Australia’s first purpose-built mental asylum which operated continuously for more than 170 years and pre-dates the Port Arthur Historic Site is about to open the next chapter in its history.
- Arts centres have been given council approval to operate an arts hub in the historic former mental asylum
- The Derwent Valley Mayor hopes the lease will inject life, culture and tourism into the area
- Actor Marta Dusseldorp wants to see more of the site dedicated to arts and is calling for State and Federal Government involvement
Artists, potters and performers are set to move into the Barracks at Willow Court in New Norfolk after the local council last night approved a proposal by Derwent Valley Arts and the Salamanca Arts Centre to take on the lease of the site.
“We think the arts is the perfect use for taking that history, that long, sometimes difficult and challenging history and turning that into something positive and creative for the community,” Nathan Males, chair of Derwent Valley Arts, said.
The Barracks was first a hospital for sick convicts. But the need to house so-called “insane” convicts grew as the number of buildings on the Willow Court site grew too.
Thousands of Tasmanians with mental illnesses were cared for at the Willow Court and Royal Derwent sites until a process of deinstitutionalisation saw the last of the facilities close nearly 20 years ago.
Light and dark past to former asylum
“[The Barracks] represents some of the earliest forms of assisting people with mental illnesses in Australia and often that was soldiers and convicts [who] had traumas and were suffering with what we’d now call post-traumatic stress,” Mr Males said.
“You’ve got all of the layers of mental health treatment through 175 years so obviously things have changed a lot and you’ve got some other buildings which have a heavier feeling.”
Mr Males said one wing of the Barracks has been restored and is ready for artists to move in straight away.
“This is a community which has some amazing talent tucked away and all of those talented artists who are already here are generally just working at kitchen tables and home studios so a place to bring an arts community together is really important,” he said.
Salamanca Arts Centre will help with future grant applications to restore the rest of the Barracks and create a gallery space.
Margaret Reynolds, chair of the Salamanca Arts Centre, believes moving artists into Willow Court could have the same impact on the local community as Salamanca Place did more than 40 years ago.
“I’m sure those who were involved in the transformation of those old warehouses wouldn’t have believed what it’s like today and that’s why we have taken the lead in partnering with Derwent Valley Arts to show that we could do it again,” she said.
Derwent Valley Mayor Ben Shaw said the Barracks was used as the backdrop for an installation by performance artist Mike Parr, during Dark Mofo three years ago.
“That went really well we went from having one day’s event to having the whole two weeks blocked out here with Mike and Dark Mofo in the area and the community absolutely loved it — the shops said they did the best trade they had done all year,” said Mr Shaw.
Community breathes sigh of relief
Mr Shaw said it had been difficult maintaining such a large site on a small rate base.
“Our community is breathing a sigh of relief that there’s finally some people willing to do something with the buildings,” he said.
Marta Dusseldorp, an actor and Creative Island board member, said the potential for the site is limitless.
“Here’s this potential to build a space, a massive drawcard not just for the community but outside of that community and from that comes opportunity of employment, exposure to culture, exposure to different voices and landscapes,” she said.
Ben Winspear, director and Creative Island board member, said the impact of the arts on a community cannot be underestimated.
“There’s a whole lot of research now that points to general wellbeing being really strongly connected to your cultural intake and output so to have all of that taking place somewhere else when there is the potential for that to be taking place right in the heart of your community, well it’s a great opportunity,” he said.
Potential for more art spaces
Ms Dusseldorp said the old Occupational Therapy building would be ideal.
“We’ve been lucky enough to get through and have a look and it actually is a cinema already and there were ceramics being made there so the kiln is still existing and when you walk in all you see is the potential,” she said.
A rum distillery has already been given council approval to operate out of the old Women’s Prison, known as the Allonah Building.
The New Norfolk Distillery was given the go-ahead by the council last night to negotiate a lease on the Occupational Therapy Buildings. It also has plans for the Carlton Ward.
Ms Dusseldorp said commercial ventures are needed but cannot come at the cost of community access.
“What we’ve got is a whole lot of energy right now and everyone needs to sit down together and work this thing out because it’s bigger than all of us,” she said.
Mr Winspear said the site is in need of a master plan with State and Federal Government involvement.
Mr Shaw believes commercial and community interests can work together in order for “the whole precinct to come alive.”