For decades Station Street boasted one of Box Hill’s ugliest buildings, the Electricity Supply Depot, which was decommissioned in the mid 1980s. So what to do with the building? The then Box Hill City Council thought it would be a good space for a centre for community arts. A wonderful gift, but boy, was that space unworkable! Large groups, such as the Whitehorse Orchestra, of which I am a member, had to troop upstairs to the only room large enough to hold a performance, lugging unwieldy instruments (think percussion, double basses, tubas, etc.) and then hurl them down again for safe storage. Clog dancers, yes there was a group in those days, practised upstairs, with those working below suffering falling dust and headaches.
Thankfully, Council decided to recruit an architect to redesign the building into a user-friendly space. That architect was the award winning, inspirational Greg Burgess whose advice was along the lines of “it could be pulled down and replaced by a purpose built structure for the quoted budget” (of $1.7million). Thankfully, Council took him at his word. Community consultation processes began in 1988 and continued throughout construction, with the mainstays being the newly appointed Arts Officer Michelle Howard (the first fulltime Arts Officer for the City of Box Hill), artist Maggie Fooke, landscape artists Kevin Taylor and Kate Cullity, and prospective users, of whom there were many. Out of these consultations came … a mix of large and small spaces for rehearsals and performances, rooms for wet and dry craft, with kilns for ceramicists and plenty of storage space, a sprung floor for dancers. The wish list also included studio space, dressing room, meeting room, exhibition and lounge area, administrative centre and a dark room (since decommissioned for lack of use). We were all also asked to consider what we believed were the strongest aspects of Box Hill life. Weird question, many of us thought. However, the outcome of those discussions led to the building we know today. The yellow brickwork representing “traditional” Box Hill, the colonnade facing Station Street representing the newer Asian influence, the colour scheme incorporating the colours used by the Heidelberg School plein air artists (for whom Box Hill was a popular place to set up camps and easels) and the grounds were designed to reflect Box Hill’s beautiful gardens, both parkland and domestic.
The final factor was a sense of community, which is reflected by so much. The terracotta leaves set into the paths were made by primary school children and intellectually disabled groups under the guide of Maggie Fooke and Kay McGaw, then a very active and fine potter who also helped Maggie with the colouring of the internal and external tiling. Tiler Peter Homer was responsible for laying all the tiles (a massive undertaking) and metalworker Karl Millard designed all the metalwork throughout the building. Holmesglen TAFE bricklaying students created the colonnade, and Box Hill TAFE ceramics students were responsible for decorative inserts (observe the exterior of the chimney). Staff, user groups and even visitors attended Kevin Taylor’s workshops to create the picket fence. This was later selected to form part of The Hidden Imagination exhibition at the NGV, which was held to celebrate community arts in Victoria, and for which extra pickets were made to incorporate the exhibition’s name. In later years, (I think for the 10th anniversary) Anne Maree Gentile, long a regular tutor at the Centre, created the magnificent mosaic garden.
Davis McCaughey, then Governor of Victoria, officially opened the Box Hill Community Arts Centre at 3.30pm, Saturday 13 October, 1990. Speeches, of course, were mandatory, most given by Box Hill City Councillors and council officers who were instrumental in supporting the idea and passing the budget. And we were very, very lucky that that budget was passed just prior to the severe economic downturn in 1990. Had it been proposed just a couple of months later it is highly unlikely this marvelous Community Arts Centre would have got off the ground. A close shave, that!
By October 1991 the Box Hill CAC was awarded one of only two ‘Design For Living Awards’, the second going to the Urban Land Authority. Earlier in the year, it was also awarded the 1991 Victorian Institute of Architecture Award, with the VIA spokesman, Professor Les Kilmartin, saying “the Centre was a fine example of design which would enhance people’s lives … The community was fully involved in its conception and was even involved with the design. The result is a visually imaginative building which will benefit the whole community”.
There may have been skepticism from parts of the community about pouring so many pennies into the arts, but given there were 30 regular user groups within a few months of the opening day, one hopes those who questioned the concept had second thoughts. Apart from the throng and happiness of hundreds of people visiting the Centre for the opening, I was very much impressed by one elderly lady’s comment, who said something along the lines of: “I am so pleased this has come into being. With fewer and fewer people going to church these days, we are losing our sense of community. It is centres such as this that will help balance that loss. In this, they play a vital role in civilization.”
Today the Box Hill Community Arts Centre supports a hub of cultural diversity without which we would be much the poorer. Thanks go to all who were instrumental in getting the idea off the ground and executing it so successfully.