Rewind: The New ACCA

By Kay Campbell

When I flew back to Melbourne from the UK for my interview for the position of Executive Director of ACCA in June 2002, I drove past the nearly completed Wood Marsh building and was filled with excitement. Here, I thought, was a building of ambition and promise, a real statement about Melbourne’s place in the contemporary art world, scaled to enable ambition and substance.

Shortly afterwards I discovered that ACCA would inhabit only a third of the building and that the budget fell far short of the ambition implied by the brief.  But by then I was hooked – inspired by the potential, the challenge, and the opportunity to work with one of Australia’s best curators, Juliana Engberg, who was working at that time as the artistic consultant for ACCA’s future exhibition program.

The concept of a Museum of Contemporary Art, as achieved in Sydney by 2002, seemed a slower, more cumbersome model.  The new ACCA was envisaged as a kunsthalle from the very start.  Quick, lean, responsive to art practice and well-fitted to Melbourne’s art-world, which was comprised of a vibrant network of artists, contemporary art spaces and ARI’s, but needed to look out from itself.  It was important to differentiate ACCA from smaller spaces, like Gertrude Street, CCP, Westspace, Heide and the university galleries. ACCA’s new focus was ambitious – to bring the world’s best international artists to Melbourne, to provide significant platforms for local artists and to grow the audience for contemporary art.

By thinking of ACCA as a kunsthalle – a European model with an emphasis on commissioning for spaces – we gave ourselves permission to concentrate on working with artists and audiences, rather than being constrained by fixed exhibition spaces and all of the bureaucracy that goes along with looking after a collection.

Nevertheless the opportunity was also the challenge. It may have only been a portion of the Wood Marsh building, but the new ACCA was 359% bigger than the old cottage in the park!  Like many ambitious capital projects by government, this one lacked the rigorous business planning required to ascertain ongoing running costs. The goal to grow audiences was not matched by a marketing budget. There was no capacity to grow the team, and whilst we had a curator with high level international connections, the cost of freight and large-scale installations was beyond our capacity.  

Our survival depended on careful and strategic allocation of limited funds, key partnerships, effective fundraising and a dedicated team.  The Visual Arts Crafts Strategy (VACS) funding from State and Federal Government, which came out of the Myer enquiry in 2004, helped to stabilise ACCA’s situation.  ACCA’s VACS allocation was modest, but the timing was a relief, enabling us to invest in key staff and programming. Within two years we had more than doubled the value of the VACS investment with income generated through philanthropy and sponsorship. 

Without the early support of the community and visionary partnerships with organisations – like the Melbourne Festival, who supported our groundbreaking first season including Susan Norrie’s massive and mesmerising Undertow; the Myer Foundation who provided seed funding to establish the annual NEW exhibition and the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust who established our career shifting annual commission for artists – ACCA may not have endured.    

But endure it did. In the first year visitor numbers increased by 300% and since then the audience for ACCA’s programs has continued to increase annually. Its exhibitions, commissions and off-site projects remain ambitious. Our education program is huge and our popular public engagement program delivers unique multi-platform engagement with art and ideas. ACCA now raises nearly 70% of its annual budget, and, like most contemporary arts organisations assisted by VACS funding 10 years ago, we are now at a new critical stage.  Further government investment is needed to respond to rising costs and increasing visitor demands.  The future will be shaped by evolving and adapting in this new environment.

Kay Campbell is the Executive Director of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art.