Convent Gallery 1988 – Present

The rise of the Convent Gallery

By 1988, Tina Banitska, had moved on from the Education Department, and was now the owner of Springmount pottery, Creswick. That memorable first sighting of the convent in the mid seventies was still with her.

In 1988 the Holy Cross Convent was placed on the market, Tina successfully tended for the building. A choice had to be made between the interests of a hotel chain thinking of operating a casino there, or the ideal of an art gallery. The Presentation Sisters related to her dream and Tina became owner of the old Holy Cross Convent, Daylesford.

My desire was to maintain the integrity of the historic building and her plan was to open it as an art gallery, but at the same time for it to be, much more than just a place to hang paintings.

In 1994 when Tina commissioned the first history of the former convent, five sisters of the Presentation Order still lived in Daylesford. These last sisters were Sister Josephine Mahon, Jerome Watson, Francesca Orme, Shelagh Phipps and Lelia Fitzgerald. They played an active role in the community tutoring students, preparing children for the sacraments and visiting the sick and the aged. Today the Sisters are retired to the Star of the Sea Convent, Brighton. Old friendships are maintained through frequent visits to the town and the convent.

The sisters were pleased with the transformation of their old home and took a keen interest in the activities of the convent. In 1992 the Presentation Sisters celebrated their centenary in Daylesford. A Mass of thanksgiving commemorated the occasion. The Presentation Sisters published a commemorative booklet to mark the event and a reunion and exhibition of memorabilia was held in the Holy Cross Hall.

In 2010 the sisters all reside at the Gardenvale (Elsternwick) Presentation Convent – The Star of the Sea. The convent where they last resided was purchased by St Peters Parish and is now used for retreats and the Sisters occasionally visit.

Tina’s early days at the convent recall the experience of Mother John Byrne when she took over the Gold Commissioner’s residence in 1891. Both Mother John Byrne and Tina were establishing a new venture in Daylesford. Both were deeply inspired, both believed that the task could be accomplished and both knew that when completed, the opening of the convent, would be of great benefit to the district.

Upon acquiring the building, Tina called in local heritage architect, Vladimir Chernov, to draw up plans sympathetic to her plans. For two years, under Vladimir’s supervision, a dedicated team consisting of, Barry Norman – Coordinator, Greg Gilmour – Builder, Ian Burstan – Project Manager, and a number of local and Melbourne trades people the old convent was skillfully transformed.

Extensive reconstruction was necessary along the north face of the building. Makeshift balconies constructed as dormitories for children evacuated from Melbourne during the Second World War, were pulled down, as was the original kitchen and some of the Sisters’ living quarters.

Inside renovations were a nightmare. The old slate roof had leaked for years causing extensive damage to the ceilings, walls and floors. The roof was redone following the original design using slate from a building under demolition in Melbourne. The workmanship in the roof can be seen from the small room in the tower room.

Reconstruction of the entrance to The Convent

With the roof repaired, the ceilings were replaced or restored and the walls sand-blasted and hard-plastered. The building was rewired throughout and 300 spotlights were installed. Extensive plumbing was necessary and central heating was installed.

With renovations completed, a colour scheme was chosen. For the exterior, the concern was to tone with the surrounding environment; to find a colour to compliment the dramatic mood of the Daylesford climate, yet enhance the spiritual qualities of the old convent.

For the interior it was much easier, decisions being based on principles to best display the art work. Walls were painted a crisp white and floors were stained and softly polished. These simple features, while accentuating the artwork exhibited, still allow expression of the religious and historic nature of the gallery.

The convent has eight individual galleries. Four cells, once used as bedrooms by the Sisters overlook the town. Three of these cells are used as galleries and one is furnished with a narrow bed, wash stand and jug and basin as would have been used by the Sisters.

A long narrow room on the top floor has been left in its original state. This was, in the Gold Commissioner’s day, the maids’ bedroom. Much later nuns also used it as a bedroom. A tiny fire place at one end and the pastel colour scheme, are strong reminders of the simple needs and expectations of those who slept there.

New life at the old convent of the Holy Cross created much excitement in the district and brought many visitors to the area. The following quote from the visitors’ book is testimonial to the spirit of the gallery.

“Inspiring – reuniting me with my creative spirit.”

Since opening the convent in 1991 Tina has been overwhelmed by the thousands of art lovers and tourists who have visited the building. An additional thrill has been the recognition of excellence through national and state awards, including the Victorian Government Small Business Premier’s Award for the ‘Best Business Run by a Woman’. An especially satisfying recognition was the Australian Tourism Awards in ‘Tourism Retailing’, where her gallery earned a distinction, outdoing world class attractions such as Sea World in Queensland and David Jones in Sydney. Tina’s gallery was also awarded from the Keep Australia Beautiful Council of Victoria ‘The most Attractively Landscaped Commercial or Industrial Property’.

Tina spent over a million dollars refurbishing the old convent before opening its doors on Easter Saturday 1991 with the expectation of a few hundred people. Five thousand flowed through the door.

As owner of the Convent Gallery in the heart of Victoria’s Central Highlands, Tina has brought art to the lives of local residents.

Tina’s passion is to excel at what she does and as she progresses to draw others along with her, providing them opportunity and the scope for self-fulfillment.

“If all I wanted to do was make money I have many better ideas. If you have a passion you have to be able to support that passion, that’s why the art I present here is accessible to all people. My guiding light was intuition. You can do anything if you feel it’s right.”

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