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Art Precincts

“A media release is not a creative precinct,” said the Minister for creative industries, Martin Foley, when he announced plans to spend millions to create the Collingwood Art Precinct centred around the refurbished old Collingwood TAFE building. Arts precincts are a popular idea in urban planning. But is there anything more to a precinct than an official artwash announcement designating an area of a city and repurposing old buildings into studios or performance spaces? How sustainable are arts precincts? And what is their impact on grassroots creative precincts?

Keith Haring mural at the Collingwood arts precinct

In the past local city councils often ambitiously declared an area “an arts precinct” and hoped for the best. The City of Yarra once proclaimed the “Smith St art precinct” on one side of a block with one art gallery, a couple of designers and a community radio station.

If we were to count the Collingwood Art Precinct, then Melbourne currently has several arts precincts, the main one in Southbank centred around the NGV, State Theatre, Concert Hall, ACCA, Buxton Contemporary. Melbourne also has a Sports and Entertainment Precinct around the Tennis Centre and MCG. And there is the Brunswick Design Precinct with the TAFE design faculty and Siteworks in a converted old school building and heritage house. These different precincts raise the distinction between the arts, entertainment and design in the collective consciousness as reflected by city planners and politicians and built into the city’s structure.

The Southbank arts precinct has changed from swampland to an area for popular entertainment. Wirth’s Circus and others used to pitch their tents where the Arts Centre now stands. It was a decaying area of warehouses in the 1980s; the old police horse stables are now part of the College of the Arts, and a brewery has become the Malthouse Theatre.

Southbank only has training facilities and high-end exhibition and concert halls, cutting out the mid-level entirely. There is very little street art, no artist-run spaces, and no commercial galleries. It is a high-end attraction for the urban tourist, full of institutions exhibiting highly finished art and expensive cafes beyond the budget of the arts and music students who study there and must walk twenty minutes to find an affordable place to eat.

Performance artists in ACCA forecourt 2016

Compare this to grassroots locations that spontaneously emerge in the inner city. One such area is around the Brunswick Tram Depot, between Moreland Road and Albion Street. It did not occur due to media releases but available and affordable space. It is light industrial on the edge of inner-city suburbs with lots of warehouse space, some of which have been converted into artist studios and a gallery. Neon Park is the kind of high-end commercial gallery with a stall at the Melbourne International Art Fair. There is no public space, and the closest thing to a park is a planter box. Still, it does have bluestone laneways that are regularly covered in fresh graffiti. And there is live music and cheap cocktails at Red Betty’s in Houdini Lane.

In spooky synchronicity, an artist working in that area sends me this SMS message as I write this. “You should get really topical and investigate how the local council funding of studios in Moreland, such as Schoolhouse and Pentridge, have adversely impacted the homegrown grassroots economies of all the independent studios in the region.”

So much for the guff from the Minister for creative industries. The point of arts precincts does seem to be the media opportunity for the politician. Generally to announce funding to convert the old building (or build new ones) rather than to support the arts where it already exists.

Melbourne’s Art World

Melbourne’s art world exists in buildings, on the streets, in the minds, words and actions of people. And these people, however many there are, exist within architecture, in a greater geography and even seasons. Understanding the art world is important to contemporary art because much of contemporary art depends on the art world as a support, like Renaissance frescos depend on the walls of palaces and churches for support.

Melbourne’s art gallery season lasts from late February to November. It is too hot in December and January, along with the disruption of the many public holidays in these months. March and early April is busy but interrupted by Easter and ANZAC Day long weekends. The high artistic season for Melbourne is October, the first month after the football season where several arts festivals compete for the public’s attention. January is often a time for silly art news – a fried Sidney Nolan, paintings by a toddler and other stunts. In November and early December there are many end of year exhibitions by art students or commercial galleries showing collections from their stockroom.

Looking at Melbourne’s art world on a map (such as the ones in Art Almanac) it would appear that there are several clusters of galleries. Most of the galleries are in the CBD, Fitzroy, Collingwood and Richmond. There are a few clusters further out on High St. Armadale, Toorak Rd. and High St., Northcote (Melbourne street names make up for in repetition what they lack in originality). Beyond these inner city suburbs the spread of galleries gets thinner as you move further out from the CBD.

The major visual arts institutions of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), the Australian Centre of Contemporary Art (ACCA) are located in the arts precinct along the St. Kilda Road spine.

In Flinders Lane there are many of Melbourne’s commercial galleries and rental spaces. Just off Flinders Lane there is the famous Hosier Lane with some of Melbourne’s best street art. There are also galleries associated with tertiary institutions in the CBD especially at RMIT which has strong visual arts and design programs.

Out of the CBD the greatest concentration of galleries is in Fitzroy and some of the most interesting are on Gertrude St. Most of the galleries in Collingwood are on the edge of Fitzroy on Smith St. or the small streets around Australian Galleries on Darby St. In Richmond most of the galleries are along the very short Albert St. High St., in Northcote has several rental spaces and artist run galleries in shop front spaces. And south of the Yarra the cluster of art galleries on High St in Armadale may look impressive but mostly it is the preserves of antique dealers and the blandest of art galleries. There is a slow move of galleries northwest towards Brunswick and North Melbourne due to affordable locations and access to public transport. The spread of art galleries is similar to the Melbourne’s street art with an inner city and inner suburban core that quickly diminishes in intensity and quality at the outer suburbs.

Melbourne’s art world also exists in the endless talk about art. Talk at gallery openings over glasses of wine, talk in studios over joints and still more talk. And the discussion is continued on websites on community radio, on the very occasional ABC TV show, in the free street papers, in the local art magazines. Melbourne’s public love an art scandal to talk about but the rest of the discussion is more important. And the sum of all this talk – forms and informs people’s idea of art in Melbourne.

How large the art world is a matter of philosophical debate. There is an Arthur Danto’s art world where a relatively few people carp endlessly about art (Danto, The State of the Art, New York, 1987, p.122). Or George Dickie’s more expansive art world that includes “every person who sees himself as a member of the art world is thereby a member.” (Dickie, Art and Aesthetics, Ithica, 1974, p.36). Howard S. Becker goes further than Dickie by including the gallery attendants, the art shop employees and paint manufactures, “all of the people whose activities are necessary to the production of the characteristic works which the world, and perhaps others as well, define as art.”  (Howard S. Becker Art Worlds, Berkeley, 1982, p.34)

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