Welcome To Australia’s Coolest New Art Gallery
Say hello to MAMA.
Let’s face it: regional Australia doesn’t exactly have a stellar reputation for art and culture. Sure, the Aussie outback has been romanticised in countless landscape paintings and decades of bush poetry, but when it comes to hip galleries or theatres, you’d be forgiven for thinking that most of this country’s art is confined to the big cities.
While most of the attention might be on the latest controversial installation at MONA or blockbuster exhibition at the NGV, regional Australia has been quietly pulling out stops to bring some of the most exciting and ambitious art away from the coastline. In Victoria alone the Bendigo Art Gallery has been attracting international exhibitions since it’s million-dollar redevelopment in 2014, and just last year Ballarat was the state’s exclusive venue for the Archibald Prize.
And then there’s MAMA, or as she’s technically known, the Murray Art Museum Albury. Straddling the NSW border, Albury’s small regional art gallery underwent a $10 million refurbishment last year, and is now hosting its first international exhibition, Marilyn: Celebrating an American Icon. No longer just a town in between, MAMA is helping turn Albury into a vibrant cultural destination in its own right. I spent 48 hours in Albury to see what life is like on the border.
Take your MAMA out all night
For most visitors, the first sight of Albury comes when the hunger pains get too much on the long drive between Sydney and Melbourne. A much more exciting way of arriving though is via the teeny Albury airport on one of Qantas’ Dash-8s, where the flight from Melbourne is so short you don’t even pierce the clouds.
Regardless of how you arrive, it’s quickly obvious that something big is happening in Albury. The town is awash in hot pink: giant posters of Marilyn adorn cafe windows and flags flutter down the main street, that quintessential image of regional Australian towns. MAMA is here and she’s making a splash.
The gallery itself sits in the old town hall right in the centre of town. At first it’s easy to miss just how big the redevelopment has been: the only clue is the bold ‘M’ sitting in the central window. But head around the back to QEII square and you’ll find a building that’s more GoMA than Goulburn. The gallery has tripled in size and takes over two heritage buildings with a contemporary atrium that hosts ten galleries, multimedia spaces and rooms dedicated to supporting regional artists.
MAMA has been open since October, but it’s Marilyn that’s got everyone talking. Marilyn: Celebrating an American Icon is a chronological depiction of her life, from young Norma Jean to international sex symbol. It’s the first time the exhibition has travelled outside of the Americas, and is an Australian exclusive. There’s no shortage of photographs of the star in her many guises – and yes, the famous flying skirt shot is there – but it’s the ones that show her fragility and the melancholy of fame that add depth to this collection. Prominently featured is the so-called ‘last sitting’, taken just before her death.
While the exhibition could easily rest on the laurels of the paparazzi photographs – after all, she was the most photographed star of her time – it also includes work by other artists who’ve been inspired by Monroe, including those famous Andy Warhol prints.
It’s not all international work either: Marilyn features a series donated by a local art collector, who called up to inform the gallery that he had a bunch of rare photographs in his possession only days before the exhibition opened. Now that’s country hospitality.
Albury is having a moment
MAMA may be spearheading Albury’s cultural renaissance, but the new gallery isn’t the only hot ticket in town. Albury is buzzing with new restaurants and bars that rival anything in Sydney or Melbourne. MAMA’s extension includes the excellent Canvas, a restaurant with big airy windows that open up onto a square that also hosts a library museum, entertainment centre and monthly twilight markets. Across the road is AMP lane, home to Boom Boom – a cafe and bar that wouldn’t look out of place in Fitzroy or Newtown.
A couple of blocks over from MAMA is the Flying Fruit Fly Circus, one of Australia’s leading circus training institutions. Or, as I quickly realise as we’re given a tour of the building, pretty much the Hogwarts of the circus world. Troupes of kids hoist themselves up ropes in the hulking grey warehouse, while teenagers effortlessly fling themselves through hoops. The Fruit Flies are performing at the Sydney Opera House next month, and graduates are part of troupes for everything from Circus Oz to Cirque Du Soleil. Never has running away to join the circus been so appealing.
It’s spilling across the border too: In Albury’s twin city of Wodonga, the old railway junction is being transformed into a hub of cafes, craft beer bars and fine dining establishments. Broadguage is the first restaurant in the region to receive a coveted hat from the Good Food Guide. On an island between the two towns is Hothouse Theatre, a contemporary theatre company with a focus on producing new Australian work. It attracts national tours, as well as sending their own work out to the big cities. One of its major shows in 2016 is At the Hip, which looks at life (and death) on the border.
Of course, it would be remiss not to mention Albury’s more traditional drawcards. The Murray River snakes through the town, and is the centrepiece of the region’s natural attractions. Hire a kayak and drift down the surprisingly strong current, or jump in at one of the many waterholes. Of particular note is the Yindyamarra sculpture trail, a 5 kilometre track to the Wonga wetlands dotted with Indigenous sculptures crafted by artists from the region, with the help of the local men’s shed. You can hire a bike and hit the plethora of mountain biking tracks in the hills surrounding the town, and for the more adventurous Falls Creek is only a couple hours’ drive away.
If all that fresh air wears you out, the Atura Albury offers a funky respite in the centre of town. The seven-storey hotel (“It’s still Albury’s tallest building!” I’m told earnestly on arrival) has recently had a makeover; the open-plan lobby and restaurant is resplendent with geometric wall patterns and exposed concrete mixed with Scandinavian-style furniture. The hotel’s bar and grill has proven a hit with both locals and tourists, serving American-style meals with a modern twist. Like many local businesses, Atura has also jumped on the Marilyn bandwagon: you can get a “Marilyn-inspired” cocktail (hint: it’s very pink) at the hotel bar.
We finish our trip with a long and lazy lunch by the Murray at the divine River Deck. Miles from the standard roadside pub lunch, River Deck was recently transformed from a humble riverside kiosk to a full service restaurant offering contemporary Australian fare. As we tuck into our freshly seared tuna, families in the park loll around the banks of the Murray. Couples lap up the sun, with the more adventurous diving into the surprisingly icy waters. No one’s in a rush, and why would they be? If this is life at the border, I could get used to it.
(All images: Will Dawson. The writer travelled as a guest of Destination NSW and Atura Albury.)
Marilyn: Celebrating An American Icon is showing at MAMA until May 8. Check out Qantas flights to Albury here.