“This is a very special occasion. Welcome back to Hamer Hall,” said Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu on the occasion of that great hall’s reopening in July. “More importantly, in the spirit of that magnificent project undertaken last year by Regional Arts Victoria, which celebrated in almost every regional town in this state the notion that Home Is Where The Hall Is, I say, ‘Welcome home’.”

Community halls are central to the ongoing project of making place. Their flexible form and their local, community-driven uses continue to offer valuable insights for creative practice all across our regions as well as our cities. As one of the centres of a town, the community hall provides a focal point, always ready for any gathering. Today it’s an art gallery, tomorrow it’s a theatre, next week it’s home to a live art creative development. Or a crochet circle for the final local winter appeal of the year, with generations of women (and, more and more often, men) engaging in an age-old creative tradition with focus, rigour and plenty of stories.

Architecturally, the community hall typology is an all-too-familiar one. Basic brick or weatherboarded structures dot the state from corner to corner. Interiors are open plan without partitioned rooms, and where a proscenium arch stage is in place, wings and storage areas are generous yet basic. Often a high gable, parapet, flag or clock tower will rival the steeple for the highest built object in the local environment, claiming the horizon for the people. Whether built by churches, returned services, makers’ or professional guilds, mechanics’ institutes or unincorporated community groups, these structures were always intended to serve more than one purpose – and do so readily and affordably.

In essentials a community hall is a kunsthalle: a space that accommodates and responds to creative need, rather than shaping its outcome. A flexible space that’s able to be repurposed for whatever artistic production or community project. Ironically, in our capital cities this is precisely the kind of arts space that is most commonly sought-after by the majority of artists and producers: those working independently.

Across our regions, community halls offer accessible space for the development and presentation of new work for audiences local and beyond. In our cities, decades of highly competitive artistic specialisation across artforms has resulted in technically elaborate theatres, concert halls, galleries, moving image and recital centres that offer a high-quality environment for the presentation of artistic excellence, as well as a very comfortable audience experience.

Alongside these specialisations, structures that were previously community halls have (where those structures have been maintained) become commercial buildings and apartments – or otherwise, curated arts centres, or town halls whose programming and production is supported by council workers. These former community buildings have become curated spaces in increasingly cluttered arts environments. As a result, our cities suffer from a dearth of uncurated presentation spaces, 300-seater performance spaces, and affordable rehearsal and development spaces. Ironically, the more curated spaces we have, the stronger the cries for flexible, affordable spaces where creative communities can lead the creative agenda, and where the voices of artists and makers can lead artistic trends. Sophisticated spaces price and structure themselves out of artist and community reach, while at the same time, they no longer afford for themselves the possibility of future artistic innovations and creative uses, because their business model and their physical form is insufficiently flexible for responsive reappropriation.

An arts precinct is defined and constantly redefined by the work of its active communities, and the close ties they feel to the places they make together. While Melbourne’s Southbank undergoes yet another wave of consultation aiming for a world-class ‘arts precinct’, in Victoria’s regions opportunities abound for arts-led place-making. Today, unconventional artspaces abound – from the disused housings of our former public institutions, to our very homes. And home, of course, is where the heart is, where the community thrives, where inspiration flies. 

Home is where the hall is celebrates the creativity at the heart of community. Uncurated community- and artist-driven work fills our halls. Indeed, the Home is where the hall is website reads like a catalogue of possibility in arts practice.

What would you do with a community hall? In Winchelsea’s Globe Theatre, the Art & Photography Show (November 3-5) also includes a program of studio visits. The Mollongghip Community Hall is presenting the annual Poetry Slam (November 10) and this year’s key words are “helping hand.” Fernbank Hall holds the Gippsland Potters’ Exhibition (November 24-25), with work inspired by the natural environment. Built in the 1800s, the Wahgunyah School of Arts Hall has a children’s focus in November, with a program of visual art and drama classes. And the Apollo Bay Mechanics Institute will house The Bay and Beyond Market (November 4), with artisanal as well as culinary work. And that’s just a taster. All across Victoria, community halls come alive in November, so open up your diary, pull out your map and get planning!

First published on Arts Hub in 2012
> Regional Arts Victoria’s Home is where the hall is