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Beyond Melbourne, Victoria's arty regional centres

In decades past, art was a fairly conservative experience – beyond Australia's cities – but this has changed dramatically in several regions including Victoria. The creative energy of the state capital Melbourne has flowed to regional cities, creating numerous cutting-edge cultural hubs. Regional galleries have been revitalised with newly adventurous programming and the most urban of forms: street art has taken off.

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Silo mural by internationally recognised street artists Adnate at Sheep Hills © Anthony Phelan / Lonely Planet

Street art goes to the country

Also riding the street art boom is the regional town of Benalla with names famous in the global scene including Guido van Helten, Adnate, Rone, and DVATE. Around 200km northeast of Melbourne and just off the highway to Sydney, it has developed a colourful gallery of walls over the last few years since the first Wall to Wall Festival (benallastreetart.com.au) in 2015.

Artist Phibs at work on a mural for the 2016 Wall to Wall street art festival in Benalla, Australia. © Tim Richards / Lonely Planet
Artist Phibs at work on a mural for the 2016 Wall to Wall street art festival in Benalla, Australia © Tim Richards / Lonely Planet

In its first year, 14 walls were painted with impressive murals by a team of artists hand-picked by Shaun Hossack, a street artist who’d grown up in the area. The event was such a success that for the next two years, artists were allocated more prominent walls off the main shopping street. The result is a colourful collection of works that turn this town into an open-air art gallery.

Within walking distance of the visitor information centre are such impressive murals as a tattooed woman lying in a bed covering a vast restaurant wall; an Aboriginal man with tribal markings gazing dreamily toward the north; animal-skulled characters interacting on the side of a toilet block; and the giant head of a dog on the side of a former telephone exchange.

Artist Guido van Helten stands in front of his art in the Winton Wetlands near Benalla. © Tim Richards / Lonely Planet
Artist Guido van Helten stands in front of his art in the Winton Wetlands near Benalla © Tim Richards / Lonely Planet

Art in the wetlands

The most remarkable work, however, is not in Benalla at all, but in the Winton Wetlands (wintonwetlands.org.au) outside the town. Once an artificial dam which was later demolished, the Wetlands presents a strange vista of gnarled dead tree trunks on a dusty plain. In the midst of this wide open space, on the final day of the 2016 festival, Guido van Helten stood in front of the art he’d been painting on a squat concrete water tank at ground level.

You couldn’t imagine a more non-urban environment for 'street' art; Melbourne could offer nothing like it. But the small crowd of locals and out-of-towners were entranced by what had been created: the face of an unnamed volunteer fireman, the first of three to grace the tank. Given the scale of the large concrete canvas, it was a remarkably emotional portrait: the man with his eyes closed, skin crinkled in amusement as a smile played on his lips. Onlookers couldn’t help wondering what he was thinking.

Not that the artist, known simply as Guido for his art, was going to tell all. He’d prefer to keep his subjects’ identities under wraps and let the work speak for itself, he told the onlookers as they peppered him with queries during the scheduled question and answer session. He’d taken the same stance toward his extraordinary huge depictions of farmers on a set of old silos in the northwest Victorian town of Brim (wimmeramalleetourism.com.au/our-towns/brim-victoria), painted in late 2015 to huge acclaim.

Why paint in such remote areas, in extremes of heat and cold, when he could be working in the comfort of the big city? “Melbourne’s saturated with street art, it’s boring painting there,” he replied. “I can see the effect of my art out here. As it’s embraced, it’s allowing much more interesting work to be made.”

Street artist Smug finishing a mural for the 2016 Wall to Wall street art festival. © Tim Richards / Lonely Planet
Street artist Smug finishing a mural for the 2016 Wall to Wall street art festival © Tim Richards / Lonely Planet

You might expect country folk to be suspicious of the big city street art scene being exported to their towns, but Benalla’s residents have been completely won over. One local woman at the Q&A made a point of telling Guido how much the street art meant to her, despite her initial doubts about whether it would encourage vandalism. Her remarks were met approvingly by the other onlookers, and Guido was spurred on in his efforts with a round of applause.

Victoria's unique 'silo art'

Melbourne is globally renowned for its street art scene centred on its laneways, but towns around the region have been stealing some of the metropolis’ glory – and in ways a big city can’t match. Street art in its various manifestations – stencils, paste-ups, murals – can be found anywhere in the world, but Victoria also boasts 'silo art'. Dotted around the drought-stricken regions of northwest Victoria, these huge murals are drawing travellers from all over the world. They've also injected some tourism dollars to these small farming communities.

It began in the small town of Brim,where street artist Guido van Helten captured the world's attention in January 2016 by painting a giant mural on the town's disused grain silo. The attention prompted locals to take things a step further and create a giant outdoor gallery in other towns on a 200km driving tour of the region.

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Four farmers painted by Brisbane street artist Guido van Helten in Brim © Anthony Phelan / Lonely Planet

Renewed galleries

Beyond the streets of Benalla, there are many excellent galleries worth visiting across Victoria. The town’s own Benalla Art Gallery sits above Lake Benalla, with a diverse collection including work by the prominent Australian painter Sidney Nolan. In the Goldfields region are a number of excellent galleries, often in fine colonial-era buildings. The Art Gallery of Ballarat sits among the grand facades of Lydiard Street, balancing the 19th century local landscapes of Eugene von Guerard with contemporary Aboriginal art. Further north, the Castlemaine Art Gallery focuses on late 19th century impressionists such as Frederick McCubbin, Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton, as well as the work of Australian photographers.

Art-o-mat at the Mildura Arts Centre. © Tim Richards / Lonely Planet
Art-o-mat at the Mildura Arts Centre © Tim Richards / Lonely Planet

The Bendigo Art Gallery is well known for staging fashion-related exhibitions which may not make it to Melbourne; in recent years, for example, it’s hosted popular shows devoted to Princess Grace of Monaco, and to Marilyn Monroe. In Victoria’s west, the Warrnambool Art Gallery exhibits the postwar modernist art of the Angry Penguins movement, and in 2013 brought out a science fiction costume exhibition from the UK.

The collection of the Mildura Arts Centre ranges from a pastel by French artist Edgar Degas, to beautiful handcrafted pieces which can be bought from its Art-o-Mat, a converted cigarette machine which dispenses artwork. Southwest of Melbourne, the Geelong Gallery is proud of its collection of contemporary Australian art, including prints, paintings, ceramics and sculpture. To the east, the Latrobe Regional Gallery (latroberegionalgallery.com) in Morwell has a dedicated sculpture courtyard and a significant collection of Asian art.

Whatever’s on show from their permanent collections, these regional galleries are also active players in today’s art scene. A case in point is Benalla Art Gallery’s in-house street art program of 2015, which acted as a catalyst for the Wall to Wall festival.

Artist Gemma Keating at work at the Benalla festival. © Tim Richards / Lonely Planet
Artist Gemma Keating at work at the Benalla festival © Tim Richards / Lonely Planet

“Galleries are not just showing their old collections,” says Bryony Nainby, the gallery’s director. “They’re very much connected with contemporary art that’s being made now. They work with curators to create cutting-edge exhibitions and experimental projects. They’re not bound by their history.” For a full list of Victoria’s regional galleries, check out the website of the Public Galleries Association of Victoria (pgav.org.au).

 Tim Richards travelled to Benalla with support from Tourism North East and Benalla Rural City Council. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.