Das Platforms / Contemporary Art

Renewal through art

by Trischelle Roberts

02 Jul 2011

Young artists attempting to live and work in inner-city areas have always struggled to secure a space in which to create, exhibit or perform. The romanticised garrets of Paris, the hip lofts of SoHo and less mythologised occasions of illegal squatting are testaments to this. While many artists still attempt to sustain their practice through traditional means, others are discovering unlikely supporters in cultural planners and real estate developers. Through arts-based urban renewal schemes, artists are forming temporary alliances with local government and commercial investors, exchanging legal and affordable access to disused spaces for the energy and air of authenticity that their presence lends this undesirable real estate.

One such scheme is Renew Newcastle. Catering to artists, cultural projects and community groups, Renew liaises with local government and property owners to provide temporary access to buildings that are vacant or awaiting redevelopment. The explicit goal is to ‘renew’ the declining inner city of Newcastle, New South Wales, both physically and culturally. While access is short term, with licenses operating on a rolling, 30 day basis, the projects are long term, intended to be an ongoing investment in the creative life of the city. These projects include ARThive, an artist-run gallery,Make Space, a makers’ workshop and store, and Vox Cyclops, an independent record store.

The theoretical driving force of schemes like Renew is the ‘creative class’ movement, spearheaded by Richard Florida. Artists are seen as a critical, and conveniently cheap, resource for the reinvigoration of places. As bees towards a honey pot, Florida argues that authentic culture is what attracts creatively-minded individuals, and thereby cultural industry. These ‘bohemians’ create activity and desirability where there previously was none, thereby kick-starting economic growth.

This places artists in a difficult position, playing a presumably unwilling role in gentrification and pricing themselves out of the areas in which they choose to live and work. A Marxist analysis would argue that artists, low on the food chain, are being exploited as cheap labour and, in this process, have become collaborators in urban redevelopment. Phoebe Torzillo, artist and long term resident of now defunct Sydney space Lanfranchi’s, is vocal about what she sees as the risk of being co-opted into ‘the front line of gentrification’.

Unfortunately for artists, neither of these positions attributes any agency to the subjects of the discussion. Somewhere between the overly optimistic, economically-slanted ideal and the portrait of the disenfranchised (and unintentionally disenfranchising) artist lies the experiences of artists negotiating opportunities, restrictions, desires and ethics on a day by day basis. For those involved in Renew Newcastle’s projects, very real difficulties lie in the degree of energy and motivation necessary to sustain a project (particularly while generating even a modest income), the constant threat of eviction or failure, and the disconnection between expectation and the daily demands of their projects.

While the creative class and co-optation positions enable us to think about how a scheme like Renew Newcastle might function on a broad scale, they do little to address how we might encourage such a scheme to be sustainable, both for artists and for the places in which they work and live. These kinds of questions can only be answered by paying close attention to the experiences of those involved.

Trischelle Roberts is a writer and musician. She is currently completing a Masters in Performance Studies, researching artists and urban renewal in Newcastle, New South Wales.