Rewind: In the beginning: Melbourne, 1982…the right place, the right time

ACCA's first location at the gardners cottage on Dallas Brooks Drive, The Domain. Courtesy ACCA Archive

The early 1980s was a significant and exciting time for the contemporary arts in Australia. Several years after the establishment of the Australia Council, a number of public organisations were set up to house, facilitate and present contemporary art for the first time. In 1982 the newly appointed Cain Government set about revitalising the arts in Victoria. One of its priorities was to establish a dedicated contemporary art space that would accommodate the increasingly ambitious and experimental nature of contemporary practice.

Through the determined advocacy of a small group of local art supporters, the Ministry for the Arts, under the leadership of Arts Minister, Race Mathews, appointed Jill Graham to the task of finding a suitable building. This group of supporters was soon formalised into the Centre for Contemporary Art Steering Committee, which included Betty Churcher (Chair), Bill Kelly (artist), Tom Quirk (businessman), Bill Lasica (lawyer) and artists, John Davis and Leslie Dumbrell, amongst others.

Formed to navigate the establishment of a contemporary art centre, the committee quickly began formulating an early vision statement for the CCA. Looking to the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford as a model, it was decided that the CCA would not be a collecting institution but rather a venue for the presentation and interpretation of contemporary art.

That same year it was recommended that a nineteenth century gardener’s cottage situated on Dallas Brooks Drive in the King’s Domain, opposite the Royal Botanic Gardens, be developed for use as the Centre for Contemporary Art. Bill Kelly, ex-Dean of the Victorian College of the Arts, recalls visiting the empty Dallas Brooks Drive building with fellow committee member, John Davis. While both recognised its potential, he recalls that “it felt a long way from the city”.

Development of the site became problematic when it was established that the land was reserved for public parks and gardens. While site negotiations continued the CCA Steering Committee proceeded to search for a director. In October 1982 Betty Churcher approached John Buckley, who had just returned from overseas, and his appointment as inaugural director was confirmed in April 1983.

Melbourne architect Daryl Jackson was also engaged to devise the redevelopment of the Dallas Brooks Drive site for the CCA. His three-stage plan included internal and external modification of the existing building to better link it with the gardens, and a significant addition to the existing building to provide more exhibitions space.

While the Steering Committed continued their work, the Market and Parkland Act was amended by the State Parliament and in June 1983 an excision on the Dallas Brooks Drive property was granted. Shortly afterwards, on the 15 November 1983, the Centre became incorporated under the new name, The Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA). The vision became a reality.