Images: supplied by S Capelin
West End has long been the centre of working-class life, evident in the workers’ cottages scattered throughout the peninsula and the three-kilometres of heavy and light industry once operational along the length of Montague Road: a gasworks, pipe manufacturers, glass works, motor body works, milk factory, sawmill, pharmaceutical distribution outlets and amongst all this, a paint factory.
The Paint Factory, on the corner of Donkin Street and Montague Road, dating from the early years of the twentieth century had, by the end of the 1970s, ended its industrial working life. Amongst this bustling strip of industrial sites, this hive of activity, stood this vacant warehouse waiting for a windfall offer from a developer. Enter Street Arts Community Theatre Company (Street Arts). In the early 1980s there had been an explosion of arts activity in West End with the establishment of Street Arts, a company intent on engaging every level of the community, from kids to seniors, in arts practice and storytelling. For three years the group had operated out of a church hall in Mitchell Street but the growing level of local participation, and the expanding scale of its theatre and community work demanded larger premises.
Initially the owner of the Paint Factory declined the meagre offer which Street Arts was able to make but three months later agreed to a month-by-month lease at a bargain rate and the conversion began. The building was in sound but bad shape. The flooring was rough industrial-scale hardwood timber laid with gaps of 15cm between each plank, space for tonnes of cardboard box residue and paint spillage to find its way to the void below. A large industrial roller door operated by heavy chains was the entrance. It was a death trap, a fire hazard, but its soaring roof was irresistible to these theatre practitioners. With the addition of porta-loos, a rudimentary stage and a basic lighting system the doors opened in 1987 with a new Street Arts production, Sparring Partners, the first of an estimated twenty Street Arts shows produced and performed at the venue, not to mention those of other artists including Rock and Roll Circus (now Circa) which had emerged as an offshoot of Street Arts.
The owner had expected a sale in the short term but five years later it was still operating as a venue for theatre, circus, music, training programs, parties and events. It had become a community centre, a breeding ground for independent artists, a haven for alternative thinkers and activists, a cultural phenomenon. The Paint Factory closed at the end of 1991 due to funding constraints.
The Paint Factory was the site with the highest profile among a range of industrial sites being occupied by artists over that period. Musicians, visual artists, dance collectives and children’s art programs utilised the decline of the industrial precinct as an opportunity to repurpose affordable space for new, innovative approaches to art making. And it continues today, but the loss of industrial sites has seen a decline in opportunities for this cultural activity to continue on a significant scale.