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What to See and Do in Melbourne, Australia’s Creative Hub

Kendall Hill

A 19th-century mechanical trade school flanked by public housing towers might seem an unlikely setting for artistic revival, but Melbourne’s visionary urges are not easily bound by convention. The Collingwood Arts Precinct, opening in February, is a trio of three-story buildings that were left derelict when classes ceased 10 years ago. They will soon be open to the public, and home to a thriving community of potters, painters, and sculptors; a public radio station; a band rehearsal space; artist-run galleries; and the Social Studio, a nonprofit incubator for refugee- and migrant-founded fashion labels. There’s a restored Keith Haring mural from 1984 depicting a giant caterpillar, a café for refueling, and acrobats, too—Australia’s leading troupe, Circus Oz, is based here. The debut of Collingwood is indicative of the city’s boundary-pushing arts scene—one that started in the 1990s with graffiti-covered alleys, seemingly endless numbers of independent galleries, and the kind of public art projects that simply don’t exist anywhere else in Australia.

Across town from Collingwood in the bohemian seaside enclave of St. Kilda, meanwhile, hotelier and art collector Louis Li is opening his latest acquisition, Rain Room, in a pop-up space through January, managed by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. It’s a surreal interactive experience of sensor-activated rain showers by London art collective Random International, and was previously exhibited at that city’s Barbican Centre, and MoMA in New York. In 2022, it will be installed permanently on the roof of Li’s forthcoming downtown hotel, the ultraluxe Jackalope, whose sister property on the Mornington Peninsula—an art gallery/hotel hybrid about an hour’s drive south of Melbourne—has garnered rave reviews since opening in 2017.

Over in Southbank, a neighborhood lining the Yarra River, you’ll find the city’s traditional cultural heart represented by a collection of high-profile institutions. With its Eiffel-inspired steeple, the Arts Centre Melbourne is the continent’s largest, and busiest, performing-arts space. Beside it is the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia’s most visited art venue. But even this illustrious compound is getting a shake-up: last year, the Buxton Contemporary opened on the campus of the Victorian College of the Arts. Exhibitions have included a survey of national identity, imagined by a group of Aussie artists like Ali Gumillya Baker, Callum Morton, and Siying Zhou. And the NGV is preparing a third Southbank campus, NGV Contemporary, which will be Australia’s largest gallery of contemporary art and design when it opens in 2025.