World-class performing arts centre drives city’s renaissance
26th August 2023

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Actor Rachel Griffiths says people wrongly assume she got her big break in Muriel’s Wedding. In fact, it was in the Woolly Jumpers, a Geelong community theatre company.

The newly opened Geelong Arts Centre.Credit: Peter Foster

Speaking at the official opening of the new Geelong Arts Centre this month, the internationally acclaimed actor highlighted the importance of grassroots arts organisations.

Rachel Griffiths paid tribute to community theatre at the Arts Centre opening.

The $140 million performing arts centre in Little Malop Street, designed by ARM Architecture and funded by the state government, has taken four years to build. It houses two theatres (one seating 550 and another 250), an atrium, a restaurant, box office, and refreshed back-of-house and administration facilities. The larger theatre – known as Story House – can be adapted to create a standing area for audiences, with seats retracting under the stage.

One of 43 UNESCO cities of design, Geelong’s art scene is vibrant and thriving. Rent increases in Melbourne and higher costs of living across the board have resulted in many artists being pushed out of traditional inner-city locations.

Artist Liz Wickramasinghe is preparing for a solo exhibition at Geelong’s Boom Gallery.Credit: Justin McManus

Liz Wickramasinghe, who relocated a decade ago from Melbourne, says Geelong is a beacon for creatives. “Having come from Melbourne, where there are lots of galleries, it’s a bit institutionalised or established. So it can be hard to crack into it,” she says.

“Down here, there’s all these new entry-level galleries, there’s so much inspiration. There’s this kind of new feeling about Geelong, it’s like this renaissance we’re going through. Artists used to live in Fitzroy and Collingwood back in the ’70s and ’80s. That’s become really expensive and they’ve moved out to Preston and Reservoir. There’s a lot of artists here [in Geelong] now, it’s part of that movement.”

She studied design initially, then worked at the NGV for five years, before studying Fine Arts. After graduating, she taught art at high schools and four years ago became an artist full-time.

She likes the city’s working-class history, including the industrial areas – such as the old woollen mills in Rutland Street, home to Boom and Big Boom Galleries as well as an array of artisans – the combination of new and old homes, the great restaurants and bookshops, and its diverse, multicultural communities. And, of course, the broader natural environment, the coast, the wetlands and the big sky overhead.

Growing up bushwalking and being taught cross-stitch, embroidery and tapestry by her dressmaking grandmother, Wickramasinghe’s work is influenced by the natural world and created using layering techniques, linocuts and painting. The You Yangs, Mount Arapiles and the wetlands surrounding her can be seen in her upcoming show at Boom.

The exterior resembles a curtain in a nod to the theatres inside.Credit: Ferne Millen Photography

Wickramasinghe was wary of Geelong before moving she kept an open mind and found that she loved it – in fact, she says, it’s been a revelation. “You feel like there’s this new thing going on here.”

The Arts Centre deliberately flips the idea of the traditional black box theatre on its head, says chief executive and creative director Joel McGuiness. It opens to the street, with a wall that can be retracted to allow performances to spill outside.

The design is playful with ceilings inspired by circus tents, mirrored walls and a bright-blue “tunnel” connecting spaces; the exterior resembles a draping curtain.

Benji, Oscar and Ned McKenzie in Oasis, with puppet bees by Indirect Object.Credit: Justin McManus

First Nations stories feature prominently, with works by Kait James, Gerard Black, Tarryn Love and Mick Ryan embedded throughout. James’ artwork on the building’s western wall, called Dry your dishes on my culture, calls out the treatment of Indigenous Australians.

Geelong Arts Centre CEO and creative director Joel McGuinness.Credit: Peter Foster

The Wadawurrung artist used Aboriginal souvenir tea towels from the 1960s, 70s and 80s that stereotyped her culture, depicting an Indigenous man on a rock for example, as her starting point: she embroiders over the top to change the narrative and to give her and her people a voice. “You reel them in and then slap them in the face with something,” she says. “I admire how brave they were to select my work.“

On the ground floor is Oasis, a neon wonderland of plants and creatures – including oversized bees and stunning jellyfish suspended from the ceiling – and volcanic islands that erupt (via a smoke machine) regularly. Made largely from discarded plastic bottles, collected locally and refashioned, it’s the work of Footscray-based Indirect Object, developed in association with members of the Norlane Community Centre.

Despite the city’s art renaissance, Geelong City Council in April dissolved its arts and culture department, led by its manager Martin Paten, who oversaw a $21 million operating budget. Headhunted from Footscray Arts Centre in 2019, Paten formulated the council’s 10-year arts and culture strategy, which involved consulting 1700 local community members and industry stakeholders statewide and nationally.

Almost all the city’s cultural facilities sat under the arts and culture portfolio, including the Geelong Regional Library Corporation, the National Wool Museum, the Bellarine Arts Centre — also known as the Potato Shed — and the Geelong Gallery. The department oversaw all the city’s grants, festivals, public art, its vast art and heritage collection and community cultural programs, and was a key liaison with the Geelong Arts Centre. On behalf of the city, Paten was also lead adviser for cultural programming for the Commonwealth Games.

In a statement, Geelong City Council’s acting chief executive officer Kaarina Phyland said the council recognised the immense value arts and culture brought to the community. “The city has undertaken a comprehensive review of its operations to ensure the efficient allocation of resources. Recent staffing changes within the organisation reflect a deliberate effort to streamline processes, create better efficiencies and ensure financial sustainability,” she said.

“These changes are aimed at enabling the city to more effectively support and promote arts and culture initiatives that align with its long-term vision.”

To celebrate the Arts Centre’s opening, a month-long festival of activities is under way. Missy Higgins performs on Sunday night, and in coming weeks the program will include The Barber of Seville by Opera Australia, comedian Ross Noble, Belvoir Street Theatre’s Miss Peony and Priscilla: The Musical.

Geelong Arts Centre opening festival runs until September 23. Liz Wickramasinghe’s show, Textile Train, is at Boom Gallery from September 14 to October 8.

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