Ballarat's new arts, culture and entertainment precinct is a world class venue that provides a worthy rival to those found in major cities ... right here in the heart of regional Victoria. Ballarat has taken its thriving and vibrant arts and culture scene to new heights, attracting tourism, providing opportunities for local established and emerging artists, giving families great recreational options, and creating jobs. Once again, Ballarat shows the rest of regional Australia how it should be done.
That's an article I would love to read. Instead, we hear that COVID-19 is killing Ballarat's arts and culture scene. The local theatre companies struggle to find space to rehearse. Live music venues are closing down. Our local art galleries get many more applications for exhibitions than they have space to accommodate, and we have no venue that can attract the big acts from Melbourne.
Some of you reading this might think "I'm not into art or theatre or any of that arty-farty stuff, so why on earth should I care about this?" You should care, because having a vibrant arts, culture and entertainment (ACE) precinct is about more than "arty-farty stuff".
It's about bringing jobs to the city, attracting the big acts from Melbourne (rock concerts here in Ballarat anyone?) and creating indoor and outdoor family-friendly spaces that give us all places to go, things to see, and stuff to do.
A vibrant ACE precinct is part of what makes a city liveable for everyone - not just the arty-farty crowd.
When we talk about a city's liveability, we immediately think of markers like jobs, housing, infrastructure, and a sense of community.
But one of the other major factors that makes a city liveable is its arts, culture and entertainment scene.
We are blessed to have several existing ACE venues including the Art Gallery of Ballarat, the Wendouree Centre for the Performing Arts and Her Majesty's, which is one of the oldest theatres in Australia.
But these and our other existing venues cannot support the ACE scene we already have let alone help it to grow.
We have the opportunity to continue to use our beautiful heritage buildings and also expand into modern facilities that cater for the needs that are not currently being met.
I have advocated for an ACE precinct to be developed in Ballarat for a few years. I want to see a large, vibrant area which includes:
- Gallery, exhibition and performance spaces
- A large concert venue to attract big acts/shows to the region
- Incubator and mentoring spaces for emerging artists
- Teaching spaces where anybody, even beginners, can learn and create, and where we can run school holiday programs
- Rehearsal spaces for performers
- Sound studios for musicians
- Family-friendly indoor and outdoor recreation spaces including cafes, public art, and ACE-inspired play areas
- Shopfronts and permanent market stalls where people can browse and buy from local artists and artisans
- Spaces to showcase and support indigenous ACE creators
This precinct can be a cohesive single precinct or can be an integrated precinct which links existing venues and new spaces to each other via walking trails or public transport.
We have a number of areas that can be developed into an ACE zone - the Ballarat Showgrounds, the old Stockyards on La Trobe Street, and even the Bridge Mall. That third one is intriguing.
We all know of the problems with that area. Council wants to open it to traffic again to solve those problems, but that's been done before without effect.
We seem to keep going back and forth on that one without ever really fixing the problem.
Retail is moving out of the CBD to other hubs to cater to our expanding population in the west and south of the city. Infill accommodation is slow moving and many shops are languishing empty with no new takers.
If we want a sense of vibrancy brought back to the CBD, why not convert Bridge Mall into the ACE Precinct?
It is within walking distance of the train station and bus interchange, in close proximity to the existing galleries and Her Majesty's and near the restaurants, cafes and clubs of Armstrong Street and Sturt Street.
The possibilities are tantalising - vibrant laneways painted by street artists, indigenous public art installations, art trails for families to explore, an outdoor amphitheatre, rehearsal spaces, night markets, cafes, performance venues ... the list is endless.
Instead of the slow, laborious process of trying to attract people to live in the CBD in order to revive a dying area, why not create an ACE precinct to quickly create a vibrant zone people will want to live and play in?
The idea of an ACE precinct was one of the big ideas I spoke about at a Committee for Ballarat members workshop in 2017.
It's one of the big ideas that people like but think are "too big" to make possible.
Except, as I've said before, 2020 has taught us that big ideas are achievable.
This particular one is also badly needed. It's not just "arty-farty stuff" - it's a big idea that can do big things that benefit us all. So let's do it.
Professor Bridget Aitchison holds a doctor of creative arts in theatre for Social Change from the University of Wollongong. She is a Ballarat local and is the campus dean of ACU Ballarat.