MELBOURNE — John Smithies is a patient man, a handy trait for a guy who has waited for 10 years to see the realization of his dream: the Australian Center for the Moving Image.
The centerpiece of the city’s massive Federation Square development, the center is due to open at last in September, way behind schedule and considerably over budget.
It will be the home of the largest collection of moving image titles in the Southern Hemisphere and, Smithies hopes, will rapidly become a cultural institution that plays a vital role in Victoria’s and Australia’s film, TV and new media industries.
Smithies, chief exec of ACMI (both the building and the institution), conceived the idea and started looking for sites in 1992, when he was director of its forerunner, the State Film Center, whose library now boasts 62,000 titles.
Eventually, coin was provided by the Victorian and federal governments along with the city of Melbourne. Work on the site over railway yards (always logistically tricky) started in 1997. At the outset, the targeted opening date was early 2001.
The construction was contracted out by Federation Square management and beyond his control, but, Smithies says, “It was unrealistic to expect a building of that kind of complexity and surprises to be completed that quickly. This isn’t building to any formula.”
He expects the final tab to run to about A$450 million ($234 million), around $52 million more than originally budgeted, but he argues the money has been well spent.
“It’s a fantastic-looking building,” says Smithies, who hopes to be given the keys July 1, which will enable the build-out to begin. A pivotal attraction will be the Screen Gallery, billed as the world’s largest digital media gallery. Pegged as the first exhibition there in September is “Deep Space,” an outer-space odyssey featuring works from U.S., Japanese and Australian artists.
ACMI has links with the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, the Lux Center in London, the ZKM media center in Karlsruhe, Germany, Minneapolis’ Walker Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music in N.Y., and is developing others. Smithies says these alliances will facilitate the exchange of programming and the joint creation of screen content.
The center has two cinemas, which will be used for a plethora of small film fests and the Melbourne Cinematheque as well as for schools and other educational screenings. It also will house the Melbourne offices and studios of multicultural broadcaster SBS.
As part of the plan to interface with the Oz film industry, Smithies plans to stage sidebar events in collaboration with the Australian Film Institute’s awards and the Screen Producers Assn. of Australia’s annual conference.
He expects the building will attract at least 2 million visitors per year.