Creating community with innovative Art in the Heart

ART PARTY: Susanna Carpi, Stephen Nelson, Nadine Whitney and Katie O’Rourke celebrate the success of Lismore’s Art in the Heart project with art and a cup of tea in Nadine’s new shop in the Star Court Arcade.
ART PARTY: Susanna Carpi, Stephen Nelson, Nadine Whitney and Katie O’Rourke celebrate the success of Lismore’s Art in the Heart project with art and a cup of tea in Nadine’s new shop in the Star Court Arcade.

LIVE poisonous jellyfish, houses made of boxes and wearable arts installations are just some of the weird and wonderful artworks that have been popping up in Lismore's empty shopfronts since the inception of Art in the Heart two-and-a-half years ago. While utilising Lismore's empty retail spaces is one of the aims of the Art in the Heart project, coordinator Stephen Nelson has also seen Art in the Heart help with the revitalisation of Lismore's central business district and give our regional communities outlets for their creative passions.

Modelled on a successful arts-focussed CBD revitalisation project in Newcastle, Art in the Heart has enabled more than 200 creative workers to demonstrate their abilities and art practice to thousands of people with 39 residencies and exhibitions in eight Lismore shops.

"These exhibition spaces have given lots of artists a chance to have their work shown," Mr Nelson said. "We have such a large community of artists here but we don't yet have a really large state-of-the-art gallery with sufficient space to enable them to show their work, so it's a tough one for artists. It's thanks to the galleries we do have and supportive cafés like Caddies that we've had outlets for their work."

Brett Adlington, director of Lismore Regional Gallery, understands the importance of raising the profile of the arts in regional communities and sees Art in the Heart as a great way to create opportunities.

"It's increasing awareness of what's going on in our communities," Mr Adlington said. "These projects get us recognised outside our region and we often underestimate the importance of arts and culture. The Regional Gallery, NORPA and projects like Art in the Heart provide cultural and economic models for the future of Lismore. We need to be smart and capitalise on the energy we all generate by working together. If Lismore can show what a viable, cohesive community we are by supporting the arts, we will all be richer and will attract more people who are looking to relocate."

According to Arts Northern Rivers CEO, Peter Wood, our region is defined by our creativity and he said we need to "play to our strengths".

"Our research tells us we have the largest number of artists living here outside of capital cities and the impact of the arts on our communities can be measured in terms of community wellbeing and the vibrancy and energy it has created."

The Art in the Heart project fits well into the 'Come to the Heart' marketing campaign, designed to bring people into the CBD and bring life to Lismore and its businesses. Lismore city centre manager Katie O'Rourke is a member of the Art in the Heart Taskforce as well as co-ordinator of Lismore's Back Alley Gallery project. She sees Art in the Heart as the "arrow in the bow" of revitalising the CBD.

"Art in the Heart is an incredible tool to showcase what Lismore has to offer," Ms O'Rourke said. "People come to the CBD to enjoy art and it is changing behaviour and perceptions. We know that traffic flow has increased and there's a flow on to goods and services... People see the CBD as a vibrant place to enjoy their time and they look to the CDB for other needs rather than go outside Lismore."

Lismore Chamber of Commerce president David Martin is supportive of Art in the Heart but believes it is "not the smoking gun that will revitalise and change Lismore for the future."

"It is only one of the many things needed in the revitalisation of a CBD," Mr Martin said. "We need retail promotions and activities that will bring families into town. As well as looking at art and culture, we need to involve sport and make shopping in the city fun. We need to see businesses prosper... they pay the rates and levies that fund council and only profitable businesses can employ people."

Mr Martin said a new 'people cam' installed in the CBD four months ago will be instrumental in helping measure the success of any marketing campaigns or projects on increasing the numbers of people coming into the CBD.

According to Stephen Nelson, the Art in the Heart project was not without its challenges, which included getting owners of shopfronts to offer up their buildings for use by artists. Because of the generosity of the eight CBD property owners who took part in the project, not only has life been brought into town, but the owners have opened themselves up to new opportunities and regenerated

their own businesses.

"The interest, buzz, excitement and colour brought to each location has helped the building owners gain commercial interest," Mr Nelson said.

Since offering their empty shop at 56 Magellan Street to the Art in the Heart project, shop owners Lynn and Darren Bassey have managed to attract long-term tenants to the premises and will see an Indian restaurant open there later this month.

"Lots of positive feedback has come back to us because we wanted someone to benefit from our empty building," Ms Bassey said. "While we received a small amount of rent from the temporary tenants [the artists], it was all about community spirit. People say they will come to the new restaurant and support it because we've given so much back to the community. We hope other building owners will come forward to take part in the project. It's such a great thing and provides such a positive atmosphere… and at the end of day, you are better off to have someone in your building - if buildings look vacant, they are open to vandalism and the Art in the Heart tenants were always accommodating to our needs."

Susanna Carpi, who runs life coaching business Ready Mindset Go in the Star Court Arcade, offered up her shop window as a 'Window of Opportunity' within the Art in the Heart project, allowing the colour and interest of art to draw customers into her business.

"It also makes my business a bit different from everybody else," Suzanna said. "Rather than offering a curtain, I'm offering the community something artistic in my window and adding to the creative vibe in the arcade. People go out of their way to come and see it - for my business it's been a win-win situation and it's helped me get clients. It gives me a wonderful connection to the community and I've loved meeting all the artists."

As a result of her involvement in two successful Art in the Heart exhibitions, artist and jeweller Nadine Whitney was inspired to open her own business with friend and business partner Sonja Lane. Now, at their business Wonderlane Emporium in the Star Court Arcade, a wall of art draws customers in, where they find coffee and cakes as well as unique jewellery and clothing for sale.

"The first instalment on setting up this business came from the money I made from the Art in the Heart shows," Nadine said. "I saw Lismore as a viable place to open a business and being in this arcade is the best place for us. I come from Melbourne and I believe in the cluster effect - when you put a cluster of cafes together, you create a destination.

"Art in the Heart gave us connections and people now recognise the branding of our products and other shops want to stock them now."

The Art in the Heart project was funded by a two year Arts NSW Creative Enterprise Hub grant with matching 'in kind' support from Lismore City Council. While the initial Arts NSW funding for the project has ended, subsequent additional funding from the Lismore Business Promotion Program allowed Mr Nelson to continue putting art into Lismore shopfronts. Next year, Mr Nelson hopes to see the project continue with more grant funding from Regional Arts NSW.

"We are hopeful we will get the grant and will change the project's focus from using empty space for exhibitions to providing professional development for the creative workers, then hold exhibitions at the end of the project," Mr Nelson said. "We have a plethora of talented artists looking for places to use as studios and not many of them are earning a living as professional artists. We would like to see them increase their art and business skills by offering them mentorship from accomplished Northern Rivers artists. The future direction is very exciting."

With 21 shops currently empty in the Lismore CBD, Mr Nelson hopes to see more businesses get involved with future projects and help revitalise the CBD through the promotion of the arts.

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