On Saturday, the 16th of November at The Channel, we had the opportunity to meet Vicki Fairfax, author of A Place Across the River, and to hear from the inside all about Arts Centre Melbourne (originally Victorian Arts Centre) and its development from an early 1940s vision to the opening, firstly, in November 1982 of the Concert Hall—Premier John Cain stepped aside to allow Rupert Hamer to officially open what is now known as Hamer Hall—and then two years later by that of the Arts Centre's Theatres Building by John Cain, Ken Myer (Chairman of the Arts Centre Trust) and Race Mathews (Minister for the Arts).
Vicki's late husband George was a founding father of the Centre, the Trust's General Manager and had been involved with the Arts Centre in many different capacities for well over a decade. The Arts Centre story tells of trials and tribulations, a reminder that the site could so easily have been turned over to less ambitious, more commercial enterprises.
So many people were involved—Keith Murdoch, composer Margaret Sutherland, Henry Bolte and Kenneth Myer, Rupert Hamer wearing three hats - those of Premier, Treasurer and Minister for the Arts—also John Cain, both father and son. Later more names—Eric Westbrook, Nugget Coombs, Roy Grounds, Martin Carlson, Frank Van Straten, and many, many more, too numerous to mention.
And on the design side, an absolutely top-notch team headed by theatre designer and art director extraordinaire, John Truscott. “What interiors you gave us,” so wrote The Age's John Lahey in 1984 at the launch of the Theatres Buildings. “Did you ever stop working on these magnificent buildings? Remember when you couldn't get enough money out of the Trust or the Government or somebody, and you looked at the paltry amount available and went ahead anyway, cutting your cloth to suit your purse, but cutting it in a way that nobody else could have done? I remember once you told me you were thinking of the future generations who would use these buildings. They will applaud.”
Vicki told us of the many problems confronting the architects, builders, engineers—for example the fact that beneath the proposed site of the Arts Centre the old course of the Yarra had run, rendering the ground extremely fluid and of inferior quality. This meant it was necessary to build the Concert Hall quite separately and not part of the Theatres Building. Vicki's wonderful book, published by Macmillan Art in 2002, is gloriously illustrated and is an absolute must for any library or collection, be it/they public or private. There is no way this short report can come anywhere near doing justice to Vicki and her utter triumph of a book.
In Saturday's audience at The Channel we were honoured to find Michael Hipkins, the Arts Centre's original Project Manager, and delighted that he could join us later and regale us with more tales and anecdotes relating to the Centre's creation.
The Director of ‘Reimagining Arts Centre Melbourne’, Chris King, followed Vicki. He spoke of major operations, changes, what is to come, what is expected, particularly since the development of Southbank, now home to 20,000 residents. Better access to the buildings—for starters—and those buildings upgraded, revitalized, additional gardens and a park, pedestrian spaces to link galleries, theatres and other arts organizations. A new entry pavilion is envisaged, along with greatly improved accessibility. The National Gallery Victoria will have a contemporary addition (what was once the Opera Australia building) and at 1 City Road the Australian Performing Arts Collection, finally, will have a home, although currently no funding exists for the project.
Respecting the heritage of the Arts Centre, recognizing the culture of the past—talks are being conducted with the original designers and architects; for instance Daryl McFall, the project architect who inherited Roy Ground's cloak. It was Daryl who solved so many problems that sometimes seemed insuperable.
Chris stressed that any images he was showing us were pure speculation only—as yet no design team has been appointed. “Imagine what John would have done!” could or should be the cry!
Questions for both speakers followed, regarding environmental impact, what, if any, changes to the spire, regrets were voiced over the loss of much of Sidney Nolan's Paradise Gardens, Truscott's beautifully appointed Vic Restaurant and the Treble Clef, Chris was asked how is it all to be done, and how long will it take? Ten years, bit by bit, was the answer to this last query, and beginning next October, the State Theatre will close for six months.
I think it is appropriate to add the line Vicki wrote at the conclusion of A Place Across the River, “The Victorian Arts Centre is poised and ready, as it always has been, to face yet another new beginning.”
Thanks to both Vicki and Chris for such an enlightening and inspiring afternoon.