Renew Newcastle is the brainchild of creative director Marcus Westbury, combining a love of his hometown and the arts. “It broke my heart that there were 150 empty buildings in the main street and I knew dozens of people at least—it’s turned out to be more—who would do anything to get access to those spaces,” he says. “Initially I asked council, ‘Why don’t you put in place incentives for people to access empty buildings?’ but changing the rate and tax structure is a much bigger project than the one we ended up doing.”
The challenge in creating the project-based organisation was that there was nothing in the world like it—everything came from scratch. “We didn’t need to buy, borrow or own anything, but we needed to work out what the right kind of legal agreements were, what sort of framework, insurance, company structure we needed to have to play this role of being an intermediary,” explains Westbury. “On the other side we also had to build a bunch of relationships with property owners and people who would propose projects.”
Callouts and public meetings led to a fortuitous connection with important stakeholders, among them pro bono lawyer Rod Smith of Sparke Helmore, a property owner with a lot of empty real estate, and key members of the local business community.
“The idea is kind of obvious: empty spaces, borrow them, use them. You can get people curious on the basis of the idea, but you can’t get them to commit. You get them to commit on the basis that you’ve dotted your i’s and crossed your t’s. When they said ‘who’s your lawyer?’ we had a lawyer, ‘what kind of legal structure do you want to use?’, we had a template agreement ready, ‘what are you doing about insurance?’, we said ‘this is the advice about what kind of insurance we need’,” says Westbury. “You have to have a systematic approach to activating, curating and making the most of spaces.”
Two years ago, Renew Newcastle took over 12 shops on Westbury’s credit card; now it has funds for 1.2 staff and insurance thanks to the state and local governments and the local City Traders Group, but not much for the projects themselves. “We’ll look at a property and the owner will be happy to give it to us, but to bring it up to building code standards we need to spend a few thousand dollars,” Westbury imparts. “We’re looking to get more money to do that; that’s a big barrier for us.”
Rolling with the projects
Renew Newcastle general manager Marni Jackson deals with project proposals put forward by artists. The program initially ran callouts with submission deadlines, but the property acquisition procedure required more flexibility “so people could always tell us what was going on so we could talk to property owners about it,” says Jackson.
Artists submit their details online, which Jackson assesses to ensure the project meets key criteria. “Our focus is on arts and creative projects and some community cultural uses,” she explains. “If someone has a massage business, then that’s not a suitable project. If they’re a business with a lease up the road, we don’t want existing businesses.”
When a space is secured, Jackson will match it with a suitable project according to how the property is zoned; for example, a fashion designer looking to sell wares would suit a space already designated for retail. Projects have been as diverse as a sound art gallery, a zine shop, a craft retail space and a millinery.
One problem with this approach is that it may take months for a project to find a home. Jackson ensures that each proposal notes how quickly the artist can move into—and out of—a space. Artists are put on a rolling 30-day agreement with the property owner, which allows the owner to accept commercial leases quickly when the space becomes attractive to paying tenants.
“The end period is an interesting time for people, they assess how well their project has gone,” says Jackson. At the end of 2009, a few projects received their notice within a couple of weeks of each other and they all did different things, she says. “Two of them said ‘we’d really like you to find us another space’ and we were happy to do that. One wanted another space but we didn’t let him because he hadn’t delivered what he was supposed to be delivering. Another said the shopfront didn’t work because they were delivering workshops. One came to a natural end, they did what they were there to do.”
Deliverables are defined by the arts, creative or community criteria set by the Renew Newcastle guidelines and the project owner’s objectives. “They have to be viable on their own terms. Whatever they tell us they’re going to do, we commit them to do,” says Jackson.
Success and the city
The program contains a simple idea but many types of success. For Jackson, the artists provide the most direct feedback. “Because I work with project participants I see their progress and see what they get out of delivering their projects. The positive feedback is really amazing, just to hear someone say ‘I had a good time’ or ‘I learned a lot’.”
The community’s response has been overwhelmingly positive, she notes, from the number of people who volunteer help, to the general buzz around the program. “The language around how people can interact with their city has changed,” she remarks. “Looking back to the photographs two years ago, you really see the look and feel of the place is different. All of those things have happened out of this impossible idea very simply brought together.”
Most of the Renew projects on main retail avenue Hunter Street Mall have since ended after bringing back foot traffic and enabling property owners to attract commercial tenants. “It’s been really successful in that sense,” says Westbury. “We have taken four blocks of the city that were dead and now there are people there. It was a catalyst for economic revitalisation.”
The program has also made things accessible for artists. “One of the conceptual things we did was to lower the barrier of entry for people proposing projects. We have incubated a bunch of those projects into being permanent, viable businesses. Some are paying commercial rent, some will be in a position to,” he says. The challenge now will be to find more unused spaces in Newcastle, further out from the city.
Westbury, who wears many other hats in the arts media, has spent the last year focusing on spreading the Renew concept, speaking and running workshops in other cities such as Adelaide, Geelong and Townsville. The next step is to replicate the program via Renew Australia, which will support local schemes. Renew Newcastle is “a side project that got way out of control,” he jokes.