Art abounds in Merri-bek

You’re never too far from a cutting-edge gallery or vibrant maker’s space in Merri-bek, one of Melbourne’s most creative cities.

Our latest Art Galleries Trail map will help you discover all things creative and captivating just around the corner. Go behind the scenes and learn more about the must-visit galleries and maker’s spaces to add to your itinerary.

Courtesy: Divisions Gallery

Divisions Gallery – Art amidst the bluestone

Pentridge Arts (established 2021) is housed within the historic bluestone walls of Pentridge and includes Divisions Gallery, a contemporary gallery space and Pentridge Studios, artist-in-residence opportunities.

Divisions Gallery is one of Melbourne’s most distinctive exhibition spaces, with views over the former A and H Divisions of the former prison. The artist-centric gallery supports emerging and mid-career contemporary artists with five weeks of rent-free exhibition space.

Curator Tessa Spooner’s background is in commercial and not-for-profit arts spaces including visual and performing arts management. Tessa also has a background in repurposed prisons. She attended the National Art School in Sydney, in the old Darlinghurst Gaol, sparking a passion to inject these kinds of architectural and historical spaces with life, culture and art.

The arts community has embraced Divisions Gallery, along with the local Merri-bek community. Each exhibition welcomes around 1,500 people, including many who love and appreciate art, along with an audience who are new to art. Each exhibition includes dynamic public programs that provide a rich context for the interpretation and understanding of art.

Divisions Gallery aims to break down barriers and make art accessible to all. For instance, some of the contemporary, boundary-pushing stuff is a great conversation starter. And there’s the interactive art vending machine that’s especially popular with kids. This is a repurposed vending machine from a trades worksite, led by Lucy Maddox and painted by Pentridge studio artists and filled with their artworks. Visitors can buy a token for $10, put it in the machine, turn it clockwise and collect a surprise piece of original art.

Memorable exhibitions include Kindred (Sept-Oct 2023), which united resident artists from Pentridge Studios, capturing the essence of a connected artistic community and Christopher Jewitt’s Convoi Exceptionnel (Oct-Nov 2023) which showcased huge, beautiful, joyful works.

Tessa and the team have many more exciting visual and performance artist-driven projects planned. She also looks forward to more group shows and community-based projects, such as ‘Browse the ‘Burg’, which welcomed the public to Pentridge Studios, Divisions Gallery, Troppo Print Studio, Ruth Allen Glass Studio, Pink Ember and Coburg Studios.

Pentridge is working with government and industry partners toward the realisation of a long-standing vision to convert the former A Division prison building into an arts, tourism and creative industries precinct.

Courtesy: Schoolhouse Studios

Schoolhouse Studios – A Coburg creative haven

Schoolhouse Studios began in 2012 in Abbotsford, when 16 artists formed a collective and took over the lease of an old Steiner School. Since then, Schoolhouse has grown, moving to a larger space in Collingwood for a decade, then Brunswick before settling into the old Coles site in Coburg in November 2021.

Alice Glenn (founder of No Lights, No Lycra) founded Schoolhouse, where Bron Belcher has been Director since February 2023. Bron’s role is to maintain affordable working spaces for artists and creatives – and Schoolhouse is currently home to over 80 of them.

Step inside the ‘strange big building’ and you’ll be struck by the huge internal dragon mural, painted by resident artist Pey Chi. The space has so many different nooks and crannies, making it ideal for flexible use and experimentation. Schoolhouse hosts various events and exhibitions, including twice-yearly residence exhibitions, tango classes and choir rehearsals; Bron and the team will ‘try anything once’.

The gallery itself is a big white cube area behind the front doors, and there are industrial work areas and five kilns out back for artists. The loading dock and piazza are often hired out for events. The gallery typically operates on an open call or enquiry basis. Twice-yearly resident exhibitions are curated by Schoolhouse staff and resident artists.

While the gallery features primarily painting, illustration and ceramics, the team is open to all mediums and practices. Bron particularly loves supporting the emerging and experimental. Schoolhouse collaborates with Loom, a creative agency for artists with disabilities – where artists work together and exhibit. Social Studio has exhibited tapestry and textiles and ran tapestry workshops. There’s always something new and interesting to see.

Schoolhouse also partners with the local community, including community garden Coburg Commons and the Coburg Library, as well as the artists’ community.

As a non-profit, Schoolhouse relies on events and the support of the community for income. These events include markets every two months, open studios, workshops and ‘Joke Club’, a program for kids 8-12 to learn comedy. Bron is exploring how to continue to support the trade economy and creatively reuse things into the future.

Courtesy: Daine Singer

Daine Singer – Transforming a Brunswick canvas

Daine Singer, an influential contemporary art gallery, was established in 2011 and opened in Brunswick in 2022. Director Daine Singer has a background as a curator and arts manager across commercial and not-for-profit organisations, switching to freelance and project work after the birth of her daughter.

Daine found working for herself so rewarding that she took a risk, branching out to open her own gallery space in Flinders Lane in 2011. After seven years in the CBD, the gallery relocated to Fitzroy before finding its permanent home in Brunswick. Daine bought the Weston Street warehouse space, a former dressmaking factory, in 2022, and renovated it from scratch. Behind the anonymous industrial facade lies a beautiful brutalist space featuring cavernous spaces and concrete formwork ceilings. Daine designed the space to strike a balance between its minimalist aesthetics and a welcoming environment.

The gallery represents 15 artists, mostly Melbourne-based, and has frequent one-off project exhibitions to keep the program dynamic. Daine recalls several memorable exhibitions in the new Brunswick space. In 2023, Jordan Marani’s work took over the entire space with a transformative immersive installation. A recent exhibition by Nina Sanadze saw the gallery filled with small ceramic sculptures of mothers and children, in a powerful exploration of tenderness and Holocaust history.

Daine loves the new location and its proximity to Brunswick’s thriving arts community. Although much of the gallery’s business takes place online, Daine values sharing the exhibitions with visitors in person, whether they’re passing by on the way to Barkly Square, or visiting from further afield. Her former southside clients can now enjoy a coffee at Brunetti across the road, browsing the gallery then checking out the Brunswick area.

Courtesy: Hillvale Gallery

Hillvale Gallery – From garage to gallery

Hillvale Gallery is a dedicated photography space, run by co-directors, Andy Johnson, Sarah Pannell and Jason Hamilton. The gallery aims to support, elevate and exhibit emerging local artists working in photography and lens-based image-making.

Hillvale Gallery is inside Hillvale Photo, a photo lab warehouse, with a 24/7 vending machine out the front selling film and disposable cameras. The lab was established in 2013 on Black St, later moving to Edward Street in Brunswick in April 2022 where Hillvale Gallery began exhibiting.

University friends, Jason and Andy were looking for a creative project after studying. They picked up an old film processor from a photo lab shutting down in Jason’s hometown of Swan Hill. The pair fixed it up in Andy’s parents’ garage. To begin with, friends would come over to get their rolls processed, then more people got interested. The pair found a little shed in Brunswick to use, setting up drop boxes around the city for people to leave their film.

It was a significant time of change in the industry; everything was digitised and there was no printing. Social media such as Instagram was on the rise and many original photo labs were closing down. The Hillvale team sought to intertwine the digital and analogue worlds.

Come 2021 and large city-based lab Michaels shut down; Hillvale inherited new machinery and needed a larger home. They moved around the corner into Edward St – with plenty of space for both the lab and the gallery. Over time, the team grew to 12 employees, all photography lovers.

Hillvale Gallery operates an annual Expression of Interest (EOI) call-out. The first EOI exhibition was shown in 2022 – Ammar Yonis’ first solo show Out of Bounds.

The annual Hillvale Photo Trophy fundraiser photo prize is open to anyone to enter. The Photo Trophy helps generate funds to pay artist fees to everyone who exhibits at the gallery, as well as exhibition development and collaborative custom builds for shows. In 2023, over 730 entries were received and displayed for the exhibition.

In 2024, Hillvale will host an official exhibition for Photo 2024: International Festival of Photography, along with a series of exciting group shows.

Courtesy: Hillvale Gallery