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Wide Open Spaces

 

Lisa Andersen is Senior Researcher with the Australian Research Council’s CAMRA Project—Cultural Asset Mapping in Regional Australia—at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). Lisa’s published research on regional arts includes ‘Quality of Light, Quality of Life: Cultural Industries in and around Broken Hill’ (co-authored with Jane Andrew, 2007), ‘Common Ground: Cultural Festivals in NSW’s Northern Rivers Region’ (2006), and ‘Archie in the Country’: The Archibald Prize Exhibition in Cowra (2005). She is the Manager of the Empty Spaces Project at the University of Technology, Sydney. Regional Arts NSW spoke to Lisa as part of a series of interviews that will be featured on this website on pop-up shops, space activation and the creative scene’s engagement with this movement.

 

Do we need empty spaces projects in regional communities or is this an urban movement?

I think activation of disused space – in all its forms – is a real opportunity for rural-regional NSW to revitalise emptied out main streets, incubate new enterprises, and enable creative and community activity. So far the majority of ’empty space’ projects have popped up in metropolitan and urban Australia but I’ve seen a massive growth of interest in doing projects from regional areas. City-based approaches are not transferrable, so modelling sustainable empty space activity for rural-regional centres, towns and villages is a priority for the Regional Arts network, the Empty Spaces Project and regional development agencies.

 

What are the challenges specifically for these kinds of projects in remote and rural places?

Empty space programs in rural areas will look very different those in cities and dense suburbs where there is a larger, ready-to-activate market, and a larger cohort of professional artists and creative businesses to draw from in activating space and in increasing the appeal of premises for potential commercial tenants. Scaling activity so it is sustainable is the main challenge for rural-regional projects. Shaping your empty space project to build on local strengths and opportunities is the other main challenge, as is convincing landlords to actually sign on the bottom line to license their property for use for free or at low-cost, as is getting your local government planning division to understand what you a trying to do. I’ll stop there with my list of challenges by pointing out the bleeding obvious, that there’s no such thing as a free shop. All of this activity requires resourcing and promoting in the local community; starting with running the one-off residency of a space for a few days, to the holy grail of staffing a longer-term empty space brokering program, to provide much-needed space for artists and regenerate your main street.

 

What is the biggest mistake you have seen made with regional groups attempting to launch an empty spaces project?

Either, biting off more than they can chew and burning out, or trying to fulfil too many unrealistic expectations this is a no-resources-needed, ‘magic bullet’ for regenerating a main street or that disused industrial estate. However, user feedback tells us that knowledge and advice from the Empty Spaces Project has been important for many initiatives during their planning and start-up phase and the tools provided mean that you don’t have to ‘invent the wheel’ on this.

 

What are some models that regional communities can look to in the international arena?

This is the million dollar question, and one that I’m starting to answer in my own mind from the projects I know of and the patterns I’ve seen, but not there yet. There’s definitely an international knowledge gap here around modelling this activity for smaller cities, towns and villages and this is a focus for any further stage of the Empty Spaces Project. One of the reasons why this is hard to answer is that there are a lot of, what I call, ‘romantic case studies’ out there about what works (everything, apparently!).  We need to dig deeper to identify true good practice and be more realistic about projecting impact and managing community expectations.  Stay tuned.

 

What do you believe is the best current example of a regional empty spaces project and why?

The best projects develop based on understanding locality and local strengths and weaknesses, which is why what these projects may only have in common is that they use empty or under-used space. As they grow and respond to place, they develop distinct personalities: different activities, processes and even management frameworks. From what I’ve seen, NSW’s Northern Rivers and Great Lakes regions are piloting some interesting ways of activating space through event-based activity, or filling emptied out main streets, or through ‘meanwhile’ use of council-owned properties.

Art in the Heart Lismore was the first regional project, so has pioneered one approach. Their programming responded to the needs of the local community and they’ve engaged in a whole range of activities: from workshop spaces, to art exhibitions, to visiting artists in residence. In my opinion, they are also leading the rest of Australia in thinking beyond professional and emerging artists, they’ve ensured their programming incorporates community arts projects, as with their 2012 pop-up on lived experiences of mental illness with New Horizons. I believe inclusion and community cultural development should be a major aim of empty space projects. Finally, Stephen Nelson, who manages Art in Heart, and their Board have been extremely generous in sharing their knowledge with other start-up projects throughout regional Australia – I’m always sending people their way – so, kudos to them.

 

Another project that is a particular favourite of mine – because they have very sensibly based their approach on their capacity – is Kyogle Bazaar . On two Saturdays every month, stallholders traded outside empty shops in the main street alongside busking, entertainment and community workshops, all to add colour and movement and bring the community back to the emptied out main street. The volunteers running this have been very smart in trying to sustain a program of activity that would not burn them out and in their realistic ambition to attract a crowd once a fortnight, rather than try to increase foot traffic 9 to 5, six days a week, which would have failed.

 

Forster’s GoCart art trail was a month long, volunteer-run event in empty shops in Wharf Street in April this year.  Again, very smart thinking because they programmed the event for the busiest tourist season for the region, around Easter, so there would be a market for the art on sale and a broader audience for the entertainment to generate buzz for visitors; not just pretty shop windows with no-one to look and, more importantly, buy.

 

What makes a particular space a viable and good option?

Matchmaking projects to spaces is one of the specialist skills that the creative space brokers who are empty space project coordinators have.

Firstly, the least work you have to do to repair and prepare a space the better – you’ve only got it for the short term so don’t want to be painting (although artists always do!), disposing of too many dead pigeons, doing a full fit-out, or writing a development application for a two-week use of a space. Projects can be matched to spaces most suitable for the activity they have planned.  For example, a former retail space usually makes a good visual arts exhibition space or a warehouse space might make a good studio space. However, the most interesting projects to my mind, are those where the artists respond to the space itself, and it leads the creative response.  New York’s No Longer Empty is a great example of creative responses to iconic empty spaces resulting in great art.

 

Any other tips or ideas you would like to share with our audience?

Everything I know, alongside a great many things that other people know and have shared, is on the Empty Spaces website. It’s a great read.

 

 

Interview by Estelle Pigot.

Image Credit: Project – Art In The Heart. Photo curtesy of Empty Spaces.