Marcus Westbury’s Renew Newcastle has been one of the most successful grass-roots arts project of recent years turning dozens of unused shop fronts and other empty spaces into galleries and creative spaces. With new versions of the project launched in Adelaide and Townsville, the Newcastle project recently recorded its 50th launch of a new initiative. Westbury spoke with Andrew Frost about the state-of-play and the future of the project…
Renew Newcastle has just passed its 50th project – how has the project in Newcastle become so successful? Was it a cumulative thing or was there some factors that kicked it along?
Marcus Westbury: It’s been a fast growing snowball so far. Probably the biggest factor is the pent up demand in Newcastle’s creative community for space and the number of people who have been willing and able to seize the opportunity in a very short period of time. I had a genuine fear early in the piece that there may not be enough quality projects for the number of spaces which was quickly allayed by the number of proposals we got. We were lucky to have a major property owner, GPT, get on board very early which gave us a large number of spaces to work with and since then it has been a steady accumulation of new projects and new properties. Not bad considering we gave our first project their keys 15 months ago.
TAL: Are the individual projects permanent or are these occupations of disused shop fronts etc temporary?
MW: The spaces aren’t permanent. I describe the project as seeding experiments rather than trying to build permanent things. We give artists, creative businesses, and community groups a chance to try something and see if it works. We don’t and can’t guarantee them cheap space for ever. Typically Renew Newcastle projects are ongoing and temporary. Projects access the space for next to nothing and can stay there until the owner wants their building back. They get 30 days notice when that happens at which point it is up to them to decide whether try and pay a commercial rent (as some have done), or fold the project, or have it morph into a new form. Obviously there are flaws with that, but equally a lot of people find it liberating – most artists are generally trying to experiment with something they are passionate about rather than build permanent things so it works well if you attitude.
TAL: What has been the effect of the project on Newcastle itself?
MW: We started in and around the Hunter Street mall. There were more than 20 empty shops there when we started and you could shoot a cannon down that street and not hit anyone. Today the empty shops can be counted on one hand and the area is busy and vibrant again. New commercial tenants have moved into what was once a dead zone. I think people are curious about and proud of that part of town again. More importantly, there’s more than 50 local artists, groups of artists, creative businesses etc that have opened up, moved to or run a major project in the city. That has a huge effect on the confidence of the local creative community – it builds networks, stops people moving away, and generally makes the place a nicer, better, place to be. We’ve made the city interesting again.
TAL: You’ve been all over the country launching new Renew projects in Adelaide and Townsville – do you imagine the model is adaptable to most large towns and cities?
MW: There’s a lot of interest from other places. It remains to be seen how well it work. I guess that’s all part of the experiment for me. I think the model is adaptable to wherever there is empty space – even just temporarily so. There are so many old suburban mainstreets, government sites, development sites that are temporarily empty, etc. If we could make it the norm that those spaces become opportunities for artists and creative people to experiment and try things that would make an enormous difference to vibrancy and dynamic of our cities and massively increase the opportunities for artists that are out there. That’s probably the bigger idea that i’m trying to explore.
TAL: Has there been any interest in Renew projects in Sydney and Melbourne? Sydney City Council seems intent in copying Melbourne’s various successes like lane way bars and pop up galleries – would a Renew project make sense there or perhaps in the suburbs?
MW: Yes, I have my skepticism about the Sydney city approach. It seems intent on trying to copy the outcome that happened in Melbourne while entirely missing the point about the process. Melbourne’s lane ways were cheap space for creative experimentation – that’s what Sydney needs, not fancy lane way bars. There’s is definitely interest in Sydney though, both from the City of Sydney and from council’s further west. I’ve spoken to or at Leichardt, Parramatta, and recently Penrith and all are interested in how or whether some of these ideas might work there. I’m also working with the City of Melbourne on their Creative Spaces initiative which is going down a different path but also has a lot of interest in these ideas. I think the big potential in Sydney is target the constant turn over of development sites and commercial spaces. At any point in time there is more empty spaces there than all the artists in Sydney could use if you could activate it.
TAL: What’s next on the agenda for the Renew project? Is there an upper limit on the effectiveness of what it can achieve? I’m wondering if there’s a next stage or “after” plan?
MW: Of course there are limits. It’s not a solution for everything and it doesn’t solve every problem – what it does do is create opportunities for hundreds of people at a very low cost. The whole project has costs little more than what a single middle management salary pays in most major arts organisations, so i see it more as a cost effective mechanism than as something that can do everything. I describe Renew Newcastle as “a permanent structure for temporary things” rather than a renewal scheme for a particular part of town or set of properties. There probably won’t be an “after” but the scale of the project will expand or contract depending on how much space is available. Practically, in Newcastle we are probably about as big as we are likely to get in a hurry and may shrink as the developments in the area where we have started go ahead. So we are gradually moving further afield and bringing on new property owners – which is a much slower process but no less effective. Nationally, i think we are in the process of establishing some sort of coordination structure to share skills and ideas between the different local projects that have been popping up. I still haven’t worked out exactly what that will be but I’m committed to keeping it lite and simple. I’m a child of the open source movement so very committed to transparently sharing the skills, the documents, and other things that we’ve learned with anyone who’s interested and keen to try something similar rather than build a cumbersome bureaucracy or a peak body. That will be a challenge. There’s also a lot of quite boring policy work we need to do if we really want to make the most of these kinds of opportunities. Right now a property owner has a whole lot of reasons to leave buildings empty and very few for activating theme for schemes like Renew Newcastle and we need to really get governments local, state and federal to work on changing that. That probably won’t happen in a hurry.