Weekend art trips: where to go and what to see

Spectacular arts events are becoming a powerful new catalyst in travel Down Under encouraging Australians to take weekend breaks away.
The art of travelling

Canberra’s Renaissance

National Gallery of Australia, Parks Place, Canberra (until April 9th)

When the walls of an established art gallery need a lick of paint or two there can be surprising consequences.

First, we witnessed the Masterpieces From Paris exhibition attract a record number of visitors at Canberra’s NGA when the Mus&eacutee d’Orsay closed for renovations in 2010.

Currently, another blockbuster, Renaissance, is pulling in the crowds, while the Accademia Carrara, in Bergamo, undergoes a refit.

Leaving Italy for the first time in almost 500 years, the 70 works of religious art include masterpieces by Raphael, Bellini, Botticelli, Titian and Giovanni and are guaranteed to stir the soul.

In a bid to bring these masterpieces to Canberra, NGA director Ron Radford first wrote to the Bergamo museum before playing his trump card.

“Negotiations had been going on for over three years, but it wasn’t getting very far until I turned up on their doorstep,” he says.

“It was a big mind shift to have so many of their treasures come all the way to Australia.”

Renaissance promises a once-in-a-lifetime glimpse into the 15th and 16th-century flowering of Italian art that would otherwise require an airfare to Europe to see.

Masterpieces From Paris had 500,000 visitors. To date, Renaissance’s audience is 75 percent interstate, which just goes to show that art is a powerful force in travel.

Tickets available from Ticketek. For more information, visit the National Gallery of Australia website.

Sydney’s open-air opera

La Traviata on Sydney Harbour, Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney (March 24-April 7)

It’s a first for Sydney Harbour — a gigantic chandelier, measuring nine metres by nine metres, suspended above the waters of Farm Cove in The Royal Botanical Gardens.

Under this sparkling colossus, one of world’s most romantic operas will unfold on a floating stage with the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House as backdrop.

Verdi’s La Traviata — the story of a 19th century Parisian courtesan who sacrifices all for her well-heeled lover — is one of the most accessible operas ever staged.

The title role of Violetta will be shared by Emma Matthews and Rachelle Durkin and the daring sets come from Brian Thomson, whose projects include Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and the Sydney Olympic and Melbourne Commonwealth Games ceremonies.

Audiences will watch this extravaganza from a 3000-seat grandstand erected next to Fleet Steps.

Extensive catering facilities that include a waterside trattoria, a Parisian-style salon dining room, food stalls and bars will cater for the 60,000 punters that promoters are anticipating during the three-week run.

Staged by Handa Opera and Destination NSW on behalf of the NSW Government, it is hoped this open-air spectacular will attract tourists worldwide.

Tickets available fromTicketmaster. For more information, visit Opera on Sydney Harbour.

Picture credits: Saint Michael from Scanzo polyptych by Bartolomeo Vivarini, Accademia Carrara, Bergamo. Australian Ballet dancer in pool by Andrea Francolini. Costume sketches for La Traviata by Tess Schofield, courtesy of Handa Opera. Walter Pavilion, courtesy of MONA.

Ballet in the Whitsundays

Australian Ballet at Qualia, Hamilton Island, Whitsundays, Queensland (November 16-18)

The “Cuban Stallion” brings a Nureyev moment to the stage as he leaps across the stage with such power the audience gasp convinced the young dancer will end up in the waters of the Whitsunday Passage.

The dancer is Yosvani Ramos, a principal with Australian Ballet, who is performing a scene from Don Quixote on a temporary stage in front of the same stretch of water Captain Cook navigated in 1770.

To see a world-class ballet company perform outside an auditorium is rare. To see one perform on a paradise island is very rare indeed.

And yet, 2011 saw artistic director David McAllister bring four of his principal dancers, make-up artists, wardrobe et al to Hamilton Island’s Qualia, the upmarket resort and first stop of Oprah Winfrey’s tour Down Under.

As Yosvani Ramos takes his bow, the sun is setting over the turquoise waters of the Whitsunday Passage.

Next on stage is a scene from The Merry Widow and by the time the Swan Lake finale begins, the Milky Way is lighting up in the sky.

For ballet aficionados, the weekend is a must. Besides the gala night performance, there’s relaxed schedule of ballet events, including a spirited question-and-answer session with the dancers, a talk by David McAllister and guest (Graeme Murphy, former Sydney Dance Company director, was the 2011 attraction), a champagne cocktail party and five-course dinner, where guests mingle with company members, and the chance to watch the dancers in rehearsal.

Everything anyone could want to know about life on points is just a question away during the Pas de Deux in Paradise weekend.

2012 sees the Australian Ballet return to Hamilton (November 16-18) to mark its fifth year at Qualia and its 50th anniversary as a company.

For those who want to treat themselves and celebrate, maybe a significant anniversary, the Pas de Deux in Paradise weekend is perfect.

For more information, visit the Hamilton Island website.

Underground art in Hobart

MONA — Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart (Open seven days a week)

Where can you find a king-size bed in a giant glass cube with edgy art on the walls and one of Australia’s most audacious galleries on your doorstep? MONA in Hobart has it all and much more.

Thanks to gambling millionaire David Walsh, the Apple Isle boasts a provocative $200 million collection of artworks dating from 100BC to the 21st century in a subterranean gallery in an old sandstone quarry.

Works by Brett Whiteley, Sydney Nolan, Damien Hirst and Jean-Michel Basquiat are artfully displayed next to treasures from the Ancient world and contemporary installations.

Dismiss any thoughts of gloomy tunnels and dripping stalactites. Instead, imagine airy three-storey high caverns with spectacular lighting, futuristic display areas and high-speed glass-fronted lifts.

Above ground among a stand of trees next to the Derwent River are four accommodation pavilions named after four famous Australian artists.

Further up the river bank are four other pavilions dedicated to leading 20th century architects.

Walsh has filled these with art treasures and furniture by leading contemporary designers, such as Philippe Starck, Ron Arad and Filippo Dell’Orto.

Three of the four “Architect” pavilions are glass cubes sheathed in steel. The Walter pavilion, named after Walter Burley Griffin, who designed Canberra, pays homage to the A-frame house. All four have spectacular views of the Derwent River.

The four “Artist” pavilions of wood and steel with their Japanese-style interiors have cantilevered decks over the river.

A minute’s walk away is MONA’s Source Restaurant, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and wine tastings are available at Walsh’s Moorilla Winery next door.

MONA provides a one-stop destination — perfect for an indulgent weekend away, where visitors can stay in style, enjoy fine food and wine and be challenged by some of the world’s edgiest art.

For those who want to stay in Hobart, ferries depart and return from Victoria Dock every half hour.

For more information, visit the MONA website.

Picture credits: Saint Michael from Scanzo polyptych by Bartolomeo Vivarini, Accademia Carrara, Bergamo. Australian Ballet dancer in pool by Andrea Francolini. Costume sketches for La Traviata by Tess Schofield, courtesy of Handa Opera. Walter Pavilion, courtesy of MONA.

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