Marilyn exhibition marks Albury as a new Australian cultural powerhouse

Marilyn comes to MAMA in Albury

The Murray Art Museum Albury has pulled off an Australian art coup, securing an exclusive Marilyn Monroe exhibition. With vision from MAMA

There's a city in south-eastern Australia that has a slight 'personality complex'. Straddling the NSW-Victorian border like a lopsided jockey, Albury - a burgeoning rural metropolis - is somehow not quite sure of itself. While physically located in NSW, it displays a lot of traits characteristic of its Victorian alter ego. 

First, the term 'footy'. Up north - on the NSW-side of things - 'footy' can refer to various sporting codes be it rugby league, rugby union, Aussie Rules, and sometimes even soccer. South of the border, 'footy' means only one thing - AFL. As it does for the Sherrin-loving NSW-folk of Albury. 

Then there's the distance to the nearest capital city. While there's no disputing Albury is definitely part of NSW's 'regional heartland', it's actually closer to Melbourne than it is to both Sydney and Canberra (it's just over three hours driving time from Melbourne, while it's an extra five minutes to Canberra and a huge two hours more to Sydney - or you could just fly in). 

Albury is emerging as a surprise Aussie culture capital.
Albury is emerging as a surprise Aussie culture capital.  Photo: Paul Jeffers

Finally, there's the name. Albury-Wodonga is how many people associate this neck of the woods, 'Wodonga' being the part of Albury that spills over the Murray River and into Victoria. Maybe that's an unfair appraisal of the township on the other side of the border, but for years Albury-Wodonga was seen as little more than a pitstop for weary motorists making the long trek between Sydney and Melbourne. 

However, Albury is slowly stepping out of that much maligned stereotype and becoming one of Australia's newest cultural hotspots. 

Hey MAMA

This has been led largely by a proactive push for tourism from the ever busy Albury City Council alongside the $11.2 million creation of the Murray Art Museum Albury (MAMA). Dubbed 'the MONA of the mainland' (in reference to Hobart's culture-changing Museum of Old and New Art), MAMA opened in October last year as Australia's newest home for contemporary art. 

The Murray Art Museum Albury (MAMA) is helping put Albury on the map.
The Murray Art Museum Albury (MAMA) is helping put Albury on the map.  

It combined a major refurbishment of Albury's original 1907 town hall and the historic 1860 lands building with a new 21st century 'green' building that comprises 10 "state of the art" indoor and outdoor exhibition spaces. 

"MAMA's been fantastic - just flat out," art and culture director Jacqui Hemsley told Executive Style. "We've had over 47,000 people come through since we opened. We are getting a lot of visitors who have perhaps previously stopped briefly in Albury before moving on to Sydney, Melbourne or Canberra - who have now decided to stay overnight, explore MAMA, the city, and the river. 

"I think people are actually looking at Albury as a destination, which is fantastic."

Cirstin Bedson, dressed as Marilyn Monroe, checks out MAMA's first international exhibition.
Cirstin Bedson, dressed as Marilyn Monroe, checks out MAMA's first international exhibition. Photo: Peter Merk

Marilyn is in the building

Helping the cause is the fact that MAMA has scored something of an Australian art-world coup. The Murray Art Museum Albury is currently showing its first international exhibition, one that features artworks from no less than Andy Warhol, Cecil Beaton, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Milton H. Greene.

'Marilyn: Celebrating an American Icon', is a collection of almost 200 photographs and works of art that follow the journey of Norma Jean through to Marilyn Monroe - and help shine a spotlight on her fame. The exhibition has toured Europe and the US but is in Albury as an Australian exclusive.  

"We want people to not only come to Albury and think 'I have to come to MAMA' but that they repeat and they come back," Hemsley says. "We want people to talk about Albury and MAMA, MAMA and Albury - and say 'we've got to go there and experience these new contemporary shows'."

2003 Screenprint by Werner Berges named 'Marilyn II'
2003 Screenprint by Werner Berges named 'Marilyn II' Photo: Werner Berges, MAMA

Cultural hub

Albury's affiliation with culture goes well beyond MAMA, though. While the area is relatively new to the art scene, it has been churning out world-class performers for more than 30 years. 

"It is home to the world famous Flying Fruit Fly Circus and professional theatre company, HotHouse," Albury City Mayor Henk van de Ven told Executive Style. The Flying Fruit Fly Circus, Australia's only full-time circus school, has been a platform which has propelled former students to global stardom through Circus Oz and Cirque Du Soleil.  

"Albury offers a rich urban life in a fresh country setting - with fine dining, great coffee, high-end accommodation, top cultural attractions and diverse nature-based activities."

<i>The Bigger Picture</i> on the Yindyamarra Sculpture Trail in Albury.
The Bigger Picture on the Yindyamarra Sculpture Trail in Albury. 

Indigenous heritage

Nowhere is the meeting of culture and nature more evident than the Yindyamarra Sculpture Trail. Running five kilometres along the banks of the Murray, this picturesque walking and cycling trail is dotted with Indigenous sculptures and installations from the local Wiradjuri people. 

With artworks like the Maya Fish Trap, Googar (the goanna) and The Bigger Picture framed by the breathtaking wetland and river scenery, it's very easy to see why people are coming from both sides of the border to take in this new and innovative attraction. 

Snaking above the free sculpture trail are some of Australia's best mountain bike tracks, and a bike and a guide from Albury's Fastline Bikademy will inject some adrenaline into any culture-filled trip. 

Albury has some of Australia's best mountain bike trails.
Albury has some of Australia's best mountain bike trails.  

"Albury is where the great indoors meet the great outdoors," says van de Ven. "There's over 40 kilometres of on- and off-road trails that meander throughout the city and along the banks of the Murray River, not to mention the single trails that snake throughout Nail Can Hill reserve."

Fill the belly

It's not just a cultural revolution that Albury is experiencing. The eating and drinking scene is just as ambitious and new bars and restaurants have opened that would not be out of place in Sydney or Melbourne. From Alex Smit's River Deck Cafe, which sits lovingly above the gurgling Murray as the kitchen churns out Michelin star-worthy meals; to Tim Tehan's Canvas Eatery - a light and modern space embedded within MAMA that delivers classic bistro dining.

Even the Boom Boom wine bar is an example of how Albury's landscape is shifting. This 'Fitzroy-esque' laneway bar serves up local tipples from vineyards and breweries around the region, with appetising treats to match. 

Albury's Atura hotel is helping attract tourism trade to the border city.
Albury's Atura hotel is helping attract tourism trade to the border city.  Photo: Mark Lane

For a little more pace, it's hard to go past Atura's Roadhouse Bar and Grill - which won NSW tourism awards in 2015 for both the best bar and best brasserie of the year. Get your 'American road-trip vibe' on with food and drinks that have even the locals coming back for more. They're also currently doing a 'Marilyn-inspired' cocktail, in honour of MAMA's special guest-in-residence down the street. 

A cut above

Above the Roadhouse Bar and Grill's funky decor, and the floating flamingoes in the pool outside, is Albury's tallest building - a seven-storey, 140-room hotel which combines urban, modern living with an edgy, groovy twist. Atura Albury is a welcoming, comfortable place that's helping to inspire the 'would-be passers-through' to stop, stay awhile and check Albury out.   

"Albury is full of surprises," Mayor van de Ven says. "There's a thriving arts and cultural scene, fantastic array of restaurants, bars and outdoor cafes, green open spaces, wide expanses of water and no shortage of things to do."

The author was a guest of Destination NSW and Atura Albury.