The women’s centre without walls

By Meg Hill,

The Queen Victoria Women’s Centre (QVWC) occupies the site of Melbourne’s first hospital. Its first section opened in 1848. By the end of that century almost the entire block was forming Melbourne’s medical precinct.

The precinct is gone now. Medical hubs were moved out of the CBD and most of the old buildings were demolished in the 1980s and ‘90s. One building remains as a sole relic.

It was turned into the QVWC in 1994 and has since hosted and supported an impressive range of women’s organisations. Now, a new arts program will transform it into a creativity hub.

Make shift wards in the 1920s.

Jo Porter joined the centre as its new CEO last February, bringing with her a career in both the arts and social justice. She launched the new arts program.

“The QVWC has a long and iconic tradition of supporting the women of Victoria,” she said.

“In the 21st century Melbourne women are more mobile and active than ever, yet increasing numbers of women experience depression, loneliness and isolation.”

“We know that access to cultural activity, networking and connection can stave off these ills and our new program aims to bring together women of all backgrounds by providing ways for them to participate in learning, art, design and performance.”

Like many Melburnians born before the 1980s, Jo was born in the precinct. Other than that, she had little experience with the centre before taking on the role.

But it fitted well with her career trajectory. 

“I’d worked in London and New York in commercial theatre, and then I was the executive producer at the Malthouse Theatre in Southbank for three years,” she said.

“My career had a progression from theatre to, by the time I was leaving Malthouse, getting engaged in how social justice works with being creative and facilitating connections and so on.”

Jo returned to university to study community development and freelanced with arts projects that focused on indigenous and rural communities.

“The centre had come to a similar conclusion about creativity and connection. We have organisations here that are really supporting women when things go bad, and there’s a real drive toward initiative and connection,” she said.

Resident organisations at the centre include CASA House (Centre Against Sexual Assault), Domestic Violence Victoria, Fitted For Work and the Council of Single Mothers and their Children.

The new arts program includes a partnership with the Comedy Festival and Melbourne Knowledge Week, a “thinker-in-residence” position and live art installations.

A new podcast series – Apodcalypse – will feature queer women and non-binary people discussing survival in a climate apocalypse.

A project with the Foundation for Young Australians will produce a report on what a “women’s centre without walls” and a “women’s centre of the future” could be like.

“They’re identifying the kind of things that, if they lived too far away or if they lived close by but wouldn’t be able to get out of the house, what would they want to know was here and what would they want to use here in 20 or 30 years,” Jo said.

“We want to get to a big picture idea of how we can be as useful in 20 or 30 years as we are now and even as it was in the past when it was a hospital for women run by women.”

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