Brisbane’s 40-year-old multi-arts organisation Metro Arts opens its new, purpose-built, West End home tonight. The new venue – which contains performance, exhibition and office space – will kick things off by hosting several Brisbane Festival events. Metro Arts Creative Director and CEO Jo Thomas discusses her excitement at opening the creative space, which is an important addition to the new West Village precinct.

Metro Arts’ new purpose-built home in Brisbane’s West End. Images supplied

Why did Metro Arts decide to sell its home in Edward Street where it had been based for 40 years?

109 Edward Street was a beautiful old building but one in constant need of maintenance and repair. As a 130-year-old heritage-listed building we found we were spending more time and money on the building then we were on the art.  Metro’s focus needs to be on our core business which is developing and presenting independent contemporary arts practice. By selling the building we have ensured the sustainability of the organisation and allowed us to fund artists and arts projects for decades into the future. We have established the Metro Arts Future Fund and created an incredible new arts precinct in the thriving hub of West End.

When did you find the new venue?

Working with JLL we were introduced to the Sekisui West Village complex early in 2019 and started negotiations with them. The new Metro Arts creative precinct sits within West Village’s 2.6-hectare master-planned site which features the heritage-listed former Peters Ice Cream factory as its centrepiece – and is close to public transport and affordable parking while providing greater accessibility for artists and patrons of all abilities. Award-winning developers like Sekisui House understand about creating inspiring, liveable places for people to live, work and play and most crucially they know this involves the integration of arts and culture. The precinct also has a 6-star green star for environmental commitments.

Metro Arts’ new, modern, fit-for-purpose home allows us to refocus our priorities on supporting more artists, developing more new work, invigorating Brisbane’s cultural scene and providing exceptional experiences to audiences. At a time when funding is becoming more difficult to find, a commitment such as this is even more vital.

Metro Arts is a coveted addition to the new West Village precinct

Was the redevelopment with the underground theatre, two galleries, two rehearsal rooms and outdoor area designed in consultation with the Metro Arts team?

The team have been a big part of the journey consulting on all the spaces to ensure they’re workable and accessible. We spent countless hours talking through problems and measuring and taping out spaces so we could walk around them. We’ve been working with independent contemporary artists for many years so we understand their special needs and wishes. Our architect Jayson Blight from Blight Rayner has created gorgeous innovative new spaces – not an easy thing to achieve with a retro fit-out. The theatre is a highly flexible 117-seat space with dressing rooms and green room and laundry – all facilities we’ve not had before! The main gallery is particularly exciting with a large moveable door to the window gallery – this means we can separate spaces and change the layout constantly.

I believe the new venue means that West End will have its first live theatre space in 25 years?

Yes, and the community are behind us. We had our first ‘neighbour’ event [a couple of nights ago] welcoming in members of the community and there was a lot of support and excitement. A number of artists also live in this area and of course it’s close to Southbank, QAGOMA, Milani gallery and Queensland Theatre. It has great energy for an incubator hub like Metro Arts.

I gather the company has donated some money to the Artists Benevolent Fund and Actors Benevolent Fund from the sale of the old building?

During the pandemic shut-down in Queensland I took a proposal to the Board to fund some additional performance works and commission artists as well as make some donations to the sector. There were three funds we donated to – all great set-ups like the Benevolent Fund who were on the ground and assisting artists immediately. We also commissioned Dale Harding, Elizabeth Willing and Dead Puppets Society to create pieces for the new spaces. Dale’s work adorns the glass in our offices, Elizabeth has created a gorgeous design on curtains for the new rehearsal rooms, and the Dead Puppets have contributed a sculptural piece to be hung in the stairwell leading down to the new theatre.  Further, we commissioned some additional performance/installation works from Pink Matter, The Good Room and Polytoxic, which will be seen from September to November this year. Many of our artists lost all of their work overnight during the pandemic and we wanted to find a way to offer some hope and create great new work for audiences.

Are you excited to be launching the new building by hosting several Brisbane Festival events?

Brisbane Festival Artistic Director, Lou Bezzina and I have been friends for many years and we collaborate well together. This has been a joyous opportunity to be part of the major festival and showcase local artists even further. Our program includes four performance works in the New Benner Theatre, exhibitions from Sally Golding and Hiromi Tango, a commissioned kinetic piece from artist Robert Andrew and Counterpilot’s dubious new social experiment Avoidable Perils which is an interactive game for the masses! We are showing the best contemporary art in Brisbane and look forward to welcoming audiences again (but of course all under our industry-approved CovidSafe plan!)

Brainbow Magic will add a technicolor splash to the opening?

Hiromi Tango is a meticulous, caring artist. I’ve been watching her install Rainbow Circles in our window gallery for the past few days and her process is very detailed and loving. This work is a colourful rainbow after the storm of the pandemic. And then out on the Common here at West Village her Brainbow Magic arches will continue to bring more joy and colour to everyone. Hiromi believes these sensory works will bring healing and transformation and I can already see them working their magic on people of all ages.

Brainbow Magic. Image by Hiromi Tango

Is there a lot of demand for the new space?

We’ve been overwhelmed with interest from the sector and other industries with requests for parties and events as well as performance and exhibition works. We have our own annual program of works and festivals so 2021 is booked solid with these works we’ve commissioned and curated so we are mostly looking to 2022 now. It is wonderful to be back open and to see the value of arts in our community again.  It was a crazy idea to create a whole new precinct within seven months but we’ve done it – COVID restrictions and all! I look forward to welcoming everyone in.  I can’t believe this day has come!