Alas, arts precincts maybe can make cultural cities

Every year thousands of people visit the VCA campus to check out the young artists’ work. Ollanani

The release last month of a Melbourne Arts Precinct Blueprint by Arts Victoria, that promises further development of the cultural precinct in the city’s Southbank, hasn’t come without its fair share of criticism, including views aired by Peter Tregear on this website last week. He questioned whether it was good public policy to invest more public funding into this precinct.

As director of the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) – an institution that will benefit greatly from this planned infrastructure development – I welcome the blueprint, which you could argue is an obvious stance for me to take. But I see this development as much overdue, and believe cultural activity can make the precinct. Here’s why …

Name a city that you love. It’s likely you’ll be thinking of somewhere that concentrates activity and human presence. There are some who will think of Brasilia or Canberra for their architectural distinction, or other places that have been part of a utopian vision which, while beautifully designed, in the abstract seem somewhat ill conceived in the living.

Others will think of the French Quarter in New Orleans, or in Shanghai, or the Latin Quarter in Paris; Soho in New York or Convent Garden in London. Yes, these are now over-hyped but they are still great places to be.

So, what does make a great city? That’s a question that preoccupies many a mind greater than mine. But what I do know is that life in the kind of city I like exists in waves of change around a human-scaled core. It has an authentic function and human activity.

Peter Tregear wrote on The Conversation of his scepticism about the hopes expressed in the recently-announced plans for an expanded arts precinct in Melbourne.

As highlighted already, I welcome those plans. They recommend enhancement of the precinct. In short, that will mean creating pedestrian pathways in and around the existing arts organisations already in residence in Southbank: the Melbourne Arts Centre, Hamer Hall, the Melbourne Recital Centre, the National Gallery of Victoria, the Malthouse Theatre, the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Chunky Move, and so on.

A A$42.5 million development project (funded significantly by the University of Melbourne Campaign) will also be incorporated, centred on the VCA’s Southbank campus, which aims to open up the institution to the broader community.

White Night Melbourne, 2014. Precious Bytes

Over and above my own declared interest, I’d suggest this will further enhance the cultural amenity for the people of Melbourne and bring long-term vibrancy through the making of art and the public experience of this.

Professor Tregear makes good and salient points about the history of such urban design decisions in other places. While accepting that so-called “precincts” can be artificially created and are often ill-conceived, it is important to recognise that, in this case, there is a clear urban design impulse of creating focus and critical mass. Melbourne has a positive history of doing this, from the original layout of the city to its more recent renewal, of revitalised laneways and residential living.

Notwithstanding the supposed galling chauvinism of Melburnians and their claims to living in the cultural capital of Australia, there is some real sense that the concentration of activity in the city has an impact of its livability.

While being a grateful recipient of support for the VCA’s infrastructure improvements, which include developing the Dodds Street police stables into a visual arts wing at the VCA, I assert that when the activity of an area has authentic and generative purpose the likelihood of success is improved.

The aforementioned planning blueprint is conscious of the potential pitfalls of urban planning that doesn’t respect locale and the stakeholders involved, of which there are many in this case.

Yes, there may be a danger in making a Disneyland of the arts, but there are also important discussions about the integration of residential and daily life with creative activities that have a positive social impact.

Work, study and play in Southbank

There are more than 13,000 residents in Melbourne’s Southbank area and more than 45,000 people work or study in the area each day.

Similarly, while it is too early to say much about the impact of the all-night White Night festival on Melbourne’s culture, for which more than 500,000 people flooded into the city over the weekend of February 22 to enjoy the artistic atmospherics, the community spirit demonstrated on such occasions indicates how an arts precinct can create social cohesion and optimism, a quality sorely needed in these times.

To my mind, much of the success of White Night is due to the Hoddle Grid, the layout of Melbourne’s CBD, the human scale of streets and buildings and the nooks and crannies discovered along the way. Such an experience in Melbourne’s Docklands, west of the CBD, with its wide-open spaces, would not be the same. This is the current challenge for the City of Melbourne and if these other urban design principles are applied it may succeed.

One of the core markers of success built into the Southbank plan is the centrality of the VCA – again, I declare my obvious personal interest – and the constant flow of talented young artists who train, learn and build strong links with established artists working in companies located nearby.

VCA’s School of Art Graduation Show, 2010. Ollanani

The average age of Southbank residents is 29, but the spectrum is wide. At the end of each academic year thousands of people flood into the VCA campus and see the work of emerging artists (at least 3,000 visitors see the VCA School of Art exhibitions on opening night alone), hear the music of young performers and watch dance, theatre and film.

This happens every year, in generational waves. It is this dynamism that will keep the precinct idea alive. The VCA is at the heart of this idea of precinct. And for this reason I have faith.

Notwithstanding my own bias, I believe this matches closely with new thinking in higher education about how the relationships and interaction with industry, the profession and audiences (in the case of the arts) are critical to the survival of both the learning institution and the presentation venues such as concert halls, art museums, galleries, theatres and cinemas.

University campuses themselves need to get with the program and become integrated with their local community as well as being highly valued in international rankings. Those things are not incompatible. Think global, act local.

So, I believe the Melbourne Arts Precinct Blueprint to be not only a great plan for the public, the residents and citizens of the city, whose taxes pay for this infrastructure, but for the institutions themselves. It is educationally sound.

In the case of the students studying in the arts, to be adjacent and in learning partnerships with their professional mentors and potential colleagues, exposed to great examples of excellence – what’s not to like?

Adding to the social benefits of engagement with and entertaining the broader population is the focus of creating hubs of creative, innovative activity, open to entrepreneurial partnerships, new work and advanced practices.

Bring on the precinct.


Do you work in urban development and planning? If you are an academic or researcher with relevant expertise and would like to respond to this article, email the Arts + Culture editor.


Further reading:
Alas, arts precincts don’t make cultural cities