Melbourne is a city crammed full of art: traditional and contemporary; static and living. The Yarra River Precinct is the hub of Melbourne’s artistic and cultural scene. Probably nowhere in the world is there such a concentration of high quality visual and performing arts venues, quite apart from a very generous sprinkling of public art and exciting architecture on display.
The short walk can take anything from 90 minutes to a whole day, depending on how much time you want to spend at each venue. In fact, for the arts lover, it could provide an entire week of enjoyment and stimulation.
Map of Walk
The walk starts in Southgate, passing through the Arts Precinct, Yarra Promenade and Northbank and ends in Federation Square. The walk covers the Art galleries in this area plus outdoor art installations.
Southgate - Start at Southgate, the dining and retail complex on the banks of the Yarra in Southbank. Opened in 1992, this three-level dining and retail venue was designed from the outset to feature local artists’ interpretation of Melbourne.
At the main entrance to Southgate, be greeted by ‘Ophelia’, a sculpture consisting of mosaic tiles, by celebrated artist Deborah Halpern. Deborah usually begins her mosaic work with sketches, although not all pieces are planned. Next, the figure is created from steel mesh and sprayed with expanding foam. Deborah then carves the shape of her piece and covers it with a fibro-glass skin. Finally, ceramic tiles are adhered to the skin to create the mosaic sculpture. All Deborah’s pieces are decorated with a “big face.” This is her signature and it gives her artworks life and emotion.
Take the escalators up to the mid and upper levels of Southgate and look out for the sculptural gates ‘Forbidden Areas’ by Maurice Hughes.
Looking left towards the Yarra River and sitting upon her own balcony is Loretta Quinn’s sculpture, ‘Crossing the First Threshold’. There is a sense of ‘folk religion’ in much of her art, and whether the symbols derive from the mystery of a Latin mass or the animist universe, a Celtic myth or a Japanese garden, she says they are ‘visual references to which others will relate’.
At the eastern end of the Southgate complex, on the river promenade, is the imposing tubular sculpture ‘Dervish’ (1981) by acclaimed Australian-American artist Clement Meadmore (1925-2005).
Immediately behind the Southgate complex is St John’s Lutheran Church, a beautiful modern structure with Byzantine overtones, designed by David Cole and built in 1991. It’s open during office hours for inspection and contemplation. A regular series of classical concerts are held throughout the year in the church.
Arts Precinct - Stay on the top level of Southgate and head east towards Princes Bridge to enter the hub of Melbourne’s arts precinct, comprising the Arts Centre’s Hamer Hall (1982) and the lattice spired Theatres (1984), and the National Gallery of Victoria International (1968). Some of the construction called upon feats of engineering to enable the buildings to withstand the notoriously unstable and corrosive silt of the ancient river bed. Fittingly, they were built on the site of Melbourne’s early circus and entertainment site.
This mural "The Greatest Show on Earth" was unveiled in 1998 to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of circus in Australia, and to acknowledge that Arts Centre Melbourne is built on the original site made famous by Wirth Bros Circus. The mural depicts classic circus characters: a ring leader, laughing clown, trapeze artist, performing elephants, and May Wirth, who was renowned for her skills on horseback. The central image depicts the original buildings of the ‘Olympia’ site, which Wirth Bros Circus occupied from 1907 onwards, and was the only permanent circus venue in Australia until the 1950s.
Hamer Hall is a premier concert venue. The Theatres houses the State Theatre and the smaller Playhouse and Fairfax Studio, as well as Gallery 1. There is free entry to the public areas of the Arts Centre buildings and the foyers of the Theatres building include an extensive array of visual art, sculpture and tapestries. Guided tours (fees apply) are held Monday to Saturday at 11am.
Melbourne Arts Walk is a series of crafted plaques honouring the arts which are embedded into the footpath surrounding Arts Centre's buildings. Taking the idea of Hollywood’s Walk of Fame a step further, the plaques feature inspiring and uplifting quotations from famous artists celebrating the creativity and passion of the performing arts in Melbourne.
The beautiful design, set in stone and brass, evokes the image of a pool of light, as if cast by a spotlight shining from the top of the Theatres Building's famous spire.
The public spaces around the Arts Centre buildings include several significant sculptures. Sitting on the lawn between Hamer Hall and the Theatres building is Berlin-born, Melbourne artist Inge King’s ‘Forward Surge’. She creates innovative, beautiful and exciting sculptures in bronze, steel and stainless steel. This welded steel sculpture was installed in 1981.
This area also has a series of bronze sculptures of human figures titled "Family of Man I" and "Family of Man II" by Cole Sopov (1983-84), Dragonfly by Tom Merrifield (1988), Rhythms of Life by Andrew Rogers (1996/2000 ), Marathon Man II by Anthony Pryor (1991) and our favourite "Coming and Going" by Les Kossatz (1983) which is a fun sculpture with sheep struggling in and out of hatches.
Cole Sopov was commissioned by John Truscott in 1983-84 to create two groups of figures, ‘Family of Man I’ and ‘Family of Man II’ for the entrance foyer of the Theatres Building. These two sculpture groups were moved in 2001 to their current prominent location overlooking the lawn area between the Theatres Building and Hamer Hall.
The semi abstract quality of the sculptures follow on from the 1960s Melbourne tradition of biomorphic abstraction, which combined flowing concave and convex shapes with stylized anatomical details, often with an additional overlay of eroded abstracted forms.
Family of Man I
Family of Man II
Rhythms of Life
Rhythms of Life has become one of Andrew Rogers’ most acclaimed signature works. Through the sweeping calligraphic lines and fundamental forms, the artist seeks to encode the idea of the dynamism and unpredictability of our journey through life.
Dragonfly was created by the sculptor Tom Merrifield as a tribute to the internationally-celebrated Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova. The Dragonfly was a solo performance created and danced by Pavlova herself. Pavlova toured Australia with her own ballet company in 1926 and 1929 to great acclaim. Dragonfly was presented by the artist as a gift celebrating the history of dance in Australia.
Coming and Going
There is both an absurdity and seriousness to this work, Coming and Going, by Les Kossatz who explores distinctly Australian subject matter. Some of the sheep seemingly struggle to emerge from the trapdoors in the ground; one perches precariously in full view; while another returns from whence it came. The sheep, as singular and communal animals, can be seen as representative of the human condition, while the trapdoors in the ground are portals into the unknown. The work is therefore open to varying interpretations; one of which could be as symbolic of the cyclical nature of life, from birth to death, of Coming and Going.
Marathon Man II
Marathon Man II is one of the last sculptures completed by the artist Anthony Pryor before his untimely death in 1991. It is a work that clearly illustrates Pryor’s conceptual ingenuity and his probing sculptural enquiry into abstracted biomorphic forms, which symbolically reference performers or figures in movement.
Marathon Man II acts as a sentinel or guardian of Arts Centre Melbourne’s sculpture garden. It is sited so that visitors may approach the work from a number of directions, and then walk around the work so as to gain different viewpoints and perspectives of the sculpture in its environment. This creates a dynamic spatial relationship, which is intended to enhance the visitors’ experience and engagement with the sculpture.
The National Gallery of Victoria on St Kilda Road (NGV International) is the home of the Gallery’s International collection, which is regarded as one of the finest in the country.
Pass through the gallery and enter the lovely garden at the rear which has a range of sculptures including the stainless steel sculpture "Three Ms and one W IV, gyratory" by American George Rickey (1990), the cast bronze "Standing Figure" by Willem de Kooning (1969), bronze "Draped Seated Woman" by Henry Moore (1958), bronze "Balzac" by Auguste Rodin from 1898 which was cast in 1967, "Tree of Life" by Italian Pino Conte (1961), Happy Ending and Noble Ape.
Three Ms and one W IV, gyratory
Draped Seated Woman
Tree of Life
There is also an interesting sculpture in the pond beside the garden.
NGV International is open 10am-5pm, but closed on Tuesdays. There is free admission, although charges apply to some temporary exhibitions.
The third component of the Arts Centre, the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, can be found across St Kilda Road in the Kings Domain. Melbourne’s beloved ‘Bowl’ was built in 1959 as an elegant outdoor concert venue and was extensively refurbished in 2001.
Southbank - Cross at the lights on St Kilda Road – just beyond the National Gallery of Victoria – and you will encounter the Victorian College of the Arts.
VCA is a faculty of the University of Melbourne. Established in 1972, it is one of Australia’s major education and training grounds for our future performing and visual artists, as well as arts industry technicians.
The VCA provides a wonderful opportunity to see exhibitions, drama, dance, puppetry and music performances by Melbourne’s emerging artists. They study in this veritable village of buildings, theatres and gallery spaces, spread over a full city block.
Most of the complex is not open to the public for casual wandering, but the Margaret Lawrence Gallery in Grant Street is a free gallery space open most days. You can also access details of the many low cost concerts and plays staged at the VCA by visiting www.vca.unimelb.edu.au.
Southbank Boulevard runs between the National Gallery and the VCA. It’s the location for Melbourne’s newest arts venues: the Melbourne Theatre Company’s Sumner Theatre and the Melbourne Recital Centre which are enclosed within a distinctive lattice of white tubular steel.
The Melbourne Recital Centre features a wide range of concerts, held in both its showpiece Elizabeth Murdoch Hall and in its smaller Studio. Details can be found at www.melbournerecital.com.au. The Sumner Theatre program can be found at www.mtc.com.au.
Across the road from the Recital Centre, on the corner of Southbank Boulevard and Sturt Street, is the ABC Southbank studios and nearby on the corner of Sturt and Kavanagh Streets is the Australian Ballet Centre (both are not open to the general public).
Turn left into Sturt Street and walk about 500 metres to visit the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) (free entry).
Next door to the ACCA is the CUB Malthouse Theatre. The CUB Malthouse building was built in 1892 as a brewery and malting house. Its program details can be found at www.malthousetheatre.com.au. The distinctive exterior and interiors of ACCA is a past major winner in the Australian Architectural Awards. The forecourt features ‘The Vault’ by Ron Robertson-Swan, which, after several locations and controversy, has found an appropriate permanent home at ACCA.
Yarra Promenade - Retrace your steps back along Sturt Street and Southbank Boulevard to rejoin the Yarra’s Southbank Promenade at the Eureka Tower. On way have a look at the side of the building along Fanning Street (near the corner of Kavanagh Street).
The 24 carat gold-capped Eureka tower represents the wealth of the 19th century goldfields, upon which Melbourne’s prosperity was first based. The slash of red on the gold signifies the blood let at the 1854 Eureka uprising on the Ballarat goldfields. The giant golden bees adorning the river side of the building’s lower floors depict the enterprise and human energy inside the landmark building.
In the forecourt of Eureka Tower you will see a rock sculpture ‘No One Man’s Land’ by David Long (2009). It represents mankind struggling to support and grapple with a challenging eco system.
Now, walk to the river and you will pass the metal sculpture next to the Esso building,
‘Shearwater’ by Inge King. It reflects the Australian landscape, with shifting patterns of light and shade thrown by natural vegetation.
This area also is the location of "Fault Line" by Hossein Valamanesh (1996). Originally, Fault Line, comprised a 70-metre granite path to the river’s edge, a derelict wooden jetty, a sandstone-veneer ‘ruin’ and two bronze half-figures and a rowboat. The sculpture reflected Hossein Valamanesh’s abiding interest in memory, destruction and survival.
Fault Line was partially decommissioned in 2007. By then, the two figures had already been irreparably damaged and were removed, and the sandstone ‘ruin’ at the southern extremity had become impossible to maintain and keep safe. The decision was made to decommission these elements of the work, along with the bronze rowing boat and single oar that had not been stolen. In an effort to retain some presence of the ‘ruin’, a trace of its plan was made using the original sandstone. This memory trace is flush with the surrounding ground surface. The boat and remaining oar have been stored offsite.
Walk westwards along the Promenade. The polished flat stone sculpture on the grass is titled ‘World Within, World Without’. Created by Helen Bodycomb in 2010, it depicts the constellations above Victoria at 11am on 16 November 2009, when the then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, issued his national apology to the ‘Forgotten Australians’.
Spanning the river from Queensbridge Square to Northbank is the 1888 Sandridge Bridge, which was converted in 2008 to a pedestrian thoroughfare. The aluminium sculptures on the bridge titled ‘The Travellers’ were designed by Lebanese artist Nadim Karam and represent the waves of immigration to Victoria since the 1830s. The only sculpture that doesn’t move is located in Queensbridge Square, because it represents the ancient culture of Indigenous Australians, whose roots go back 40-60,000 years; the oldest continuous culture in the world. The story of Victoria’s immigration is recounted in 128 glass panels on Sandridge Bridge and in the beautiful Immigration Museum (former Customs House), just across the road in Flinders Street.
Continue west along Southbank Promenade, crossing Queensbridge Street to inspect
‘The Guardians’ outside the eastern end of Crown Entertainment Complex. These two large sculptures carved from Italian statuary marble and clad with ceramic tiles were created by, a then, local artist Simon Rigg. The square based mounting of the larger statue depicts the four elements. The smaller Guardian reveals a woman’s head looking through the hole of the larger sculpture, and hints at the source of all the images, beyond our plane of vision.
Northbank - Cross the river from Crown to the Melbourne Aquarium, using the footbridge, and head back towards the city centre along Northbank. Immediately after the aquarium you enter Enterprize Park, the site of the 1834 European landing in Melbourne. It was also the place where sailing ships were able to turn around in the river during the early days of the colony.
At the rear of Enterprize Park, next to the railway overpass, a 30 pole installation called ‘Scar – A Stolen Vision’ was created by eight Indigenous artists. The painted, carved and decorated wooden poles are poignant reminders of the thousands of years that this land has been occupied by Aboriginal people.
The reconstructed wharf at the east end of the park features five carved wooden and metal figureheads, collectively known as ‘Constellation’. Depicting a dragon, a woman, a bird, a man and a lion, they are the work of Bruce Armstrong and Geoffrey Bartlett and evoke the spirit of the early sailing ships.
Now, take a leisurely ten minute walk along the Northbank of the river, across Queensbridge Street, and onto Flinders Walk. As you wander under Sandridge Bridge, look to the right to view ‘Ecophene’ by Karen Abernethy and Kiko Gianocca. The water installation under the bridge re-inhabits a place where the destruction of the Yarra River’s waterfall near this point in 1883 had irreversible consequences for the river’s ecology.
Pass under Princes Bridge and enter Birrarung Marr, Melbourne’s newest parkland.
On the gravelled upper level of the walk in Birrarung Marr you will come across Birrarung Wilam (River Camp), a work by Indigenous artists Vicki Couzens, Lee Darroch, and Treahna Hamm that interprets stories from local Indigenous communities. Two tall, intricately carved message sticks mark the site that features a textured, twisting pathway representing the eel, a traditional food of groups camped by the river. Large rocks incised with animal drawings enclose a performance space, while metal shields represent the five clans of the Kulin Nation.
On your left in the old redbrick railway building is Art Play. It offers a range of creative workshops, where children aged between 2 and 13 years can work alongside professional artists in a unique environment, encouraging play, creativity and collaboration (fees apply).
In front of Art Play is "Once Upon a Slime".
At the rear of Art Play on the western side of the playground is "Mali, Protector of All Animals" by Deborah Halpern (2012). It is a gift to the children of Melbourne from the Lord Mayor's Charitable Foundation. Mali marks the celebration of Melbourne Zoo's 150th anniversary and its commitment to the conservation of endangered species.
Nearby is "Futurescape" by Helen Bodycomb and the children at ArtPlay (2013). Futurescape is a collaborative mosaic work created on the ‘planes’ of a giant split rock. The project involved eight sessions where children developed the ideas for and drew pictures of a future Melbourne. Together with Helen Bodycomb, the children then made some of the elements they had drawn using mosaics and helped to lay them out. Approximately 80 children were involved. Helen completed the work in her studio in Castlemaine.
Keep walking along the path to reach Deborah Halpern’s imposing ‘Angel’ tiled sculpture.
Nearby is the "Stapley Memorial Drinking Fountain" in celebration of Frank Stapley, who served as mayor from 1917 to 1918.
Next to the river is "Warin the Wombat".
Head up the grassy knoll to the top of Birrarung Marr and stand among the Federation Field of Bells, installed in 2001 to commemorate the Centenary of the Federation of Australia. The 43 bells ring at pre-programmed times.
Federation Square - To finish your arts journey of the Yarra River Precinct, retrace your steps to Melbourne’s meeting place, Federation Square. An Australian award-winning piece of contemporary architecture and you can discover the story of how it was designed and built in a guided tour of the Square, offered Mondays to Saturdays at 2.30pm (fees apply).
Don’t leave without visiting the National Gallery of Victoria at Federation Square (The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia). NGV Australia is open 10am-5pm, closed Mondays. Like NGV International, admission is free but charges may apply to some temporary exhibitions.
Also take a look at Kirra Gallery in The Atrium, which features a stunning commercial collection of Australian glass art and glassware (free entry).
Finally, to complete your art journey, visit the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) on the north edge of Federation Square. It depicts the development of Australian film as an art form, and includes some exciting contemporary digital art exhibitions to bring you right into the 21st century (free entry; some fees may apply to exhibitions).
Note: Things change and some art may have been removed or replaced since this guide was written.