Arts Centre Melbourne, Australia | CruiseBe
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Arts Centre Melbourne

History and museums
performing arts centre, theatres, exhibitions, attraction

The Arts Centre Melbourne, originally known as the Victorian Arts Centre and briefly officially called The Arts Centre, is a performing arts centre consisting of a complex of theatres and concert halls in the Melbourne Arts Precinct, located in the central Melbourne suburb of Southbank in Victoria, Australia.

It was designed by architect Sir Roy Grounds, the masterplan for the complex (along with the National Gallery of Victoria) was approved in 1960 and construction began in 1973 following some delays. The complex opened in stages, with Hamer Hall opening in 1982 and the Theatres Building opening in 1984.

The Arts Centre is located by the Yarra River and along St Kilda Road, one of the city's main thoroughfares, and extends into the Melbourne Arts Precinct.

Major companies regularly performing in the theatres include Opera Australia, The Australian Ballet, the Melbourne Theatre Company, The Production Company, Victorian Opera, Bell Shakespeare, Bangarra Dance Theatre and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. The Arts Centre also hosts a large number of Australian and international performances and production companies.

The Arts Centre is listed on the Victorian Heritage Register.


The Arts Centre site has long been associated with arts and entertainment and has previously been home to circus, theatre, roller and ice skating, cinema and dance. Coincidentally, as noted in the building's big top shape, the site was known as Canvas Town (a tent city) during the early years of the Victorian gold rush.

After World War II the Victorian Government decided that Melbourne needed a cultural centre. After many years of discussion, a master plan was approved in 1960, with Sir Roy Grounds as the chosen architect.

During the ensuing years, and to accommodate difficulties associated with the geology of the site, changes to the original plans were made and eventually the Arts Centre emerged as two buildings – now known as the Theatres Building and Hamer Hall.

Responsibility for the project lay with the Building Committee, established in 1956 and chaired by Kenneth Myer from 1965 to 1989. For twenty five years the committee was a consistent force in the completion of the complex. Actor and film director George Fairfax, having joined the project in 1972, was appointed the first General Manager of the Building Committee and then the Trust, a position he held until 1989. As a result, Fairfax played an influential role in administration of the Arts Centre’s development.

Work had begun on the theatre site in 1973, with excavation work not completed until 1977/8, two years later than expected, and on the concert hall site in 1976. During the first phase of the project from 1972–1979 responsibility was with Rupert Hamer as Minister for the Arts (and Premier) and during the main construction phase from 1979–1982 with Norman Lacy as Minister for the Arts (and Minister of Educational Services).

An Academy Award-winning expatriate set designer, John Truscott, was employed to decorate the interiors. His work was constrained only by a requirement to leave elements already constructed, such as Ground's faceted cave concert hall interior, to which he applied jewelled finishes, and his steel mesh draped ceiling in the State Theatre, to which he added perforated brass balls.

During his tenure, Norman Lacy was constantly called on to defend the Victorian Arts Centre Trust and its construction program during some highly charged public debates in the Parliament. He had to defend the acoustics, the design of the spire, the rejection of the proposed changes to the Concert Hall interiors, the BASS ticketing system of the project, as well as its delays and cost over runs.

The Victorian Arts Centre’s management and administration was set up under the Victorian Arts Centre Act 1979 introduced into the Victorian Parliament by Norman Lacy. The trustees were appointed by the Governor in Council, on the recommendation of the Minister. The Trust was given responsibility for the operation and programming of the publicly owned performing arts spaces that make up the Victorian Arts Centre – the Theatres Building beneath the Spire, Hamer Hall and the Sidney Myer Music Bowl.

Soon after the legislation to establish the Trust was passed, Norman Lacy and George Fairfax undertook a study trip to North America and Europe to assess administrative arrangements, educational programs and community initiatives at major performing arts centres in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Washington, Toronto, Ottawa, London and Paris. The result was the development of the Arts Centre management structure during 1981 and a suite of opening and on-going initiatives.

The Concert Hall opened in November 1982, while substantial work remained to be done on the Theatres site. The rest of the Arts Centre was opened progressively in 1984, with the Theatres building officially opened in October that year. This signified the completion of one of the largest public works projects in Victorian history, which had been undertaken over a period of almost twenty five years.

The Arts Centre is unusual in that its theatres and concert hall are built largely underground. Hamer Hall, situated closest to the river, was initially planned to be almost entirely underground, thus providing a huge open vista between the theatre spire, the river and Flinders Street Station. However, construction problems with the foundations, including water seepage, meant the structure had to be raised to three storeys above ground.

Similarly, budget constraints meant that Grounds' design for the Theatres Building, which included a copper-clad spire, were shelved, and a shortened un-clad design was substituted. This was eventually replaced with the current 'full-height' un-clad spire.

Performance venues and facilities

The Arts Centre is a complex of distinct venues. Hamer Hall is a separate building and the largest of the venues. The other venues (the State Theatre, Playhouse and Fairfax Studio) are housed in the Theatres Building (under the spire).

Hamer Hall Hamer Hall (formerly the Melbourne Concert Hall) is a 2,661 seat concert hall – the largest venue in the Arts Centre complex, used for orchestra and contemporary music performances. It was opened in 1982 and was later renamed Hamer Hall in honour of Sir Rupert Hamer (the 39th Premier of Victoria) shortly after his death in 2004.

State Theatre The State Theatre is located in the Theatres Building of the Arts Centre complex, under the spire, and is a 2,077 seat theatre used for opera, ballet and theatre performances. It was opened in 1984, and has one of the largest stages in the World.

Playhouse The Playhouse is also located in the Theatres Building of the Arts Centre complex, and is an 822-seat theatre used for plays and dance performances. It was also opened in 1984. The premiere production was the Melbourne Theatre Company's staging of Euripides' Medea, starring Zoe Caldwell and Patricia Kennedy.

Fairfax Studio The Fairfax Studio is also located in the Theatres Building of the Arts Centre complex, and is a 376-seat theatre. It was also opened in 1984.

Galleries The Arts Centre also houses dedicated gallery spaces including Gallery 1 (formally the George Adams Gallery) on Level 6 (Ground level), Gallery 2 on Level 7, the St Kilda Road Foyer Gallery and the Smorgon Family Plaza, whose walls and central areas are used for exhibitions, in the Theatres Building.

The Sidney Myer Music Bowl, situated in nearby Kings Domain, is an outdoor arena also managed by the Arts Centre. It seats 12,000 on the lawn area and 2,150 in reserved seating, and is used for music concerts.

Performing Arts Collection

The Performing Arts Collection at the Arts Centre Melbourne is the foremost and largest specialist performing arts collection in Australia, with over 510,000 items relating to the history of circus, dance, music, opera and theatre in Australia and of Australian performers overseas. Many of Australia's national performing arts companies are represented in the archives.


The complex features a large steel spire with a wrap-around base.

The original spire envisaged by Roy Grounds was 115 metres tall and because of its complexity was one of the first structures in Australia to rely on computer-aided-design (CAD). After significant public controversy, political inquiry and financial reassessment, the spire was completed by the Minister for the Arts, Norman Lacy, installing the lightning conductor rod at its pinnacle on 20 October 1981.

By the mid-1990s, signs of deterioration became apparent on the upper spire structure, and the Arts Centre Trust decided to replace the spire. The new spire was completed in 1996, and reaches 162 metres, though it is still based on Grounds' original design. The spire is illuminated with some 6,600 metres (21,653 feet) of optic fibre tubing, 150 metres (492 feet) of neon tubing on the mast and 14,000 incandescent lamps on the spire's skirt. The metal webbing of the spire is influenced by the billowing of a ballerina's tutu and the Eiffel Tower.

A wedge-tailed eagle and peregrine falcon were utilised in early 2008 to deter groups of sulphur-crested cockatoos from damaging the spire's electrical fittings and thimble-sized lights.

On 1 January 2012 the spire was accidentally set afire by New Year's Eve fireworks. Two sides of the structure were set ablaze by fireworks that apparently discharged improperly, causing flaming debris to fall to the ground. The fire burned for about forty minutes, causing only cosmetic damage to the tower.

Disability access

There are accessible seating options in all of Arts Centre venues with companion seating available in most venues. Seating maps for Fairfax, Hamer Hall (stalls and circle), Playhouse (cirlce) and State Theatre (circle and boxes) and Sidney Myer Music Bowl (stalls and boxes) indicate accessible seating.

A hearing system is available in all Arts Centre venues except BlackBox and the ANZ Pavilion. The system utilises a FM signal, providing coverage to all seats in the venues via headphones or neckloops, and is available from the venue ushers.

Patrons may seek assistance into the auditorium from any of the front of house staff either at the St Kilda Road Level Concierge Desk in The Theatres Building or in the theatre foyer. There are a small number of wheelchairs available for in-house use (i.e. from carpark to seats) but these must be booked by calling the Concierge in advance. Accessible car parking is available in the Arts Centre car park, however, limited spaces are available. There is also some disabled street parking around the Sydney Myer Music Bowl on a first-come, first-served basis.

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