Art in the heart of Lismore
Marcus Westbury is a Newcastle born writer, broadcaster, festival director and media maker who has been responsible for some of Australia’s more innovative, unconventional and successful cultural events. After directing the cultural program at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne in 2006, he went back to Newcastle and was shocked to find the once bustling CBD was in a state of rapid decay, with dozens of empty shop fronts.
With backing from the all levels of government, the University of Newcastle and the local business community, Marcus initiated a project called Renew Newcastle. It enables artists, cultural producers and community groups to access the empty buildings on a rolling short term (30 day) agreement to encourage activity back into the CBD. If a commercial tenant is found then the agreement is not renewed. The artistic tenants pay a nominal participation fee (generally around $20 per week), but also cover some outgoing expenses, do maintenance and generally keep the shop fronts looking clean and presentable.
So far around 40 projects have been given a start under the Renew Newcastle umbrella. Some have flourished into commercial businesses in their own right, others have died a natural death along the way, but the effect it has had on the town has been overwhelmingly positive.
“The turnaround has just been amazing. We started around Christmas 2008 in an area around the Hunter St mall and I took a photo at the time and there are about two people walking through the mall. If you did a before and after shot, there would be 50 or 60 people walking down there now. So just the number of people in the street has been an amazing change,” Marcus said. “There is a reason for people to go there and explore... Last Christmas it really hit me how far the transformation had gone. Twelve months before you could have fired a cannon down the mall and not hit anyone.”
The regenerated ‘vibe’ has also led to new commercial tenants moving in.
Marcus is coming to Lismore to talk about the project at a public forum on March 17. The other guest will be Kim Spinks, who is responsible for the state government’s new Creative Enterprise Hubs program through Arts NSW.
The forum has been organised as part of the Lismore City Centre “Art in the Heart” project which has similar aims to Renew Newcastle.
Arts Northern Rivers CEO Lois Randall has been lobbying Kim Spinks and is hopeful Lismore, with its high concentration of artists and numerous vacant shop fronts, could be named the first Creative Hub region in NSW.
“Lismore is the perfect place to do it. It has a lovely old CBD that has lost a lot of business to the Square, and there is a high concentration of really amazing artists, so it’s a perfect fit. I can really visualise people in all fields of the arts working away in those shops fronts and attracting people to see how they create their works,” Lois said. “The Northern Rivers Arts and Creative Industries Strategy 2009 identified the lack of affordable work space for creative practitioners as a major inhibitor for creative industries development in the region. Allowing artists use empty shop fronts in the CBD of Lismore as studio and retail spaces is an innovative solution to this problem which will also benefit Lismore businesses and the community...It’s a win win for both the CBD of Lismore and the artists.”
Marcus said that shop owners don’t actually rent their spaces to the artists as that affects their property values for tax purposes. Instead Renew Newcastle, which is a not for profit company, licenses the right to use them.
“It doesn’t actually cost them (the landowners) anything. That’s a big part of it. And properties that are active and part of an active cluster are infinitely more rentable...Property owners are involved in the decision making. No one is forced to do something they are not keen to happen. And we’ve done some pretty ambitious work cleaning up spaces that have been disused for a long time.
“It has given people an opportunity to try things and experimenting is the key dynamic to changing things and we have demonstrated that that works,” he said.
The forum will be held at the Star Court Theatre from 2.30-4pm. Local property owners, arts practitioners and the wider community are all invited to attend.