The Fine Arts in Melbourne have since colonial days been stimulated by the existence of societies and clubs which aimed to promote camaraderie between professional artists and knowledgeable interest among collectors and enthusiasts. A feature of such societies has been the inclusion of amateurs and enthusiastic dilettantes among members, a practice that has caused periodic revolts by professional artists determined to distinguish themselves from lay members.
Melbourne's earliest known art society, the Victoria Fine Arts Society, was instituted in 1853. A catalogue of its only exhibition, held at the Mechanics Institute, identifies exhibitors such as Conway Hart, S.T. Gill, John Skinner Prout, Thomas Woolner and eight women artists. The Victorian Society of Fine Arts, inaugurated at a public meeting in Melbourne in October 1856, aimed to promote the fine arts through lectures and conversaziones, to establish an art school, a permanent national gallery and library, and an Art Union, and to host annual exhibitions of works by local artists. It was, however, short-lived, being active only until 1857.
More than a decade passed before the creation, in January 1870, of the Victorian Academy of Arts. It established schools for the study of fine arts and hosted annual exhibitions. A group led by artists such as Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, Charles Conder and John Mather founded the Australian Artists' Association in October 1886. Two years later, the competing groups reconciled, to found the Victorian Artists' Society (VAS), Australia's longest active art society. The VAS secured for itself a new gallery, in Albert Street on Eastern Hill, holding the inaugural exhibition in its new premises in May 1892. In April 1894 the first art exhibition was held under the auspices of the New Melbourne Art Club (NMAC) that probably, in name only, took its cue from the progressive New English Art Club, founded in London in 1886. Joshua Lake spearheaded the club, organising its exhibitions and rooms in the space formerly occupied by the Melbourne City and District Court. The relevance of this club was overshadowed by the dynamic art activities of the VAS.
In 1912 a revolt within the VAS led to the formation of the Australian Art Association for the benefit of professional artists. Original members included Frederick McCubbin, John Mather, Max Meldrum and Norman Macgeorge. Twelve Melbourne Painters was established in 1913 and included Jessie C.A. Traill, Norah Gurdon, Penleigh Boyd, Janet Cumbrae Stewart and Lindsay Bernard Hall. Yet another VAS protest in 1918 caused Meldrumites to form Twenty Melbourne Painters, which in 1919 staged the first of its many annual exhibitions. Another incarnation of the NMAC arose in 1933, with promising art students of the day such as Clifford Bayless, Sybil Craig, Helen Ogilvie and Anne Montgomery as members. At a VAS meeting in July 1938, artists interested in contemporary styles formed the Contemporary Art Society (CAS). The CAS remains active today, but factional divisions born from artistic differences within the contemporary art scene prompted George Bell to form the rival Melbourne Contemporary Artists, which operated from 1940 until his death in 1966. The Independent Group of artists was formed in the early 1940s. Exhibitions by this group were held at the Melbourne Athenaeum Gallery. Members came to include Charles Bush, Dora L. Wilson, Desmond Norman and Evelyn Syme. The group came to an end with the death of Evelyn Syme in 1961.
The 19th century also saw the formation of a number of clubs designed to stimulate discussion of literature, music and the visual arts. The Yorick Club, established in May 1868, brought together literary men and those connected with art or science. The Buonarotti Club (May 1883) and the Melbourne Savage Club (May 1894) included prominent painters among their members. In an age that witnessed gender inequity in clubs generally, the Buonarotti Club, named after Michelangelo Buonarotti, was liberal in welcoming women and men to its membership. Members had to be performing artists within their branch of art, and all were expected to contribute to the fortnightly meetings where artists hung their larger works on the walls while smaller pictures were circulated for inspection inviting discussion.
Gender and media-specific art clubs and societies have also enriched Melbourne's art scene. Women artists have formed independent societies, the most notable of which began as a Students' Art Club in 1902. Founded by eight former students of McCubbin, it has been known as the Woomballano Art Club (1905), the Women's Art Club (1913) and the Melbourne Society of Women Painters (1930), which assumed its present name, the Melbourne Society of Women Painters and Sculptors, in 1954.
The Yarra Sculptors' Society was founded in 1898 to encourage the study of sculpture through exhibitions, sales and classes. Later societies included the Sculptors Society of Australia (1933), its offshoot, the Victorian Sculptors' Society (1948), and its successor, the Association of Sculptors of Victoria (1971), which is still in existence. In the 1950s a group of sculptors, disappointed with the Victorian Sculptors' Society, joined to promote exhibitions of sculpture. Thus was born the Group of Four, and the Six Sculptors, culminating in 1961 with Centre 5, led by Julius Kane.
Melbourne-based clubs and societies of art lovers have also kindled collective appreciation of the fine arts. The National Gallery Society of Victoria, founded in September 1947, provides funds for lectures and guided tours; it is also a public voice offering advice to Trustees and the State Government.