A home in the heart of Melbourne's Arts Precinct

The Southbank campus redevelopment was made possible thanks to The Ian Potter Foundation, The Myer Foundation, Martyn Myer AO and Louise Myer, Marc Besen AC and the late Eva Besen AO, Joanna Baevski, The Robert Salzer Foundation, and other generous donors – together with the University and the Victorian State Government.

Brilliant artists need inspiring spaces, and the redeveloped Southbank campus is providing that backdrop for the University’s Fine Arts and Music students.

“The new and refurbished buildings on campus have lifted the infrastructure to meet the energy and passion the students and staff have always had,” said Professor Marie Sierra, Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music.

Behind this world-class development – brought to life through award-winning architects – are generous donors who believe in growing Melbourne as the cultural capital of Australia.

“The donors’ support means we can hold our own with any city in the world culturally, while also signalling possible future career paths to our students, who can take a five-minute walk to catch a major performance or see a key exhibition,” said Professor Sierra.

A globally unique vision

Professor Barry Conyngham was the Dean of Fine Arts and Music at the University between 2010–2020. Early on in the role, he started forming plans for a new and improved campus. “The big vision was driven by education of the creative artist, and the creation of a campus in the middle of the Arts Precinct – which automatically makes it unique, incredibly special, and unusual across the world,” explained Professor Conyngham.

Ian Potter Southbank Centre
Ian Potter Southbank Centre

Another important consideration was designing the buildings around the students’ needs – while also ensuring they were attractive spaces for industry partners to collaboratively work in.

“You need special spaces for teaching. So, our rehearsal and making spaces had to be flexible so that the emphasis need not be on the audience, but on the performer, the art maker, the filmmaker or the dancer.”

Through every step, Professor Conyngham was grateful for the support of philanthropists who gave so much more than just funding. “It was interesting that the catalyst really wasn’t me. The catalysts were those donors who came in early, who saw the potential,” said Professor Conyngham.

The former Dean and renowned composer said he started off with $15M for the redevelopment project in 2010 and was tasked with growing that number substantially.

Around that time, Professor Conyngham met philanthropist and businessman Martyn Myer AO, who along with other members of his family contributed $2.9M towards the redevelopment. Additionally, The Myer Foundation committed a transformational $5.1M – well and truly lifting the visionary project off the ground.

The Myer family’s immense contribution to this decade-long project didn’t stop there. Martyn Myer was also instrumental in driving the project forward. He brought with him invaluable experience and played a crucial role in securing the Victoria Mounted Police stables, which became home to the visual arts.

“Working closely with the government is essential, not least in our case where securing the police stables was key to opening up the whole campus,” said Mr Myer. “But we were able to present them with a compelling argument – we can be the cultural capital of Australia, of the world even, but for that you also need to support a world-class arts and culture training faculty, right there in the heart of it.”

Together with Professor Conyngham, Mr Myer also garnered the support of many more foundations and philanthropists – including the transformative contribution from The Ian Potter Foundation. By 2019, more than $200M of project work – a combination of philanthropic support and state government funding – had been secured.

Although it was hard work acquiring funding, securing existing buildings, and getting the development moving, Professor Conyngham and Mr Myer remained motivated by the significant vision of the project.

“We had a very exciting 10 years,” said Professor Conyngham.

Even when the spaces were being designed, built, or even dreamt about, I would say to my music students, ‘well, you might have to come back to see our new, beautiful conservatorium when it’s finished’.

Forming part of the cultural fabric

Eight years after its inception, most of the campus redevelopments were complete and ready to be enlivened by students and teachers. Since then, many collaborations between the University and the industry have unfolded intuitively.

One of the first collaborations was the University’s five-year partnership with the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO), facilitated through Mr Myer’s close relationship with both organisations and supported by the Sidney Myer University Trust.

Through the partnership – inspired by the outstanding quality of the teaching and learning facilities – the ACO’s musicians and guest artists provide unique training opportunities for the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music students.

Having a dedicated studio space in The Stables was a highlight for Fine Arts alum Ashley Perry during his studies.

Nikki Green
Nikki Green

“It was really incredible to have the space to be able to practise, store my equipment, be there to think through the works that I was making, and connect with the other students,” said Ashley. “Being able to create art in the centre of the city near galleries and other spaces was really important, and the light in The Stables is stunning as well!”

Bachelor of Fine Arts (Dance) alum Nikki Green said her time learning at the Southbank campus exposed her to inspiring, world-class choreographers.

“In my graduating year, I had the privilege of working with Anouk van Dijk and Stephanie Lake – both extremely incredible, independent choreographers renowned in Melbourne and worldwide,” shared Nikki.

She also reflected on the “really special” experience of performing with the NGV.

It was quite a big, exciting thing for us as first years to really understand the exposure of performing and the great relationship that the Victorian College of the Arts has with the arts community.

There’s no doubt the improved campus has given students more opportunities to work alongside and form relationships with their industry counterparts. And the brilliant facilities also allow students to be truly prepared for working in the industry.

“These are gorgeous spaces – but it’s all about developing the artists with the kind of rooms that they will work in. I think students of whatever kind respond to that,” said Professor Conyngham.

Setting the scene for the path ahead

Although restrictions due to COVID-19 have hindered many exhibitions and performances since the reopening of the Southbank campus, many fantastic collaborations were still able to take place. “You can just imagine how much we’ll be doing in 2022!” said Professor Sierra.

Through all these struggles, one thing was clear – the students showed a strong desire to return to their inspiring campus and did so at every opportunity.

“What the philanthropic supporters have given to the students, staff and public through the campus redevelopment is incredible; we can’t thank them enough for providing this great path forward.”