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Given its name, you might imagine metre-thick titanium vaults at Artbank: locks, bars and safes. Of course the staff keep the 10,000 artworks secure and do due diligence but, refreshingly, this accessible organisation is all about getting the art actually seen by as many people as possible, not just an elite cognoscenti. This is especially true at its popular Social Club when Artbank’s engaging director Tony Stephens opens the racks for anyone to look through.

Artbank has been going for 37 years and Stephens is all about supporting contemporary local artists and getting work out there.

A big part of that is his new Melbourne digs. Artbank has moved from Armadale to art-hot Collingwood and into a refurbished warehouse from which Stephens will run an ambitious, inclusive program distinct from that of the Sydney sister-office. “We will look at community activation,” he says of the multi-use space. “We want it to be about the community and the people around it.” That could mean a yoga class, theatre performance or music recital amid the storage stacks.

“Fundamentally, the public can come into the collection store and rifle through several thousand objects – which just isn’t possible at other institutions or state galleries,” Stephens says. “It is capitalising on what makes us unique.”

Artbank Collingwood. Photograph by Simon Shiff.

Artbank doesn’t get federal funding. It is impressively self-supporting, and has been for about 20 years, mainly through leasing artworks from its enormous collection which began with a 600-work endowment from what is now the National Gallery of Australia in 1980. Ever since, it has annually acquired work from all sorts of contemporary artists. About half of the collection is leased out at any one time, with rental prices ranging from $165 a year to the upper limit of $5000. It’s not only corporate offices that use the work to grace their corridors and chambers with big and small names – other renters range from suburban house-dwellers through small businesses to the very art-savvy.

Stephens joined as director in 2012 and within two years moved the organisation into new premises in Sydney’s Waterloo.

With the addition of space in Collingwood, he wants to rotate the annual Artbank Social Club between the two big cities. The last one in Sydney drew 2000 people over five hours. In a context of public engagement, the Saturday afternoon launch (on 24 March) of Artbank’s new Collingwood premises will include a DJ, street food, and a new large-scale wall painting by artist Sam Songailo. Visitors are also encouraged to simply chill and feel no pressure to converse in obfuscating art-speak (what a relief).

“And people can go in and pull out the big racks holding the artwork,” Stephens says. “There are a lot of selfies, a lot of questions, a lot of discoveries. People are encouraged to stay and be part of what Artbank is – which is democratic and accessible. We try to engage all people, whether they know a lot about art or not a lot about art. We are a different kind of beast. We operate like a business but we have cultural outcomes that benefit artists and the community more broadly.”

Artbank Collingwood. Photograph by Simon Shiff.

The Collingwood premises are bigger than the Armadale building and have been fitted out by Edition Office, an architectural firm that has made the steelframed storage racks a design centrepiece. That said, Stephens is clear that the warehouse building remains true to its history and hasn’t been turned into something it isn’t. As he explains, “There is minimal design, letting the architecture speak for itself… not overthinking it.”

Likewise, his challenge to the future art world is to get people engaged with his atmosphere of openness. “The perception that art is difficult to talk about – we really want to change that.” One key element of that is the leasing, where a piece by any one of the 3500 living artists – some well-known, others not – might turn up at, for example, your local doctor’s waiting room. There, Stephens says, your experience is your own, with the freedom to make decisions about your responses to a work without “the monument to contemporary art that is the gallery.”

In Collingwood, there will also be a range of initiatives such as a non-residential artists studio which will be open to people from all sorts of disciplines to occupy for varying periods.

“We don’t want to define the boundaries but to see how we can accommodate that. Supporting artists is the main aim,” Stephens says. “There is such a broad scope for how artists need support and we can provide some of that at least.”

Artbank will launch its new Melbourne premises on 24 March at 18-24 Down Street, Collingwood. Everyone is welcome, register here.

Andrew Stephens