Maggie Maguire, CEO of the Abbotsford Convent precinct, refers to the entire project (the buildings, the land) in the singular, ‘she’ and ‘her’. There seems to be a strong female spirit behind the 6.8 hectares of land bought by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in 1863 to help vulnerable women of the time, and for the last five years Maguire has managed this arts hub and, to quote the Convent’s website, “tourist destination, community gathering spot, major events venue, historical asset and at most times, a construction site”.
The construction refers to the monumental effort since 2004 that has seen an extraordinary 60 per cent of derelict and forgotten land and history be revitalised into one of the most unique places in the country.
The nuns moved out of the convent in 1975 and apart from a couple of tertiary institutions using some of the space in the 80s, the whole precinct lay dormant until 2004 when the current project began. Its genesis stems from 1996 talks of turning the site into an inner-city apartment development. This proposal saw a group within the community, mainly local women, fight tirelessly to preserve the Convent and its surrounds in the hope it would become exactly what it has – a community-based hub, by the people, for the people. After eight long years, they won their battle and in 2004 building started and artists slowly began to move into various spaces.
“We don’t have a waiting list,” says Maguire of tenancies for artists, “but artists register for tenancies. Sometimes they don’t wait long and others can wait for long periods of time as different artists have different space requirements depending on their craft.”
This is a unique angle for the Convent in that she houses different artists and practices rather than just painters or just printmakers. “Our key intention is to keep it as diverse as possible,” says Maguire who, with a staff of just ten, oversees the project. One of her major roles in the job involves raising large sums of money to get the building and renovation finished, as they have no government funding. This is done through artists tenancies as well as food and beverage outlets, the hiring out of rooms for functions, rehearsal spaces and corporate meetings and allowing various markets, such as Slow Food Farmers Market and the Skirt and Shirt Market, to use the grounds once a month.
The c3 Contemporary Art Space has also been established to house modern and contemporary art in juxtaposition to the historical and ominous architecture that sits stoically on the grounds. The gallery is a vision of white walls with textural, confronting and thoughtful pieces throughout its space.
Spend a day at the Convent and it’s hard not to feel cosseted and inspired. Far from chaotic urban crowds, there is room to feel detached on the land and forget you’re only four kilometres from the city. If you’re after something to eat and drink, coffee can be had from the bakery, or try the newest tenant, Kappaya Japanese restaurant, which also has brilliant coffee as well as good Japanese ‘soul food’. Meanwhile Lentil as Anything has maintained its pay-as-you-feel-model for lunch and dinner. And it wouldn’t be an article about the Convent without mentioning Handsome Steve’s House of Refreshment, a vision of owner, the handsome Steve Miller, who keeps things real with good coffee, beer and snacks.
Through the summer months a Supper Market is being held every Friday night, with hawker-style food and craft for sale. The Convent also houses a well-being wing to have massages or do yoga. With ten thousand people visiting her each week, the Convent manages a lot of visitors getting involved, getting educated or simply getting fed and with the Collingwood Children’s Farm right next door, the uniqueness of this patch of Abbotsford is only amplified.
The Convent is a stand-alone compound of community force that has been home to spiritual women and shelter to lost women, was fought for by women and is currently run by a woman. It’s now a base for all, for the creative and the community-minded – a place to buy fresh produce or meals, or to enjoy a quiet drink; a workplace for sculptors, artists, actors, writers; a think tank of blistering enterprise and vision. Long may she and her community flourish.