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The Convent Directors Who Refuse to Say Amen

By Michael Smith

 Six times a year, four of the original Abbotsford Convent Foundation board members and the founding CEO meet for lunch at a different venue each time. 

Convent issues are seldom discussed. The gatherings are more a reminder of the spirit and camaraderie we developed when we were a very small part of something magnificent – the saving of the Convent, against the odds.  

Like our Board meetings two decades ago, there is nothing held back at our lunches: we speak our mind, an example set by our colleague, the late Patricia O’Donnell, herself a foundation Board member and luncher. 

In April, shortly before our scheduled lunch at the Melbourne Cricket Club committee room at the MCG, I was at the Convent with time to spare and wandered into Katheryn Leopoldseder’s exhibition New Day.  Each piece of art depicting a piece of the Convent’s history or purpose, was remarkable; one piece had already been tagged by the National Gallery of Victoria for acquisition.  

But the final piece, left me gobsmacked. Nothing summed up more succinctly the essence of the campaign to save the Convent more than 20 years ago. A simple table with a handful of wine glasses. For that is how one of Melbourne’s most successful conservation campaigns began – a small group of local residents meeting at a kitchen table after it was announced that developers were planning apartments on the site. 

Three thoughts occurred to me. Firstly, how gorgeously apt it was that such a piece had been created by one of the Convent’s original tenants. Secondly, 20 years down the track, many visitors to the Convent would be unaware of how the Convent was saved and they needed to know. Thirdly, how can we acquire the piece, so it remained at the Convent as a permanent reminder of the community campaign?  

I took my thoughts to our lunch the following week and within minutes Hayden Raysmith, Charlotte Allen, Sally Romanes and Maggie Maguire agreed that we had to buy it and donate it to the Convent. Hayden, our former chair, was noted for two qualities: his gentle persuasion and his ability to take a good idea and make it better. He decided to take the idea to six other former Board members and early supporters. Within a week we had reached our target. 

The Convent management team embraced the gift magnificently and chose a perfect spot to showcase the artwork. 

Before the Abbotsford Convent Foundation was formed, some of the original Board members were part of the Abbotsford Convent Coalition, the engine room of the campaign which was established from those early kitchen table meetings. And all the original Board members had been part of the Abbotsford Convent Implementation Group which had been challenged by the State Government to prove a sustainable business case for the Convent. 

The Government had been disillusioned by previous failures of arts communities running large enterprises without sufficient business acumen. 

The secret to the success of the Business Plan and the Government’s willingness to support it was that the Convent must be “for the benefit of all Victorians”. It would not be just for the tenants, important though they are. It would not be just for the local community, important though they are. It would not be just for the managers and staff, important though they are. It would be “for the benefit of all Victorians”. 

That phrase – and the fact that we must never forget the contribution of the local community – guided most of our Board decisions in those early years. 

Visitors now have a permanent reminder of the origins of a remarkable campaign that ultimately involved thousands of Victorians including big business, philanthropists, lawyers, architects, artists and environmentalists. In the end, it also reached the sympathetic ear of Premier Steve Bracks who gave the site and the critical car park space to the Abbotsford Convent Foundation. 

There are many individuals and groups who think they own the Convent. And in a sense, they are all right. But our group now ruminates on how to make that phrase “for the benefit of all Victorians” a key message for the future of the Convent.