A Flair For Culture

Matthew Westwood for Weekend Australian
18 Feb 2017
World-class institutions, venues old and new, the finest galleries and latest shows are an irresistible artistic formulaDo you know, it’s possible to visit Melbourne and not go anywhere near the MCG or flemington? you don’t need fair weather, team colours or a winning streak to have a good time. Melbourne is great for sport fans, but is even better for art lovers. The city isstillthe nation’s cultural capital. whether your arts fix is classical music or ballet, the latest hit musical or little bookshops and indie theatres, Melbourne is where you want to be.

Melbourne tops the cultural league table because of its historic and ongoing investment in arts infrastructure, the opportunities it offers artists, the support of government and donors, and event planning that ensures there is always something going on. As well as long-running shows and exhibitions, Melbourne has an enviable calendar of festivals and events, from special-interest festivals such as the biennial dance Massive, to this month’s all-night street party, white night Melbourne.

Special events supremo david Atkins is director of white night Melbourne, which will take over the city tonight. The dusk-to-dawn festival includes a swing band and dancing in Collins Street, colourful projections that wrap around buildings on flinders Street, and something called the Pyrophone Juggernaut, a flame-spewing, noise-making musical instrument made from salvaged metal. for the uninitiated, white night is a huge and crowded event, bringing up to 600,000 people into the city centre. Careful planning, crowd control and family-friendly areas help ensure an enjoyable night.

Atkins grew up in Melbourne and says the city ‘There is definitely a more European atmosphere in the city, with the architecture and culture and multicultural aspect of Melbourne’ David Atkins was formative to his education as a dancer and arts professional. He went on to create the hit song-anddance show Hot Shoe Shuffle, and was artistic director of the opening and closing ceremonies of the Sydney Olympic Games.

“I had a robust experience of the arts as a young kid growing up in Melbourne,” says atkins.

“Melbourne has always had the mantle of being the cultural capital and for good reason: the opera, the ballet, the arts Centre and the cultural institutions. a lot of our greatest artists have come out of that cultural environment: film, or fine arts or performing arts. There is definitely a more european atmosphere in the city, with the architecture and culture and multicultural aspect of Melbourne.”

Part of the reason for Melbourne’s cultural preeminence is the quality and proximity of its venues. no other australian city has such a concentration of facilities, from the beautiful old theatres of the city centre, to the grand boulevard of cultural institutions on St kilda road and the specialist venues of Southbank. you especially notice it at festival time, because show-hopping is so easy: an exhibition followed by dinner followed by the theatre followed by a late-night gig requires no more than a walk (or short tram ride) between venues.

The city’s newest festival is under way this month and runs through to april. The asia Pacific Triennial of Performing arts involves artists from 15 countries, often in collaboration with local companies. almost half of the events are world premieres. It includes a new play about China’s one-child policy, Little Emperors, at the Malthouse Theatre, and a collaboration between Indonesian filmmaker Garin nugroho and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra on Satan Jawa, a silent film with a live orchestral score.

Coming up next month on the Labour day long weekend is a uniquely Melbourne celebration, the Moomba festival, first held in 1955. It’s followed by the Melbourne International Comedy festival that goes through to april. Launched by barry Humphries and Peter Cook in 1987, the MICf is australia’s most

popular cultural festival, attracting more than 800,000 people, and is one of the biggest in the world.

The Melbourne festival, held in October, is the city’s leading international arts event, founded in 1986 as the Spoleto festival by composer Gian Carlo Menotti. It is now under the direction of Jonathan Holloway, and his first festival last year opened with the Tanderrum welcome to country by members of the kulin nation, and a parade led by a noisy group of basque street performers. The festival program launched in August includes visits from international arts companies and premieres by local groups such as the acclaimed back to back Theatre from Geelong.

The visual arts scene is so lively that it can’t be contained within conventional galleries, wonderful as they are. Melbourne is world famous for its vibrant street art, especially for Hosier Lane, a short cobblestone street that has become an ever-changing canvas. Across the road near federation Square is an (unauthorised) exhibition celebrating the elusive but undisputed leader of street artists, banksy. Original stencils by banksy in places such as ACdC Lane are lost, but Collingwood’s 1984 mural by American artist keith Haring has recently been restored, on the building that is now home to Circus Oz. A mural by Melbourne legend Mirka Mora can be seen on the St kilda Road side of flinders Street Station.

Venture indoors, and Melbourne has an enviable array of state art collections, small galleries and artist-run spaces. The grand dame of Melbourne arts is the national Gallery of Victoria, the nation’s oldest art museum and blessed with the richest collection. Thanks to the felton bequest, the gift of businessman Alfred felton, who died in 1904, the gallery was able to acquire a significant collection of European old masters. Tiepolo’s large-format The Banquet of Cleopatra, one of the most glamorous paintings you’ll see anywhere, takes pride of place in a recently rehung gallery.

The nGV has two venues: international art is found at the main bluestone building on St kilda Road, while the Australian collection is in the Ian Potter Centre at federation Square (the nation’s only stand-alone state gallery devoted to Australian art). As well as its permanent collection the nGV has a busy exhibition calendar, covering not only fine arts but fashion, design, architecture, even scent. Its summer exhibition, open until March 13, is a solo show by david Hockney, including paintings, photography and his recent iPad drawings.

The Melbourne winter Masterpieces series was started in 2004 and has refreshed the nation’s appetite for art blockbusters by offering an annual program of major international exhibitions. The series at the nGV and at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (since 2007) has attracted more than 5 million visitors since it started.

This winter sees the arrival of two sublimely different exhibitions. ACMI will delight fans of The visual arts scene is so lively that it can’t be contained within conventional galleries, wonderful as they are claymation studio aardman with wallace & Gromit and friends: The Magic of aardman (opening in June), while the nGV has a show devoted to one of the most beloved artists, Vincent van Gogh (april).

Curated by van Gogh specialist Sjraar van Heugten, Van Gogh and the Seasons features paintings and works on paper depicting the changing light and colour of the landscape, from winter’s muted tones to vibrant summer works such as A Wheatfield with Cypresses, coming from London’s national Gallery.

“It’s the largest exhibition of his work to come to australia, and I think there is a whole generation very eager to see them,” says nGV director Tony ellwood.

“It’s a wonderful way to look across his lifespan and look at every season. In winter, you get more of the interiors, and working with pen and ink and different media. The environment brings about a different physical response. but there are the glorious spring pictures, and the hot, arid summer works. They are incredibly evocative, both of the landscape and also his emotional connection to the land and environment.”

not for nothing is Melbourne known as the musicals city. Some of the world’s great musicals have made their Australian debuts in Melbourne, from 1990s hits such as Sunset Boulevard to this year’s must-have ticket, The Book of Mormon. The reason is that Melbourne has the nation’s best stock of theatres, all within a few city blocks now known as the East End Theatre district. while other cities were knocking their heritage theatres down, Melbourne’s were saved from the wrecking ball. The historic Athenaeum (opened 1839), the grand Princess and the minaret-topped forum are all working theatres, and fascinating places to visit in themselves.

Among the hit musicals coming to Melbourne this year are the disney blockbuster Aladdin (Her Majesty’s, from April) and Julie Andrews’s revival of My Fair Lady (the Regent, May). Just opened at the Princess is The Book of Mormon (february 4), the irreverent (some may say gloriously vulgar) musical from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and songwriter Robert Lopez.

while the East End Theatre district is the national home of musicals, St kilda Road and Southbank is the place for classical music, opera, ballet and drama. The home of performing arts is Arts Centre Melbourne, whose Theatre building is a local landmark, topped with a 162-metre steel spire. Its 2000-seat State Theatre has the biggest lyric stage in Australia and is the best place to see resident company the Australian ballet in full flight.

In March the ballet will present a triple-bill called Faster, a high-octane evening of dance by british choreographers wayne McGregor and david bintley, and Australia’s Tim Harbour. next door to the Theatre building is Hamer Hall, home to the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and looking and sounding great after its 2012 refurbishment.

Tucked behind the Arts Centre and the nGV is the Southbank precinct and a hive of creative activity.

It is home to the steel-clad Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, the AbC’s Southbank studios, the Victorian College of the Arts, and one of the nation’s best venues for chamber music, the Melbourne Recital Centre. Melbourne Theatre Company and the Malthouse both have their theatres here.

Southbank has been flagged for development as a major cultural hub. The AbC’s new television studio is under construction, and work is due to start this year on a new building for the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, a purpose-built facility with rehearsal studios and a recital hall cantilevered over the street.

Melbourne’s cultural life does not stop at the Cbd. La Mama in Carlton, Arts House in north Melbourne and Theatre works in St kilda are just three places to experience Melbourne’s vibrant independent theatremakers and performers. A train ride to Heidelberg will take you to the birthplace of Australian impressionism and to the Heide Museum of Modern Art. Its art gallery and the former home of art patrons John and Sunday Reed are set in beautiful grounds.

further afield but easily reached by train are the historic inland cities of ballarat, bendigo and Castlemaine, each with its own art gallery. The gold rush left a legacy of handsome colonial buildings and art collections; bendigo in particular has a fine art gallery with a permanent collection and program of international exhibitions.

ballarat this year will join the fun of white night While other cities were knocking their heritage theatres down, Melbourne’s were saved from the wrecking ball Melbourne, and host its own all-night celebration on March 4. In 2008 Melbourne was designated a UnESCO City of Literature, a recognition of the city’s long literary tradition and love of books. The State Library of Victoria in Swanston Street is the oldest, and grandest, public library in the nation. Make time to explore the library’s historic collectionit includes, as well as books and paintings, ned kelly’s suit of armourand spend an hour or two in the highdomed La Trobe Reading Room.

Melbourne is made for literary walks, talks and leisurely browsing. Take a self-guided tour of George Johnston’s Elsternwick, or Helen Garner’s fitzroy (include a swim at the fitzroy Pool). There’s a host of independent bookshops, from tiny stores such as the Paperback at the top of bourke Street (and conveniently close to Pellegrini’s for a coffee), to kay Craddock antiquarian bookseller in Collins Street.

The Melbourne writers festival is held each August, but literary events continue through the year. The wheeler Centre for books, writing and Ideas (opened with the support of Lonely Planet founders Maureen and Tony wheeler) and the local branch of Alain de botton’s School of Life both present a yearlong program of talks.

The city has all this to offer, but don’t just read about it. Once you start exploring Melbourne’s theatres, little bars, world-class concert halls, bookshops and festivals, you’ll discover there is always more to do and see. It gets under the skin, and keeps art-loving visitors coming back for more.

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