Culture king: why Melbourne reigns supreme

Culture king: why Melbourne reigns supreme

An insider's guide

Site: Anna McClelland

It's known for its laneways, fashion and food, but Melbourne offers a whole other world of experiences if you scratch beneath the surface, says Ros Brennan

Cosmopolitan, eclectic and with an art scene to rival any city in the world, Melbourne has earned its reputation as Australia's cultural capital. So much so that the former editor of The New Yorker, Henry Finder, praised it as "Manhattan's sister city in the Antipodes." 

Trans-metropolitan comparisons aside, Melbourne has a distinctive cultural essence that sets it apart from the rest of Australia. Melbourne arts organisations and their audiences mix it up in ways that just don't happen elsewhere. There's a sociability that means the city's culture isn't just about mass-produced blockbuster exhibitions, international performances and season brochures, but about people. In return, Melbourne's people embrace creativity as central to mainstream life and carry a sense of pride about their city.

The result? A melting pot culture ranging from disruptive public art displays and small independent artist-run spaces to multi-disciplinary community arts festivals and exhibition programs that speak to the people. So next time you're on a Melbourne weekend, look beyond the well worn tourist traps, and discover the city's surprising, hidden cultural gems.

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1. Gertrude Contemporary, Fitzroy,

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Melbourne has no shortage of hip young art galleries, but if the throngs of punters sporting vintage Mary Janes and stylish asymmetrical haircuts are anything to go by, Gertrude Contemporary is the pick of the bunch. Located in a vast converted warehouse in the bohemian suburb of Fitzroy, Gertrude Contemporary centres around not only the presentation and exhibiting of contemporary art but the creation of it as well, with 18 affordable working spaces on site for artists to develop new works, as well as an international residency program.

2. Testing Grounds, Southbank,

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Like something straight out of Berlin, the Testing Grounds in Southbank is a former vacant lot revitalised into a multi-purpose art space where new ideas are experimented, tested and shared. The brainchild of Joseph Norster, a rock 'n' roll lighting designer, and architect Millie Cattlin, the space oozes industrial cool with neon lighting, shipping containers and, for those partial to multi-tasking, hand-built projector bikes. In addition to collaborative art projects, the space is home to film screenings, live music, creative workshops and a community garden.

Related story: State of art: 4 blockbuster exhibitions for your radar

3. White Night, CBD,

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Inspired by Paris' Nuit Blanche, White Night transforms Melbourne's city streets into an ephemeral art-filled wonderland, an all-night party of music, food, film, art and light, for one night only, from dusk till dawn. The entire CBD comes to a standstill to make way for acts as diverse as mass zumba classes beneath hundreds of floating mirror balls, circus performers, indie pop bands, opera singers and giant interactive projections. The event was hailed a roaring success in 2015, with more than 550,000 people descending on the CBD - a staggering number for an event that only runs for 12 hours. White Night is taking place from 7pm Saturday February 20 to 7am Sunday February 21, 2016.

Related story: 5 artists you should get to know now

4. Platform Art Gallery,

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Originally set up to enable workers bypass crowds during the 1956 Olympics, the beautiful Art Deco-style Degraves Street underpass in the heart of the CBD is now home to Platform Art Gallery. Eighteen display cabinets line the pink mosaic tiled arcade, filled with an ever-changing exhibition of painting, ceramics, photography, sculpture and printmaking, as well as occasional music and live performances. With 35,000 pedestrians passing through every week, it's one of Melbourne's most visible and unique art spaces.

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