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Hey—did I see you at Collingwood Yards last week?

Collingwood Yards: 35 Johnston Street, Collingwood, embedded in Melbourne’s inner-northern suburbs. A series of vast brick and concrete structures pushed up against a narrow footpath, rimmed by neon lights—a new, surprising and innovative community arts space. Somewhere along the way, Collingwood Yards became synonymous with a particular crowd—bleached-cap wearing, bike-riding, Savers-shopping young people—leading to plentiful Instagram discourse poking fun at the Yard’s regulars.

Collingwood Yards: 35 Johnston Street, Collingwood, embedded in Melbourne’s inner-northern suburbs. A series of vast brick and concrete structures pushed up against a narrow footpath, rimmed by neon lights—a new, surprising and innovative community arts space. Somewhere along the way, Collingwood Yards became synonymous with a particular crowd—bleached-cap wearing, bike-riding, Savers-shopping young people—leading to plentiful Instagram discourse poking fun at the Yard’s regulars.

I’d be lying through my writerly teeth if I said I wasn’t sure how this aesthetic of the Collingwood Yards regular came to be: I too have perched a bleached cap on my head, probably whilst riding my bike to Savers on a sunny afternoon. However: there is more to this space than the reductive aesthetic of the inner-north dweller, bike grease and all. After a few visits to the Yards, my task became to deconstruct this stereotype and dig a little deeper—how did Collingwood Yards come to be, and how does this site function?

Collingwood Yards is a community space, a sprawling, quirky collection of buildings and courtyards run by Contemporary Arts Precincts (CAP). The site was inspired by arts precinct models overseas, but is the first of such a large scale in Australia, and ambitiously seeks to provide a public space where artistic communities are fostered. Through a clever combination of tenancies, commercial businesses subsidise and make affordable the artists’ spaces. The result is a self-sustaining model, allowing artists to remain and continue to create in the increasingly expensive inner north, fostering an atmosphere abuzz with creativity. Since its official opening in March 2021, the Yards has become a locus for creatives and all those interested in art.

Long before Collingwood Yards became a magnet for artists, publishers and music-makers, however, it saw over 100 years of life in the shifting landscape of Collingwood. Collingwood Yards began its meandering history as a courthouse and council chambers in the (at the time) industrial and poor inner-city locale. After this, the site became home to Collingwood Technical School, which opened in 1912, offering trade skills to boys and training for ex-servicemen. The site also housed factories which contributed to the development of wartime machinery. Two attendees of Collingwood Tech are in my family: my grandfather, who completed an Engineering Pattern Maker apprenticeship, and my father, who finished his Civil Engineering Certificate there.

In 1984, Keith Haring painted his iconic cyan and red mural on the external wall of the building, filled with his trademark jumping and dancing characters and a millipede with the head of a computer. Visible from Johnston Street, the piece is now one of only a handful of remaining Haring murals worldwide. The mural was restored prior to the reopening of the site, with the Collingwood Yards team writing that this was essential in ensuring Haring’s art can be “enjoyed into the future”.

After the closure of Collingwood Tech and the cessation of classes on site in 2005, the buildings in the Yards remained largely dormant: a strange, empty space in a crowded urban area. It seemed almost inevitable that the site would be bought by developers. However, Arts Victoria’s acquisition of the space began a new trajectory, continuing the legacy of the Yards’ central role as a public space in the Collingwood community.

The redevelopment of the site, which began in 2018, was undertaken by Collingwood-based Architecture firm, Fieldwork. I spoke to Tim Brooks, Project Architect for Collingwood Yards, about Fieldwork’s vision for the site. Encouraging the community to engage with the space was a central goal of the Collingwood Yards team, and the architecture of the site reflects this. Brooks pointed out the external positioning of lifts and stairs, and the openness of the central courtyard, enabling free movement as one explores. For Brooks, Fieldwork’s project was centred on the importance of creating a permeable space, one where the “wider community would feel like they can visit the site”, even if by using it as a thoroughfare between Johnston Street and the neighbouring side streets.

Rather than creating a “fortress of art-making”, Brooks and his team instead sought to formulate a space where the inner-workings of the artistic process are accessible to the broader community. This is most apparent during the open-studio evenings hosted at the Yards, when members of the public are invited inside the artist nooks that span the upper levels of the buildings. Finished and half-finished works allow insight into the process of creation in a candid, authentic way. Importantly, pretzels and cheese are on offer on each floor throughout these evenings. I can attest to the delight of admiring art whilst munching on free snacks—alongside the enjoyment of feeling connected to artistic practice in such a relaxed manner after so long spent in lockdowns.

The creative diversity of the Yards is perhaps its most fascinating feature. On a given night, the space might host an exhibition alongside a radio event and market, drawing visitors from the surrounding suburbs who gather in the central courtyard. On the lower level, opening onto this gravel courtyard, is Hope Street Radio—a bar/restaurant/DJ and live-music space, which broadcasts on Thursdays-Sundays. Stay Soft Studios organises night markets in the central courtyard on a monthly basis, allowing local creatives and small businesses to sell their goods. Uro, a bookstore with a focus on architecture and design, is permanently housed in the lower level. And RMIT-connected architecture journal Caliper also utilises the space for events and exhibitions.  

The artist organisation West Space routinely hosts exhibitions at the Yards, including its January-March show titled Sincerely Yours, focusing on fandom and devotion as a nexus for mixed-media creative practice, and its May-June show Watching, which explores the strange gaze of wild animals. Coming up in the West Space calendar is the exhibition TERRA: Memory and Soil, running from September to October, along with plenty of individual artist exhibitions showcasing a variety of mediums, including textiles and dance.

Visiting the Yards is somewhat similar to sticking your hand in a lucky-dip box—you never quite know what to expect. I’ve never spent time at the Yards without bumping into an old friend, or meeting someone new, whilst sipping on a drink in the courtyard or locking my bike onto the bike rack. This sense of spontaneity is what I believe makes this space truly successful in its welcoming approach to the public, and allows it to offer something vastly different from traditional art institutions like the National Gallery of Victoria.

Collingwood Yards represents a new approach to community arts spaces. Though, as Brooks told me, sites like the Abbotsford Convent and Nicholson Building have long demonstrated the value of establishing creative dynamics between tenants on a smaller scale, the Yards magnifies this. For a large, high-value block in Collingwood to be reserved for creatives is, in my mind, a success in the struggle against development, which has pushed so many out of the suburb. It is true that Collingwood Yards has become synonymous with a particular stereotype of the inner north creative—and it is certainly worth reflecting on the dangers of conformity. However, the truth of the Yards is far more complex, exciting and refreshing than this discourse lets on.

 
Farrago's magazine cover - Edition Five 2022

EDITION SIX 'RETROFUTURISM' AVAILABLE NOW!

Our last print edition of 2022 is here! This wild, visionary edition is filled with burning nostalgia, glittering hope, and tantalising visions of the future, past, and present.

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