CUB’s Southbank office sale parks speculation about new galleries

The $95.5 million sale of Carlton and United Breweries’ Southbank building to the state government has sparked speculation about the site as a potential home for a new cultural venue.

The purchase of the brewer’s headquarters follows years of lobbying by two of Melbourne’s biggest arts venues: the National Gallery of Victoria for a third gallery, NGV Contemporary, and Arts Centre Melbourne, for a national performing arts gallery.

The CUB site at 77 Southbank Boulevard sits on the corner of Sturt Street, which borders the rear of NGV International.

CUB, now controlled by the world’s biggest brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev, has owned and occupied the six-storey, 61,000 square metre building since the early 1990s.

The property was refurbished at a cost of $18 million in 2014 under then parent company SABMiller, bringing in employees from its South Melbourne and Abbotsford site on to the building’s fourth and fifth floors.

CUB will lease the building back from the state government while plans are finalised.

The CUB site was listed in the previous state government’s Arts Precinct Blueprint in 2013 as a potential strategic project, as was the nearby vacant lot at 1 City Road, behind the Arts Centre. The lot has been used as an arts venue, called Testing Grounds. It was created as a temporary space but has hosted events for the past five years.

The land has been in the hands of the state government since the early 1980s, after the former YMCA on the site was demolished, and has been long earmarked for cultural development.

Asked about the government’s plan for the CUB site, a spokesman for Creative Industries Minister Martin Foley referred The Age to Development Victoria.

“It’s being led by Development Victoria, under [Major Projects] minister Jacinta Allan,” he said.

“The process of purchase has taken place,” he said. “What happens thereafter will be considered in line with the budget.”

Asked about Development Victoria’s plans for the site, Ms Allan’s spokeswoman said the government bought the building for its strategic location in Melbourne’s arts precinct.

“Melbourne’s Southbank is home to one of the largest concentrations of arts and cultural venues, organisations and training institutions in the world,” the spokeswoman said.

“The Victorian government has purchased the CUB site at 77 Southbank Boulevard given its strategic location in this precinct.

Publicists for the NGV and Arts Centre referred queries about the sites to Development Victoria.

Arts Centre Melbourne management has long lobbied for a gallery space to house its 680,000-item collection of costumes and memorabilia.

“We have a well-known long term vision for a permanent home for the Australian Performing Arts Collection, where it can be more readily accessible to the people of Victoria and visitors to Melbourne,” it said on Tuesday. “That continues to be our aspiration.”

On February 2, two ABNs were registered as entities of the Victorian Arts Centre Trust under the names “Australian Performing Arts Collection” and “Australian Performing Arts Gallery”.

A spokeswoman said the ABNs were created as part of an updating in documentation “to reflect the shift in name from Performing Arts Collection/Gallery to the Australian Performing Arts Collection/Gallery, which happened in the last six months”.

In 2014, NGV director Tony Ellwood launched a fundraising campaign to boost the amount of contemporary art in its collection.

A third, contemporary gallery has long been mooted for the NGV, including by Mr Ellwood’s predecessor, Gerard Vaughan.

The gallery has boosted its contemporary collections significantly, commissioning works from some of the world’s best known contemporary artists – such as Ai Weiwei and David Hockney – as part of recent blockbuster shows.

The  inaugural Melbourne Triennial, drawing huge crowds to NGV International this summer, was a key plank in the fundraising campaign and was projected to cost $8 million to stage.

Mr Ellwood returned to the NGV in 2012  from Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art, where his canny programming saw the Brisbane institution outperform its southern rivals in 2011, drawing more visitors than the NGV or Art Gallery of NSW.

Under his management the NGV has cracked the list of the top world’s 20 most-visited galleries, drawing a record audience of 2.8 million last financial year.

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