Studio Visit: Collingwood Yards

The 6500-square-metre site between Collingwood’s Johnston, Perry and Wellington streets is a community of some of the state’s most influential, exciting and vital arts and creative organisations.

Published on 26 April 2023

Collingwood Yards is a rare thing in Melbourne – a large-scale, city-adjacent site dedicated to providing affordable workspaces to the kinds of independent arts organisations, as well as individual artists and creators, that have largely been priced out of inner-city neighbourhoods like Collingwood.

The precinct’s buildings date to 1912, when they were built as part of the Collingwood Technical School. Now, the sprawling half-block site is home to 50 tenancy spaces, including 17 purpose-built studios, that vary in size and scale and which have individual lease agreements ranging from 18 months to 20 years.

This occurred through the work of Contemporary Arts Precincts, a social enterprise that was formed specifically to transform what in 2016 had become a vacant set of buildings “into a sustainable, permanent, and affordable home for artists and independent arts organisations across disciplines”, according to Fieldwork, the Melbourne studio that undertook urban planning, architecture and interior design for the newfangled arts hub.

The resident community at Collingwood Yards is dynamic and changing, with new groups and individuals moving in and out of the arts hub throughout the year.

Broadsheet paid a visit to the studios of five such residents.

The following interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Fatuma and Laurinda Ndenzako of Collective Closets. (Photography: Samantha Schultz)

Resident of Collingwood Yards since October 2022.

Who we are: Sisters and co-founders Laurinda and Fatuma Ndenzako. Caledonia Connor is also part of the Collective Closets team – she’s truly our right hand and takes care of customer service and product development, and is our calming soundboard during the storms of running a small business.

What we do: We’re a clothing label founded in 2016 to fill a gap in the Australian market – one that connects to the talent, beauty and rich history of the African continent. Our brand was born as a way to celebrate the women in our community. We are passionate about telling stories, giving back and uniting women through a sartorial dialogue.

We both vividly remember: How we felt the very first time we walked into our studio – we were right at home. We love all the natural light that pours into the studio, the high ceilings and the fact that we can sometimes hear the chatter and laughter in the courtyard as we work. It’s special, with a sense of community.

We arrive at the studio at: 9am.

We close the door at: 3pm, in time for school pick-ups.

A typical day at the studio: Really varies. There are days that we are out on the road, sourcing textiles and meeting with collaborators and suppliers. At the studio we work through design concepts – with overdue deadlines – for our upcoming collections. A few months after moving in, we set up some space in the studio for our in-house tailor to work out of – on Mondays our team meets and works through our latest design concepts and sees them come to life right inside the studio. Once our upcoming collection launches in May, our customers will be able to view and shop within the studio.

If you passed by the studio you would probably hear the sound of: Biggie Smalls, Lil’ Kim, Burna Boy and some old-school R’n’B.

2023 is: Turning out to be our most transformative year yet. We’re part of the NGV’s Melbourne Now exhibition and ACMI’s Goddess exhibition. We’re launching a new collection mid-May – the bold prints and the amazing new silhouettes took inspiration from our recent travels to Nairobi, Kenya. We’re teaming up with Melbourne-based Radical Yes for another epic collaboration and a few others we can’t mention just yet. Watch this space.

Collective Closets is the Bank of Melbourne 2022–2023 resident.

Aphids executive producer Anna Nalpantidis and co-director Lara Thoms.(Photography: Samantha Schultz)

Resident of Collingwood Yards since February 2020.

Who we are: Co-artistic directors Lara Thoms and Mish Grigor and executive producer Anna Nalpantidis. Aphids is a 29-year-old artist-led experimental art organisation that we inherited in 2019. Project to project, we also work with a community of collaborators, artists and non-artists.

What we do: The output of Aphids is always a reflection of who is in the organisation, but the throughline from 1994 is art made through cross-disciplinary thinking and collaboration across different art forms. We make art: performance, critical dialogue, films and publications. The form of our projects is wide-ranging, from a piece that puts a theatre director in conversation with a funeral director, to collaborating with Uber drivers and Mandarin translators to make a show at Trades Hall for Rising, to working with live crickets and local fishermen in a regional seaside town, to a 10-year audio project in which we are creating an audio memory archive of female and non-binary folk describing their favourite art experience. It’s a complicated time to be a human on this planet, and we believe that art is useful is questioning, undermining, satirising or examining social norms and power structures, and imagining new possibilities.

We arrive at the studio: After the first coffee has kicked in.

We close the door at: Wine time.

In the last week we’ve spent time: Reading the philosophy of Frantz Fanon, writing a paper about bogans and class drag, vox popping people regarding the weirdness of pink-washing, improvising comedy scenes about performative allyship, eating pastries with our Collingwood Yards friends, gathering letters of support for a grant application, collecting stories for a project from people who have lost their parents, and planning a potential tour to the UK.

If you passed by our studio you would hear: Loud debates. Sometimes we’re disagreeing about what colour the floor should be on a film work, or passionately debating what would make a funnier prop between Pizza Shapes or Teevee Snacks, and other times it’s about how to respond to a political moment. Big stuff and small stuff. The complex challenges of our time require big ideas and big imaginations, and we try and respond by bringing out the best in each other through rigorous discussion.

Our favourite thing about our studio is: The Collingwood Yards vision is pretty cool – a permanent place that is affordable for artists and ensures that we stick around in a radically gentrifying neighbourhood. Our studio mates are diverse and there is always someone to borrow tools from or have a gossip with. In winter, Hope St Radio lights firepits outside in the afternoons, which makes for a pretty cosy sign that it’s time for tools down and a wine.

In 2023 we are looking forward to: Touring our work, which always leads to seeing things we made in a new light or having conversations with people we would never normally meet.

West Space director Joanna Kitto and curator Sebastian Henry-Jones. (Photography: Samantha Schultz)

A resident of Collingwood Yards since February 2020.

Who we are: A 30-year-old artist-run gallery. West Space’s team comprises director Joanna Kitto and curator Sebastian Henry-Jones, with gallery assistants Benjamin Baker, Ari Tampubolon and Leila Doneo Baptist. You’ll also find a dedicated cohort of volunteers sitting in the gallery when you visit. Founded by artists in 1993, West Space works closely with our artist committee, a rotating group that performs an instrumental role in our artist-led ethos and advocating for artists. This year, we welcome Aida Azin, Tristen Harwood and Jahkarli Romanis to join James Nguyen, Amrita Hepi, Mark Shorter and Sophie Cassar.

What we do: We support the next generation of Victorian artists to experiment, take risks and test out new ideas across our main gallery, micro-gallery space, the West Space Window and digital space, “Offsite”.

We arrive at the studio at: Around 10am, grabbing a coffee at Padre before we open the doors to visitors at 11am, Wednesday to Saturday.

We close the door at: 6pm.

Our typical day at the studio involves: Coffee, emails and chats with artists and visitors coming in to spend time with our exhibitions.

If you passed by the studio you would hear the sound of: Conversations with gallery visitors or our team on a Zoom meeting. One of our most recent exhibitions was Hannah Brontë’s moving image Powa Wave, with a soundtrack by hip-hop artist Jesswar.

Our favourite thing about our studio is: Being surrounded by artists and arts workers in like-minded not-for-profit organisations. We can meet for a coffee under the trees, visit each other’s offices, galleries and studios, and bump into each other in the hallways to chat. This kind of collegiality is spoken about in larger institutions, but everyone is too busy to do it. Reciprocity and cross-pollination between peers leads to generative and exciting projects for our artists. It’s thrilling to be a part of.

In 2023: West Space turns 30! We are celebrating with a Dirty Thirty party and a May to June exhibition titled Unison, curated by Sebastian Henry-Jones. Unison features work by local, national and international artists underpinned by the idea that people are creative before they are artists. It will reflect on West Space’s 30 years by considering the identity and function of artist-run initiatives today. The West Space Window 2023 line-up of artists showcases some of the most exciting emerging practices in Australia today; you can see performance, installation, photography, and moving image in this “micro” space, out the front of West Space.

Alexandra Page, Joel Stevens and Theo Cassady of Ilbijerri Theatre Company.(Photography: Samantha Schultz)

A resident of Collingwood Yards since August 2022.

Who we are: We are the longest-running First Peoples theatre company in the country, founded by Naarm-based First Peoples and community members. Currently 15 team members strong.

What we do: We collaborate and create with First Peoples community members to bring our rich and complex histories to the stage.

We arrive at the studio at: 10am

We close the door at: 6pm. But it can fluctuate.

Our typical day at the studio involves: Creative discussions and meetings, continual kettle boils, offers for a Padre coffee run, and the coming and going of community members and other creatives.

If you passed by the studio you would probably hear the sound of: Banter, conversation and a bit of PBS106.7FM or 3KND radio.

Our favourite thing about our studio is: The brightness of the space as well as the community atmosphere from having an open-plan workspace, and a courtyard-facing office.

In 2023 we're looking forward to: Creating more works, ranging from the melancholic to the hilarious, the thought-provoking to the joy-inducing. We have many stories to tell.

Liquid Architecture co-director Lucreccia Quintanilla.(Photography: Samantha Schultz)

A resident of Collingwood Yards since February 2020.

Who we are: Active since 2000, Liquid Architecture is an organisation supporting experimental, interdisciplinary and critical work addressing sound and listening in context. We are Kristi Monfries and Lucreccia Quintanilla (co-directors), Debris Facility, Rohan Rebeiro, Ronen Jafari, Liang Luscombe and Casey Nicholls-Bull Jones.

What we do: Our program stages encounters and creates spaces for sonic experience, and critical reflection on sonority and systems of sonic affect. To do this, we host experiences at the intersection of contemporary art and experimental music, supporting artists to produce performances and concerts, exhibitions, talks, reading groups, workshops and recordings in art spaces, music venues and other sites. We want to echo beyond local conversations, problems, debates and questions, to reverberate across media and disciplines, and to sound out new discourses about the audible world.

We arrive at the studio at: 10am

We close the door at: 5pm

All the days at the studio look different, but we are usually: Discussing artists whose work we find interesting, chatting about new sound things, and working through our emails. There is always someone in the office organising, writing, meeting.

Our favourite thing about our studio is: The sunshine, the open space and we love our neighbours, and the Collingwood neighbourhood in general.

What would you hear if you passed by the studio: Usually we all have headphones in, so someone walking in would hear the faint sounds of various people’s interesting music.

Baracco + Wright Architects' Louise Wright and Mauro Baracco.(Photography: Samantha Schultz)

A resident of Collingwood Yards since February 2020.

Who we are: We are Louise Wright and Mauro Baracco.

What we do: We design, research and teach architecture, from urban to interior, and landscape design.

We arrive at the studio: Somewhere between 9am and 9.30am.

We close the door at: 6pm

Our typical day at the studio: Primarily involves design activities, as well as discussions between us and also with project collaborators, clients, builders, artists and friends.

If you passed by the studio you would probably hear the sound of: ABC Classic FM.

Our favourite thing about our studio is: The room space and the natural light.

In 2023 one of our major projects is: Autumn Room, a design-make installation by Monash architecture students, which we are helping with, in the courtyard of Collingwood Yards for Melbourne Design Week.

The grounds of Collingwood Yards are open seven days a week, from 7.30am until 11pm, except for Monday and Tuesday when the grounds close at 6pm. Office hours are 10am until 5pm every day.