How VCA’s history can help shape Melbourne’s future

As Melbournians emerged, blinking, from one of the world’s longest lockdown last year, their much-loved arts school was also easing itself back to life.

The Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) had only just moved into its impressive new buildings at the heart of the city’s Southbank arts precinct a few months before the pandemic struck.

Although the institution found ways to support its students with their creative practice during lockdown, many of its new facilities, which include a contemporary art gallery and multi-million-dollar visual arts teaching facility, lay dormant for large parts of 2020 and 2021.

The transition back to making art in shared spaces has been easier for some than others, but the renowned VCA is now crackling with energy as young artists make and work together once again.

Occupying a unique position right in the heart of Melbourne’s arts precinct the VCA has reclaimed its position as an engine room of new and emerging talent.

“Being in your late teens and early twenties is such a massive time of development,” says VCA Director Professing Emma Redding, who arrived from London’s Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance early this year.

“Our students have had less time to take creative risks and be independent than they would normally have had, and lockdown impacted them all differently. Some developed wonderful new digital skills, for example, whereas others found the isolation extraordinarily challenging.

“Our task is to nurture and support them – and to meet them wherever they’re at.”

In a stroke of luck, the VCA celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, providing a welcome opportunity for celebration and renewal – as well as the chance to reaffirm students’ place within the institution’s proud tradition of artistic excellence.

The anniversary also provides an opportunity to re-engage with Melbourne’s wider community post-COVID.

“It’s primarily about engaging Melbourne,” says Professor Redding.

“Both inviting people in and us going out into the city to help everyone rebuild their sense of who they are and their physicality. Getting people back into their bodies and away from the screen.

“Artists have a key role in helping us do that.”

A seventies baby

With a proud history that is intimately connected to Melbourne’s thriving arts scene, the VCA is among one of the best-placed institutions to support the city’s cultural re-emergence.

While its roots stretch back to 1867 and the National Gallery of Victoria Art School, the VCA was born as the institution we recognise today in 1972. It was the same year the reformist Whitlam government came to power, and Australia’s first multicultural festival – the Festival of All Nations – was launched.

Melbourne’s inner suburbs were bursting with new sights, sounds and smells from around the world, young people were becoming politically engaged and new forms of social activism were springing up across the city.

The VCA was a place for artists to respond to the changes around them and help shape this exciting new Melbourne.

Originally established as a visual arts school, the College quickly expanded through the seventies to include music, drama and dance, adding film and television in 1992. It brought together a diverse group of students and teachers united in their commitment to pushing artistic boundaries.

At first glance, the heady world of the 1970s from which the institution first emerged seems a far cry from post-locked-down Melbourne in 2022.

But, as our city comes back to life, similar opportunities are emerging. Today’s artists are being asked to find new ways to shape Melbourne’s identity and its future – just as they did back then.

A new opportunity for renewal

“Something like ten or twenty per cent of shopfronts are empty in Melbourne,” says Professor Redding. “It’s a great time to ask what role the arts can play in the city’s future.”

She sees the VCA as integral to that discussion.

“The VCA is a strong seat at the table when it comes to re-engaging the community in the arts. We can come up with new ideas and possibilities by virtue of the fact we have different art forms here.”

With an impressive list of influential alumni (think artists like Patricia Piccinini and theatre directors like Andrew Upton) and a wide range of leading academic programs (including Indigenous arts and art therapies), the VCA is recognised as a world leader in arts research and teaching.

It offers Melbourne a unique resource as it seeks to breathe life back into its subdued CBD.

For today’s students, as they find their way back to creating and making together again, they have the privilege of a rich history to draw on as well as the opportunities of a city reinventing itself to inspire them.

“We’ve got this bubbling pot of art forms and young people who have just come out of the lockdown experience,” says Professor Redding.

“Put all these things together and I think it will produce incredible results.”

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