Melbourne guided art tour: Into the suburbs with Bill Henson

In the 1980s, Australian photographer Bill Henson found beauty in the service stations, street signs and tacky family restaurants of his home in the outer Melbourne suburb of Glen Waverley. Now, three decades later, these works – and a brand new suburban commission – hang on the walls of the Monash Gallery of Art (MGA), a gallery located in the heart of the suburb that Henson made the focus of his work.There's something a bit meta about seeing the suburban byways I have just driven past adorning the walls of the gallery but more importantly the MGA is drawing art crowds out to the suburbs and away from the NGV and other large public galleries.

Dubbed the "home of Australian photography", this is a contemplative space just metres from busy Ferntree Gully Road. This and other art hubs in the Melbourne suburbs are part of a deepening of the city's cultural scene, so much so that the constraints of the CBD can no longer hold it.

"I think it is really important to have artistic hubs outside the CBD," says MGA director Anouska Phizacklea. "You shouldn't need to go into the city to be immersed in arts and culture, arts and culture is an integral part of everybody's life. It reflects society and it is so important to have access to that in your own backyard."

In the case of certain shows like Bill Henson's The light fades but the gods remain these out-of-the-way locales also add context to the work and give people a different view of their home and suburb. So, too, does photographer Viva Gibb's "A place in time", also on at the MGA, a series of black and white photographs celebrating the suburban characters of west and north Melbourne.

And it is not just visual arts that are spreading out from the city centre. Across the way from the MGA, the Clayton campus of Monash University recently opened a venue to rival anything the city has to offer. Its star attraction is the new Ian Potter Centre for Performing Arts, a $45 million dollar project with a jazz club, a Sound Gallery and the new 586-seat Alexander Theatre.

Executive director of Monash University's Performing Arts and jazz pianist and composer Paul Grabowksy says that a strong suburban cultural scene makes sense. "The thing about arts infrastructure that I have learned is that most of the audience tend to live within a seven-kilometre radius," he says.

Like Henson, Grabowsky is a Glen Waverley local who has seen the area change from a semi-rural outer suburb to the geographical centre of Greater Melbourne. When Grabowsky was young the old Alexander theatre was the "only show in town" and he is keen to make the new offering a similar drawcard for locals and visitors alike.

Grabowksy says that the reimagined "Alex" has taken a lot of its cues from the original architecture but that the sound technology – from Meyer Sound in California – is unique, the only such system in Australia.

"There is not a bad seat in the house, everywhere you sit you have the same experience and it is absolutely beautiful," he says. "You can hear what is happening on stage in a way I have never experienced before."

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As for the offerings at the theatre, they will certainly draw inspiration from their surrounds. "There is a reason to not shy away from seeing the suburbs as being the subject of the work that goes on in these suburban theatres, not exclusively but it is an opportunity," he says.

"When you think about what sort of art you can make in the suburbs you think about someone like [Australian painter] Howard Arkley, he made the suburban home the subject of his work."

One of the most significant works of Arkley's career can be seen in another suburban art gallery in the southern Melbourne suburb of Kew. In his family home, architect Corbett Lyon has sought to redefine the boundaries between a private home and a public art gallery by fusing his home with his art collection. A collection of 350 works by over 50 Australian artists – many original commissions – shares the same space as the family's bedrooms, living room and kitchen. Guests are allowed to tour the residence at prescribed times of the year.

Lyon says that suburban galleries right around the world are often a more intimate and personal offering than large public institutions and cites Basel's Beyler Foundation and the Goetz Collection in Munich as inspiration for his Melbourne experiment.

The Lyon House museum is based on a cubic design with a white cube to focus on the collection and a black cube for video art (which also made an excellent sleep-over space for his two daughters when they were younger). Corbett even included a huge, custom-designed organ as part of one of the living spaces. It is not just for show, the architect is a keen organist and will often play if he is leading the private tour giving a further sense of connection often absent from a big art blockbuster.

"The small museums like ours, and the two I have mentioned, are different in the sense that they sprang from private collections and you get a real sense of the collection and the collectors," Lyon says. "The [Howard Arkley] in our dining room is his monumental work relating to Melbourne's suburbs, so people really enjoy standing in the dining room and being able to look out the window and seeing the suburbs out the window which is very different to seeing that work in a public museum. There is a special quality to having that artwork sitting in this suburban setting."

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VISIT

The Monash Gallery of Art is at 860 Ferntree Gully Road, Wheelers Hill (see mga.org.au) and Bill Henson's exhibition The light fades but the gods remain is on until September 29. The Ian Potter Centre for the Performing Arts is at 48 Exhibition Walk, Clayton, (see monash.edu). The Lyon Housemuseum is at 217-219 Cotham Road, Kew (see lyonhousemuseum.com.au). Private tours book out well in advance but the public space next door is available most days.

FIVE MORE MELBOURNE SUBURBAN ART SPACES

HEIDE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART

Located in the northern Melbourne suburb of Bulleen this is the former home of art patrons John and Sunday Reed. The Reeds shared their home with artists like Sidney Nolan and Albert Tucker and the art spaces include the original weatherboard home (Heide I), the more modern "art gallery to be lived in" that they moved into in 1963 (Heide II) and the newer gallery extension that is the main Heide III gallery space. Melbourne artist Mirka Mora is currently on show until the end of the August. See heide.com.au

BUNJIL PLACE

Another arts precinct in the east of the city, Bunjil Place is a performance space, studio, gallery and outdoor space designed to bring arts to the wider community. The site's vision is to be a place where people can be inspired, challenged and engaged with events like Victorian State Ballet, live music and spoken word nights. See bunjilplace.com.au

FRANKSTON ARTS CENTRE

Offering a huge variety of plays, musicals and festivals the Frankston Arts Centre is a diverse space that has an 800-seat theatre, the smaller "Cube" and a function centre and hospitality areas. There are also a wide range of workshops on offer. See artscentre.frankston.vic.gov.au

FOOTSCRAY COMMUNITY ARTS CENTRE

In Melbourne's west, the Footscray Community Arts Centre has plays, exhibitions and talks on a wide variety of topics. The centre has weekend markets and art happenings on the grassy front lawn and was, until recently, the Melbourne home of the Laneway Festival. See footscrayarts.com

BRUNSWICK STUDIO WALK

There is a network of smaller galleries and museums in an around the inner north suburb of Brunswick. Galleries like Beinart Gallery, that celebrates the odd and the curious, the Counihan Gallery in the Brunswick Town Hall and the Tinning Street gallery down a graffiti-covered laneways make for a great wander. Use the self-directed Brunswick Studio walk from Moreland council. See brunswickstudiowalk.com.au

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