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Artistic vision comes of age

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The Age
Kathy Evans

Innovative arts venue fortyfivedownstairs celebrates its first decade.

JULIAN Burnside QC, once harboured “foolish fantasies” about becoming a photographer before changing his mind at the last minute. But he still carries a torch for artists whose creative expression, he believes, makes our lives more bearable: “Without law you can’t have society, but without art you can’t have civilisation.”

In his aesthetically beautiful office, perched high above the city like an eagle’s nest, Burnside laments Australia’s lack of financial support for the arts: “We don’t have a culture of supporting the arts. We take it for granted that the government will do it,” he muses, as Beethoven plays quietly in the background.

Burnside is chairman of fortyfivedownstairs — a not-for-profit theatre and gallery that was set up to champion struggling and emerging artists. Tomorrow night the Flinders Lane venue celebrates its tenth anniversary with a party which could never be described as dull.

Past performers such as Moira Finucane, instigator of the Burlesque Hour, which premiered there in 2004 and has since gone global, cabaret songwriter Benn Bennett, one half of Black Bag fame along with Wes Snelling, and Japanese Butoh dancer extraordinaire Yumi Umiumare, are just a handful of guests who will be staging experimental, thought-provoking works that the gallery has become famous for over the years.

All in all, more than 800 artists and performers have appeared here since its inception in 2002, when artistic director  Mary Lou Jelbart, a former ABC correspondent, became increasingly uncomfortable with how little artists actually made. She decided she wanted to run a venue to help them earn money, rather than make profits.  Also, she wanted to get their work shown in a professional space, instead of being relegated to local church halls; the usual domain for those unable to take financial risks.

“The outside world sees (the arts) as a glamorous occupation but doesn’t seem to want to support them,” she says, over tea in the kitchen which serves the full-time staff of three, as well as a host of volunteers.

“It’s like they should go off and get a ‘real job,’ but if you like what they provide it is important to support them.”

Jelbart’s idea was to charge artists a reasonable rent instead of the hefty commissions that commercial galleries demand. But how would she fund it? The lease for the old 19th-century rag-trade building at the posh end of Flinders Lane is not cheap; enter Burnside, a man with a plan, as well as a passion.

Together they established a group of supporters which was able to cover part of the expenses, freeing up cash to enable artists and performers to get set up. Benn Bennett, who performed the comedy,  Black Bag, there in 2008, and went on to appear in Europe, describes the venue as a “magical place” where enchanting things happen.

Certainly fortyfivedownstairs has illusionary properties; from the pavement on Flinders Lane you descend two flights of stairs, yet emerge into an airy room where light pours in from huge windows: how does that happen?

In fact the whole venue has an Alice in Wonderland feel to it; from the gaily painted rabbit-warren corridors, instilling a sense of disorientation, to the cast of colourful characters who pass through its doors, bringing with them artwork and ideas plucked from the realms of imagination that bypasses the everyday.

Running a not-for-profit venue in the middle of prime city space is challenging, admits Jelbart, who is hopeful that the next 10 years will unearth more talent from Melbourne’s nooks and crannies, and set them on the road to discovery.


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