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A meat market with many lives

From its humble beginnings as a meat market in 1880, the Meat Market has become one of Melbourne’s main hubs for art and culture.

Until 1874, the City Meat Market (where the current Queen Victoria Market is now) was where meat wholesaling took place. A group of butchers created their own Victoria Meat Market on Elizabeth Street to sell their wares, and quickly outgrew their space.

In 1879, British architect George R. Johnson was chosen to design the Meat Market as a large-scale meat-trading space. Johnson had designed the former Victoria Meat Market, and was also the architect behind Hotham Town Hall (now known as Melbourne Town Hall) and Civic Buildings. The Meat Market was unveiled in 1880 and operated for almost a century, until 1974.

Originally designed for horse and cart, the building started to lag behind as technology and industry progressed. It was the beginning of the end – there wasn’t enough space for refrigeration equipment and petrol-driven vehicles, and their exhaust fumes violated health regulations, making trading difficult. Vendors started to move out and by 1973, there were only six stallholders remaining. The market hall, once abuzz with the sound of vendors and customers bargaining, became quiet.

The State of Victoria’s former Arts Victoria body quickly intervened, having seen potential in this historical building. In discussions with the local art community, it emerged that centres with art activities tend to enhance their surrounding areas. In 1979, the building reopened as a craft centre, and was then used as a performing arts space in 1998.  In 2015, a team was appointed to further develop the venue into an arts and cultural space.

One of the Meat Market’s most iconic affairs was a Fluxus event by George Brecht, where four cars were driven into the space mid concert and performed with all their lights, horns and doors – if only the original butchers could have seen the performance!

The Meat Market’s past can still be seen in its cobbled bluestone floors, and its barrel vault ceiling. It hosts a range of events and companies, such as Melbourne Jazz Festival, Next Wave Festival, and ILBIJERRI Theatre Company. With more than 50 arts businesses and individuals on site, it is a vital part of Melbourne’s thriving arts scene.

Image courtesy of Fowler, Lyle & Commercial Photographic Co, (photographer.) (1941)

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