The Booming Art Scene of Tasmanian City, Hobart

It may be the country’s smallest state capital, but this Tasmanian city is looming large on the Australian art circuit. 

Occupying a row of 19th-century warehouses, the Salamanca Arts Centre is a hub for Hobart’s artistic community.

At the corner of Campbell and Collins streets in central Hobart, the building taking shape seems like any other urban construction site. But this US$70 million project, called The Hedberg, has global ambitions. A joint endeavor between state and federal authorities and the University of Tasmania (UTAS), it will put this city’s performing arts on the world stage when it opens early next  year, housing a new campus for the university’s Conservatorium of Music, performance spaces of varying dimension and scope loaded with hi-tech wizardry, and a full recording studio. The facility will also encompass the adjacent Theatre Royal, an 1837 landmark that is the oldest working theater in Australia. It’s an ambitious undertaking for a city of 200,000 stationed at the cusp of a continent. 

“The Hedberg will do for Hobart what MONA [Museum of Old and New Art] did,” said Conservatorium director Andrew Legg, who has been involved in the project for more than a decade. “You will hear and see things here you have never heard and seen before. The Hedberg makes us truly international.”

Liminal Studio co-founding directors Elvio Brianese and Peta Heffernan outside The Hedberg, Hobart’s still-under-construction performing arts center.

Designed by Singapore-based architecture firm WOHA and Hobart’s own Liminal Studio, the complex is being built on the location of the city’s first automotive garage, the brick frontage of which (dating to 1925) has been retained as The Hedberg’s Collins Street entryway. Elvio Brianese, a founding director at Liminal, pointed out some highlights as we walked around the site. “The red bricks from the original buildings were repurposed and now show the footprints of preceding developments. There are layers of history here—we uncovered 3,500 colonial-era artifacts.” The items include old storage bottles and small carvings that will be visible as glazed inserts in the floor, or integrated into walls as displays. 

The center of the complex features a light-filled courtyard, while a giant glass screen at the main entrance will project performances visible to passersby. “The building is porous enough to allow anyone from the street to walk in and experience culture,” Brianese said. “A grandfather and grandchild can come in and both be inspired to create.” 

Legg added, “We want The Hedberg to be affordable, not exclusive. There will be versatility and diversity in the venue, and we expect it to serve as a platform for generating local talent.” The finished complex will also showcase an enhanced Theatre Royal, which reopened in May following a six-month refurbishment.

Hobart may be the capital of Australia’s smallest state, but artistically, it has long punched above its weight. The city has a buzzing, well-documented contemporary art scene, a resident symphony orchestra, jazz bars, numerous choirs (including the Southern Gospel Choir at UTAS, the largest such ensemble in the southern hemisphere) and concerts and festivals galore. Musical luminaries like Brian Ritchie of the Violent Femmes and German composer Johannes Fritzsch live here, drawn, like many, by the sense of community, the safety, the energy, and the allure of nature—62 percent of Hobart is bushland, and its setting on the River Derwent, with Mount Wellington as a backdrop, is undeniably mesmerizing.

Emine Lewis in the lobby of the Henry Jones Art Hotel, where she acts as “art liaison” for the hotel’s extensive collection of Tasmanian artwork.

And then there is the history. Some of the earliest art in Hobart came from convicts transported from Britain in the early 1800s. In a climate-controlled private room at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, senior curator Mary Knights showed me fine sketches of England’s Dover coast drawn by a Norwegian painter turned counterfeiter named Knut Bull. “There is a strong tradition of landscape painting and photography here,” Knights explained. “Tasmania’s rugged outdoors has an incredible influence on artists.” The English landscape painter John Glover, who moved to Hobart in 1831 and is considered to be the father of Australian landscape painting, produced a striking body of work in his adopted home. 

Yet it wasn’t until 2011 that the world took notice of the local art scene. That’s the year Hobart-born multimillionaire gambler David Walsh opened MONA in the north of the city to showcase his extensive and eclectic collection of antiquities and contemporary art. Built into a sandstone peninsula on the Derwent, the museum was a shocking, perplexing, and thrilling addition to the city and an instant draw for art enthusiasts and intrigued locals (Tasmanians enter for free), filled with works that frequently defy description or categorization—most famously, a wall of porcelain vulvas and a mad-scientist-like installation that replicates the human digestive system, producing “feces” on a daily basis.

“MONA shone a light on what’s already here,” Mark Wilson, the museum’s co-chief executive, told me over lunch at MONA’s Pharos wing, a US$22-million extension that opened in December 2017. “Hobart has a creative community that is easy to engage with, it’s easy to get around, and the landscape lends itself to creativity.” Wilson explained how Pharos, derived from the Greek word meaning “lighthouse,” serves as a beacon to showcase the work of the pioneering American light artist James Turrell, acting as a relief from the dark, confusing journey within the underground galleries. Newer still is the series of tunnels and chambers that connect the wing to the main museum. Called Siloam, it hosts large-scale artworks by Ai Weiwei, Christopher Townend, Oliver Beer, and Alfredo Jaar, whose immersive three-part installation The Divine Comedy simulates the workings of purgatory, heaven, and hell. 

“After the Flood,” a recent exhibition of large-scale works on paper by environmental artist Hilary Green at the Moonah Arts Centre.

MONA also runs the summertime music-and-arts festival MONA FOMA (held in Launceston, Tasmania’s second largest city) and its June version Dark MOFO, an event that singlehandedly transformed wintertime Hobart from a town of hibernation to one where locals and tourists revel in the southern solstice.

The influence of MONA on Hobart’s art dynamic can’t be overstated. “It’s had a Bilbao effect,” Jane Castle, the cultural programs coordinator for Hobart City Council, told me at the city’s neo-Renaissance town hall. “Among the general population it has increased art literacy and led to more opportunities to experience contemporary art. As for visitors, people fly in and out just for MONA. Many people are moving here now.” The Hedberg, which she calls a fantastic facility that is both inward- and outward-looking, will add to that cultural richness, in a sense capping an arts movement that has been two centuries in the making.

More than 10 museums and galleries sit within a 10-minute walk of the Franklin Wharf, among them the Salamanca Arts Centre (SAC). Occupying sandstone warehouses that date from the 1800s, it houses potters and jewelers, artisan retailers, and a theater on its ground floor, while upstairs are galleries and studio spaces. It was here that I met Michaye Boulter, who moved from Canada decades earlier to study at Hobart’s Tasmanian School of Art and never left. “The natural beauty, the food and wine make this a great place to create,” she enthused while showing me her moody seascapes of the island’s southwest coast. A few doors down, homegrown Hobartian Katherine Cooper was working on a hyper-realistic painting of an endemic wedge-tailed eagle. “Hobart is still a community. It retains a village feel and I am hoping that doesn’t change. The people here are very generous.” 

Every Saturday, the street outside SAC hosts Salamanca Market, Tasmania’s most visited tourist attraction, where 300 stalls sell products like whisky and cheese made on the island, as well as local arts and crafts. One vendor specializes in wooden bow ties and another makes small fairy doors from clay. Sarah Webb sells ocean-inspired ceramic jewelry and homewares under the brand Sea Soul Studio. She grew up around Hobart and appreciates the supportive nature of the place. “It’s collaborative here, not competitive. People are encouraging, making you brave enough to follow your artistic pursuits. MONA has also allowed people to realize that to be an artist, it doesn’t matter if the work is pretty or on-trend.”

Across the wharf, on a compact stretch of Hunter Street, wanderers encounter Art Mob—the only Aboriginal art gallery in Tasmania—and, next door, the Henry Jones Art Hotel. Opened in 2004 in an abandoned jam factory, it’s a fine place to take the pulse of Tasmania’s contemporary art scene. Hobart-born Emine Lewis, the hotel’s “art liaison,” led me on a tour of the property’s 400 pieces of art (all for sale), some of which were the work of graduates from the neighboring UTAS School of Creative Arts and Media, Lewis’s alma mater. I saw works that were whimsical, political, haunting, joyful. One, Woven by Nigel Hewitt, was created using ash from a bushfire and explores the fragility and loss of natural environment. “All the pieces here are from artists based in Tasmania. We’ve always had a booming art scene, but the rest of the world didn’t know it. MONA really put us on the map,” Lewis told me. Last November, the hotel launched a A$20,000 art prize for emerging local talent, adding to the list of other Tasmanian art awards like the Glover Prize and Hadley’s Art Prize. 

Away from the water in the suburb of South Hobart, the South Hobart Living Arts Centre occupies a 19th-century former state school that has been renovated with federal, state, and city funds. Today it is home to arts and cultural institutions like Tasmania Performs (which stages performances and workshops in its community hall) and holds fundraisers for causes like Rohingya refugees. Lucinda Toynbee Wilson, the facility’s manager, hopes it will develop into a regional arts center, though for that it needs funding. “I want this to be an incubator, a place for the community to enjoy arts,” she said. 

In Glenorchy, situated just a few kilometers upriver from Hobart in the greater metropolitan area, the Moonah Arts Centre might serve as a model for Wilson. Built in 2015 and run by the local council, it enables residents to engage with the arts through exhibitions, workshops, music, dance, and theater performances. On the day of my visit, toddlers chirped in a singing class, a hall displayed abstract works by a local ceramicist, and another space was being used for a workshop run by two Rajasthani potters.

Ai Weiwei’s White House installation looms large in the new tunnel extension at MONA.

“Glenorchy has invested in arts and culture for a long time,” Eleanor Downes, the center’s arts coordinator, explained. “We do this because we know that the arts bring good will, they help bind the community together, and they build pride and understanding.” Such a strong foundation, one that benefits everyone, might go a long way to explaining Hobart’s extraordinary and enduring artistic legacy. 

Address Book

Art Mob

29 Hunter St.; 61-3/ 6236-9200.

Henry Jones Art Hotel

25 Hunter St.; 61-3/
6210-7700; doubles from US$140.

MONA – Museum of Old and New Art

655 Main Rd., Berriedale; 61-3/6277-9900.

Moonah Arts Centre

23–27 Albert Rd.,
Moonah; 61-3/6216-6316.

Theatre Royal Hobart

29 Campbell St.; 61-3/6146-3300.

Salamanca Arts Centre

65-77 Salamanca Place.

South Hobart Living Arts Centre

14 Weld St. South; 61/428-603-299.

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2019 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Putting The Art In Hobart”).

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