HISTORY OF BRISBANE COMMUNITY ARTS CENTRE
On May 25, 1975 The Courier Mail reported Coronation House, an ‘ageing’ five-storey building in Edward Street, had been suggested as ‘a community youth centre with art as the main interest’. According to the paper, the Commonwealth Government’s Australia Council was considering a proposal for the government-owned building. The committee championing the idea responded to the story, saying a detailed proposal had been under consideration for ‘some time’ to renovate Coronation House as an arts centre ‘for use by the whole community, not just youth’. In December of that year, the building’s conversion as a joint project between the Queensland Festival of the Arts Society and the Australia Council was announced.
Earlier records show that a hairdresser’s shop, a billiards saloon and an oyster saloon stood at the location in 1879. The building at 109 Edward Street was erected in 1889 as a warehouse for importer and merchant, George Myers. An active worker for community and charitable projects, and a founding member of the Brisbane Synagogue, Myers had moved to Brisbane and opened a general merchant’s store in 1863. In 1902, much of the building was damaged by fire and subsequently remained empty for some time. In 1907, Myers sublet part of the building to a Toowong biscuit manufacturer, George Hiron and Son, and to the Standard Shoe and Leather Company. Both tenants moved out soon afterwards, followed by Myers in 1931.
The building remained empty from 1931 to 1937. Named Coronation House in 1938, a number of small businesses occupied the building through the 1930s and1940s. These offices included Ground-Wisehart (manufacturing agents), Moreton Underwear, Morey Millinery, and Ayres and James (importers).
The Commonwealth Government bought Coronation House in 1948 for office accommodation for various government departments, including Customs, Patents and Trademarks, Employment and Industrial Relations, the Narcotics Department of the Federal Police and the Electoral Office. By 1974, much of the building had been vacated following the construction of the Commonwealth Government Centre in Ann Street. The last government tenant moved out in 1976.
In 1974, while semi-occupied, Coronation House was used as a venue for performances and exhibitions in the first (and only) Queensland Festival of the Arts. This highlighted the need for a community arts facility in Brisbane and following the festival Don Watson, an architect working for Geoffrey Pie Architect, was co-opted to look at buildings in Brisbane that had the potential to be converted into an arts centre. It quickly became apparent that Coronation House was the most likely to be secured for this purpose as it was owned by the commonwealth government, largely unused and the Whitlam Government had made a commitment to retaining rather than selling buildings.
A new cultural agenda involving both amateur and professional artists had emerged during the 1970s. Recognition of the need for community-based activities to have facilities was identified with a financial commitment through the Federal Government’s Capital Aid for Leisure Fund. As a result, community arts centres opened across the country staffed by community arts officers described by Time Off as ‘catalysts, motivators, co-ordinators and humorists’. A public meeting was held in the Cement Box Theatre at the University of Queensland to consider the conversion of Coronation House into a community arts centre. This meeting was followed by a series of community consultations, resulting in a funding submission, coined the ‘blue book’.
Jean Battersby, the first Chief Executive Officer of the Australia Council became a champion of the project and facilitated a grant from the Capital Aid for Leisure Fund to undertake the conversion of the building. Brisbane Community Arts Centre would lease the building on a peppercorn rent for an initial period of 25 years. The Department of Housing and Construction and the Commonwealth Works Department were commissioned to undertake the documentation and Jean Battersby personally arranged for Don Watson to work for the Department of Housing and lead this process. Describing the opportunity, committee member Denise Wadley said, ‘previously isolated groups and individuals’ would now have ‘a meeting and performance place, a shop window to the public and a stimulating environment for the exchange of ideas’.
Once established as a separate entity to Federal Government, the building was liable to meet local building regulations not specified in the original plan. Upon completion of the building conversion, fire safety equipment systems did not meet specification and the building was deemed unusable.
By this time, the Fraser Government was installed and it was unclear whether or not further funding would be allocated to upgrade the building to meet building codes. Jean Battersby remained committed to the success of the project and she travelled to Brisbane with Federal Minister Tony Staley to discuss the situation, which resulted in further funding being committed to the project.
The Australia Council established a Board of Directors to oversee the use of the building and Ian Callinan AC QC was elected the first Chairman of the Brisbane Community Arts Centre in 1979. Administration staff moved into the building later that year led by the first Centre Director Colin James.
The Brisbane City Council appointed Queensland’s first Community Arts Officer, Grace Fryer, in 1979 and according to Queensland’s Director of Cultural Activities, ‘the future was promising. (…) The cross-fertilisation of ideas and disciplines that is planned at Coronation House is good because it does not allow one art form to see itself as a Mecca to bow down to, but rather encourages an interplay of expertise. If it engenders that response, we will be pleased; and in the long run we would be more concerned with funding people to do things in the building rather than just funding the building’ (Vogue Living, 1979).
In January 1980, Administrator Bruce Dickson advised the Government’s Cultural Activities Branch that the building was almost ready for occupation. Securing funds for the cinema and theatre equipment was ‘likely to cause the biggest potential delays in having the centre fully operational’ and a commitment had been made that meant the building would not be officially opening until ‘such time as every space in the building is fully operational’. The first performances in the new Edward Street Theatre were held in early 1980.
The Brisbane Community Arts Centre was officially opened in July 1981 by J.A. Elliot, State Minister for Tourism, National Parks, Sport and the Arts and Federal Senator R.G. Withers, with the Ethnic Communities Council, the Crafts Council of Queensland and the Queensland Theatre Orchestra as its major tenants. The first public exhibition of Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s art and poetry was concurrently presented in the building as part of National Aboriginal and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) week.
Over the life of the organisation, its leaders have consistently responded to the needs of artists and the community at the time of their reign while maintaining the fundamental character and cultural spirit of Brisbane Community Arts Centre. Increased programming has resulted in the organisation becoming an active catalyst for the development of new work while maintaining artists’ creative
Under Robert Hughes (1987 – 1996) the trading name of Brisbane Community Arts Centre changed to Metro Arts; Joseph O’Conner (1993 – 2001) engaged nationally with the development and exhibition of visual and experimental arts; and Sue Benner (1994– 2005) not only secured ownership of the organisation’s now iconic building via a grant of $1 million from the Centenary of Federation Fund but also established the annual Season of the Independents.
Beginnings acknowledges the research undertaken by HERITAGE Workshop students from the School of Arts, Media and Culture at Griffith University. Richards. J. (2005) Metro Arts, Brisbane: A Report. Unpublished.