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Are the Arts subverting Hobart?

Edition_174_The Art Tower

Arts-minded Tasmanians and cultural tourists are becoming aware of a creative foment in Hobart’s former Mercury newspaper building and in a nearby heritage-listed church.

Arts patron Penny Clive and her fund-manager husband, Bruce Neill, bought the art deco Mercury building and associated structures from Davies Brothers in 2013.

They have been running an art gallery a CBD block away, in the deconsecrated St David’s Mission Chapel, since 2008.

Much of their work has been conducted with little fanfare, but that changed during the 2015 Dark Mofo festival when they announced plans for a stunning 117m Art Town that would transform Hobart’s skyline.

The original plans have been amended following community input, but the Art Tower is still a live idea.

Meanwhile, their two existing buildings look sedate enough from the outside, with unchanged facades and minimalist signage, but don’t be deceived.

Spurred by a national initiative in 1999 to encourage Arts philanthropy, Ms Clive and Mr Neill set up the Detached Cultural Association.

Detached, as it is known, has offices in the internally transformed Macquarie Street building that housed generations of journalists and printers and once trembled nightly to the thrum of printing presses.

Dark Mofo’s Creative Director, Leigh Carmichael – something of an Arts world Mr Fix-It these days – is developing a creative hub in the building.

There will be space for designers, architects, festival organisers, advertising workers, visual and performing artists and new media practitioners.

The project was boosted in March when the State Government committed $500,000 to support ICT start-up hubs in the Mercury building and in Launceston’s Macquarie House.

A Government spokesperson said the grants were a strategic investment designed to drive economic growth and create jobs.

James Riddell, from ICT firm Bitlink, said: “I think the hubs are going to be a competitive advantage for Tasmania. We are never going to be Silicon Valley, but what we can do is develop our own niches and our own unique identity.”

Below the evolving ITC hub, the ground floor that once accommodated printing presses has been transformed into exhibition space, imbued with character by lofty ceilings and rough industrial walls.

Mr Carmichael, a trained graphic designer, believes the development of a nationally significant Arts hub is important because Hobart needs more than MONA.

“MONA’s great, and will be doing its thing for a long time, but if Hobart can start to have multiple world-class projects happening, it can turn itself into a really significant creative Arts base,” he said.

Detached, with subversive links to David Walsh, can already tick off two unarguable successes in extending the MONA Effect into the CBD.

The remaking of the interior of the Mercury building has given birth to Franklin, a 300-seat, street-level restaurant designed by architect Ryan Strating and headed up by award-winning former Peppermint Bay chef David Moyle.

Franklin has already won national acclaim.

The sometimes cranky national critic, John Lethlean, summed it up in The Australian: "Intriguing. Brilliant. So not dancing to please the crowd. Franklin should keep dancing exactly as it does.”

Australian Gourmet Traveller magazine proclaimed Franklin to be one of the best restaurants in Australia and Moyle credits MONA with helping businesses like his get started.

“The museum gives you confidence that there’s enough people coming through who want quality. I don’t think the restaurant could have existed without it,” he told the internationally circulated Newsweek magazine.

The Professor of Communications and Cultural Economy at Monash University, Justin O'Connor, told Newsweek’s Lisa Abend that MONA’s presence had encouraged talented people to relocate to Tasmania.

“It’s allowed creatives to spend more time here, built synergies with existing institutions and – most important – changed the way people think and dream in Hobart and Tassie,” he said.

Professor O'Connor said MONA had not been a deliberate strategy to change the city.

“David Walsh just dropped MONA on an unsuspecting city [and] State. Ever since, they’ve been trying to retrofit their thinking around its enormous presence,” he said.

The Penny Clive Collection predated MONA, but it has certainly contributed to Hobart’s retrofitting.

Housed in a church that has lost its flock in the one-time fetid slum of Wapping, the collection is attracting such knowledgeable contemporary art lovers as the Mori group from Tokyo.

Ms Clive’s personal collection takes up a good deal of the available 465sq m of exhibition space in the former chapel.

A heritage-listed 1885 stained-glass window features vivid blue, yellow, red and green glass that creates a visual counter-point to the starkly white walls and partitions of the deconsecrated building.

A former antique trader, Ms Clive believes that art needs to be seen and understood by the wider community and not just by culturally aware enclaves.

Over recent years, she has assembled a collection of about 100 works: mostly contemporary Australian pieces, but including a selection of overseas acquisitions.

Works by Chinese sculptor and performance artist Zhang Huan are prominent.

Australia’s representatives at previous Venice Biennials – video artist Shaun Gladwell and sculptor Patricia Piccinini – are included, along with performance artist Mike Parr.

A major exhibition, Tilted Stage, was opened late last year in a collaboration with the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG).

The two venues showed sculptural, print and moving-image works produced by Parr over 37 years.

Ms Clive, a member of the Board of Trustees of TMAG, said she intends Detached to be a supporter of artists, curators, scholars and critics.

She wants the association to be involved in a long-term discussion with the community about the Arts and to offer educational components as part of its agenda.

“Our aim,” she said, "is to foster, facilitate and encourage independent, energetic and creative thinking in the community, particularly the young.”

Without the restraint that comes with public financing, Detached can take the sort of curatorial risks that have so clearly distinguished MONA from its State and national counterparts.

Maintaining the Mercury site’s industrial heritage is at the top of Detached’s priorities.

“This is just amazing for us, because they are just the most amazing set of buildings sitting untouched right in the middle of Hobart,” Ms Clive said.

“It just offers us in the Arts so many opportunities to interact with these spaces.

“We plan to work within the core industrial past, and I hope it eventually turns into an Arts think-tank for Tasmania.”

Little wonder the national magazine Gourmet Traveller has been writing about "the gradual MONA-isation of Hobart" or that Newsweek has devoted column space to the phenomenon.

Image courtesy of Detached Cultural Association

2 August 2016, Edition 174

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