Acting Up: AC Arts Tackles $3.82 Million Expansion

A multi-million dollar refurbishment is in the pipeline as Adelaide College of the Arts absorbs music and design programs from TAFE SA’s suburban campuses. By July, 2017, AC Arts must be ready for a 66 per cent increase in student numbers. Can it be done? And at what cost?

“AC Arts on Light Square is a vibrant multidisciplinary arts centre. It offers the opportunity for a natural cross pollination of ideas. This would create a fertile ground for collaboration with other arts disciplines and in turn would contribute to the growth of city vibrancy.”

So wrote Live Music Thinker in Residence Martin Elbourne in his Reverb report back in 2013. Recommendation number five in that report was to “integrate TAFE music courses into the Adelaide College of the Arts”.

This integration is now underway, with sound production and music students from the Salisbury campus set to migrate to AC Arts by mid-2017.

The music programs will not be making the transfer on their lonesome: Tea Tree Gully’s graphic design programs, including photo imaging and print and digital media, will be joining AC Arts within the same time-frame.

“Creativity breeds creativity,” says Higher Education and Skills Minister Susan Close, “so the concept of providing a central location for Adelaide’s artists, designers and performers of the future, to work together in a collaborative, creative zone, is an exciting step forward.”

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Sean Parsonage, TAFE SA’s Educational Manager of Creative Arts, says the amalgamation of creative programs will lead to “one centre of excellence” based at AC Arts.

Elbourne’s report was one contributing factor to the move, says Elizabeth Lowe, TAFE SA’s Educational Manager of Creative Industries. A restructure at TAFE, however, was more of a catalyst.

For years, TAFE SA’s various campuses operated completely separately from one another. In 2012, the institutes merged and management began to look at opportunities to more logically deliver programs.

Says Lowe: “We’ve never had the opportunity that we’ve got today, where we are all under one umbrella, where we all work together and we can have oversight of what we do across the whole place.”

In total, around 100 students from Salisbury and 500 from Tea Tree Gully will join the 900 currently studying at AC Arts. A 66 per cent increase in student numbers – not to mention the 30 or so permanent staff also making the move – means that AC Arts is having to get creative with space.

The Currie St campus is conveniently located, but its situation in the city centre means there’s not a lot of leeway for physical expansion. This means restructuring and maximising use of existing spaces. Having secured $3.82 million in state government funding, AC Arts engaged Greenway Architects for the challenge.

Initial design concepts point towards discipline-specific ‘tiers’ throughout the
building:

  • Ground floor: making. Set and scenery construction, sculpture and jewellery.
  • First floor: audio. Sound and music production, plus commercial photography.
  • Second floor: vision. Painting, drawing, printing and graphic design.
  • Third floor: performance. Dance, acting and music performance.

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To accommodate the technological demands of the design and sound production courses, a number of computer rooms will be developed, with around 240 computer terminals available throughout the complex.

The funding and redesign announcements came in August, at AC Arts’ open day. The news surprised many students and some staff. While staff have since expressed their “fundamental enthusiasm” for the plan, they have also voiced concerns about how an ‘expansion’ into limited space can occur without compromising existing programs. Staff have also questioned the feasibility of fitting more than 80 permanent teachers in one communal staff room.

Existing students and staff from the ‘performance’ floor have some trepidation about the refurbishment. Certain faculties have questioned whether disciplines with conflicting needs can cohabitate. The acting department is concerned that soundproofed classrooms – a necessity for any music-based program – may inhibit acting students’ learning, as actors need to study how to control their voices in echoing theatre environments.

Students are also concerned that the intensive creative arts programs, some of which run nine hours a day, five days a week, will have their contact hours reduced in order to work in shared facilities.

One acting student tells The Adelaide Review she would be “very unhappy” if the hours of her course changed. “Looking at how it could impact our learning, I’m concerned to be staying on.”

Another acting student tells the Review he is feeling “crammed, restricted, helpless”.

These concerns are partly grounded in the lack of information so far released. TAFE SA is adamant that they are keeping neither students nor staff in the dark – rather, the re-modelling plans are still in the early stages of development, so there is simply no official news to share.

“These [designs] are concept only at this stage,” says Parsonage, “as nothing has been finalised. Engineering reports, along with input from staff, students and industry, are all critical considerations that will lead to the final design.”

Lowe confirms Parsonage’s statement, explaining that discussions are still on-going. Lowe recognises that “it is only human nature” that staff and students will have concerns, but hopes this “anxiety” will be allayed as the consultation process progresses.

“The absolute priority is to make sure that we’ve got the facilities for the students and staff so we can deliver our programs. […] There will be no cutting corners as far as our delivery is concerned,” says Lowe. “There certainly is no intention for any program to change what they do unnecessarily.”

Parsonage agrees, stating: “There is no reason to suggest the transition will lead to any change in program contact hours or delivery.” He adds, “as the design has not been finalised, the impacts on any specific program and the timing of the redevelopment are not yet known”.

Lowe and Parsonage note, however, that TAFE SA regularly reviews how programs are delivered, and acknowledge that changes to courses could arise from that review process.

Lowe says that there will “undoubtedly” be disruptions while construction work is underway early next year. Parsonage states that “if necessary, considerations will be given to temporarily relocating a specific program or changing lesson schedules to minimise student disruptions”. Some proposals include beginning classes in late January, rather than early February, or delaying start of term until March, and teaching through the usual mid-term break.

“We are going to make sure that we have something that is workable and achievable,” says Lowe. “We don’t want to put [students] into a situation where they’re expected to be here 24 hours a day, three days a week. That’s not going to work for anybody.”

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AC Arts can point to evidence that integration of programs works. Eighteen months ago, the CGI program moved to the city campus from Tea Tree Gully. Organically, collaborative projects arose between disciplines, with set design, acting and CGI students working together to develop a complex project. Retention rates have “significantly” increased since the program moved to the city, with more students continuing with further study after completing their initial program.

The reality is, in the second half of 2017, AC Arts must be ready to accommodate a volume of students equal to two thirds of its existing cohort, within the confines of the building they already occupy. They must also plan for boosted student numbers if retention rates increase in line with the trend seen in the CGI program. New teaching spaces will be opened in disused parts of the building, and courses may begin using the theatres for some lessons.

It is inevitable that faculties will have to share facilities. AC Arts hopes current staff and students will see this mingling of programs as a boon. Sharing space will not be “to the detriment of losing their specialist areas”, says Lowe. “Absolutely, the intention is to open what we do up a lot more, to promote a cross-collaborative approach.

“We’re confident we’ll become an extremely vibrant, collaborative, colourful piece of the landscape on Currie Street.”

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