2004, these tours offer an insider’s perspective on the hippest cafes and boutiques interwoven with liberal amounts of street and gallery art. The Lanes and Arcades tour samples street art in some of the 180-plus lanes and alleys, but also explores the creative urge behind obscure cafes or businesses and “vertical laneways” such as Swanston Street’s Curtin House, which is home to bars, a restaurant, rooftop cinema and even a kung-fu academy. The Art and Design walk visits underground sites such as Mailbox 141, Andrew Mac’s Until Never gallery and the street-art permit zone of Union Lane, which has its own curator, as well as more conventional spaces such as the Flinders Lane Gallery, one of the city’s foremost Indigenous art showrooms. Four-hour Lanes and Arcades tour, $115 (including lunch). The two-hour Art and Design tour is $70pp.

National Gallery of Victoria
180 St Kilda Road,
CBD, Melbourne.
+61 3 8620 2222.
The NGV hardly qualifies as a hidden treasure, but its small army of volunteer guides does. Each day these altruistic art lovers are on hand to introduce visitors to the extensive international and Australian collections of the NGV. Their free tours depart late morning and early afternoon from the foyers of the gallery’s two locations – the Australian art collection of the Ian Potter Centre at Federation Square and the international collection in the fortress-like St Kilda Road building. The former tour explores an array of Indigenous art from the colourful forest of Pukamani poles to Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s massive Big Yam Dreaming. Upstairs is devoted to colonial and post-colonial artists including Tom Roberts, Margaret Preston and Jeffrey Smart. At NGV International, visitors can choose a broad-brush collection tour or hone in on a specific area of interest such as portraiture or sculpture. There will also be dedicated guided tours during their Winter Masterpieces exhibition, Vienna: Art & Design, which opens this month. Collection tours are free. Visit website for further details.

Melbourne Street Art Tours
110 Franklin Street,
CBD, Melbourne.
+61 3) 9328 5556.
Armed with a Master of Fine Arts from the Victorian College of Arts, street artist Adrian Doyle is the ideal middleman to introduce novices to the art of central Melbourne. Doyle and his small team of practising artists designed these tours and now lead them, which lends a true insider’s perspective to proceedings. Their itinerary takes in the Blender Studios, a warehouse arts space in Franklin Street, established by Doyle in 2000, which became the birthplace of Melbourne’s radical street-art movement. If the tour inspires, Doyle and his crew can even organise your very own street-art commission, complete with council permit. Three-and-a-half-hour tours depart Federation Square thrice weekly, $69pp.

Private House Museums
Venice has the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, New York has The Frick Collection
and Melbourne has two relatively unknown art collections housed in private homes.

Lyon House museum
219 Cotham Road,
Kew, Melbourne.
+61 3 9817 2300.
Corbett and Yueji Lyon’s hoard of contemporary Australian art features works by artists such
as Patricia Piccinini and Howard Arkley displayed in the purpose-built Lyon Housemuseum, a modernist, zinc-clad monument in leafy Kew. Part family home, part exhibition space, it is open for public viewing strictly by appointment. Visits cost $22
and can be pre-booked by email: museum@lyonhousemuseum.com.au.

The Johnston Collection
Fairhall House Museum,
East Melbourne, Melbourne.
+61 3 9416 2515.
The rather more conservative collection of the late antique dealer and art lover William Johnston is held at the Fairhall House Museum which, in typical Melbourne style, is impossible to find on your own. Johnston’s trove of art, furniture and decorations from the 17th to 19th centuries is contained in an East Melbourne mansion whose address is kept secret so as
not to disturb the neighbours. The 90-minute weekday tours cost $22 per person and depart from the foyer of the Hilton on the Park Hotel at 192 Wellington Parade, East Melbourne.

The Compound Interest Centre
15-25 Keele Street,
Collingwood, Melbourne.
+61 3 8060 9745.
Opened earlier in the year, this so-called Centre for the Applied Arts defies easy description, but definitely warrants a visit. Established by New Yorker Jeremy Wortsman, the CIC is an artist-run warehouse comprising everything from two galleries and an agency for illustrators to a letterpress printer and vintage motorcycle restorer.

Source Qantas The Australian Way May 2011

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