Are our cities too full for artists?

Trudy Lane's Sunroom, Dunedin. Photo: Justin Spiers
Political Cuts Maverick Barber. Photo: Gabrielle McKone
Block Party - at co-working space Te Patukituki. Masterton 2017 Image: Janelle Preston-Searle
Political Cuts Maverick Barber and Barbarian Productions, Wellington 2014. Photo: Gabrielle McKone
Collective benefit demands collective responsibility: Sophie Jerram finds spaces for artists and creative social makers in a limited and over-heated property market.


Open sourcing the city

Cities and towns are places of exchange. Artists have a vital role in offering new ways of seeing the world and need places to offer their gifts.   

For the last nine years our public art organisation Letting Space (backed by the Wellington Independent Arts Trust) has been leveraging retail and office from property owners for free - or very cheap - for use by artists and community groups.  

This work has been available as a service for others in Wellington, Dunedin, Porirua and Masterton - under the guise of the Urban Dream Brokerage (UDB).   

Recently the Wellington Independent Arts Trust won the national Open Source Award for the best use of open source - conceptually - in the arts through the UDB. For the team who have worked in the Brokerage, there’s huge satisfaction in supporting the countless artists and 122 projects birthed into the public realm.

Our UDB projects slipped somewhere between art practice and that (rather mercantile-sounding) genre ‘social enterprise.’ In Wellington, around 35 spaces were used in the past five years by UDB projects, creating a network of shared spaces thanks to the co-operation of willing property owners and our work in providing legitimation: hedging the risk for property owners against our own reputations.

"Our projects slipped somewhere between art practice and social enterprise"

Our work was in showing property owners - through well established relationships - that active, well maintained utilised shops without paid rental were better than vacant, cold shops with ‘potential’ to rent out tomorrow. Rate rebates (for properties used by non-profit organisations) also softened the blow.

The temporariness of this usage was clearly attractive to owners. Some of the brokered projects lasted over two years but their occupation of a CBD site was based on a 30 day rolling license.  At any point, either the property owner or the occupier could give the other 30 days notice: precarity was the trade-off for free access. Artists learned to enjoy and feel responsible for a space, and often gained new skills - and find very new audiences for their work.

Two standout projects pushing at the boundaries of performance and service: CoLiberate - a group of theatre makers used their skills to create in a former office space a mental health first aid project. And for both political elections of 2014 and 2017, Jason Muir and Barbarian Productions worked with UDB to set up Political Cuts: in exchange for a haircut, sitters were encouraged to voice their political opinions.

We thought we had a good model. But as a founder of the UDB I consider: what happens when vacant sites disappear?

Around mid-2017 it became clear that Wellington city was changing. There were new high paying retailers willing to take on empty shops, and other buildings were torn down post the November 2016 earthquake.  New uses had been found for CBD buildings - a Cordon Bleu School; Te Auahaa’s new performing arts school where retail once was. A long term project space at 19 Tory Street became a dog grooming shop: gentrification complete.

What happens when vacant sites disappear?

It’s time to consider the cost-benefit of our actions.

Taking a break

It’s not that there isn’t still a high demand for arts venues; creators from visual, music, performance and literature arts continue to call for more space in Wellington and there are always audiences ready to flock to new events. At one level we have been beaten, simply, by the market. Our brokering work, providing this buffer and legitimacy between the city’s fledgling creators, cannot be borne by the small grants from our Councils in the current regime.   

Where do artists and creative social makers belong in the busy city? Most cannot afford market rent, and in the great ‘level playing field’ of the market, artists are expected to act as if they can and have the readiness to prepare a film, book or performance straight away for market consumption.   

"Artists are not retailers; they are generators of ideas and belong in research and development."

But artists are not retailers, selling ready-made goods (although they may occasionally sell their wares). Neither are they like manufacturers ready to produce goods for someone else to prepare for sale. Artists are generators of ideas and belong - if anywhere in the metaphor of  ‘industry,’ - in research and development. We can’t tell which project is going to fly from the first year or two of being in the world - yet 90% of the projects that were launched in UDB sites have found legs elsewhere.

What artists need

To have time to develop ideas and practice work, artists need space, time and connectivity.  Even with this triad of tools, we don’t turn out the equivalent of a pair of shoes overnight; it may take five years of tinkering before a guild of artists develops a film or a concept that has legs.   

I’ve encountered many groups around the world, in Europe and Australia in particular, who have like us been buffering the creative community from the winds of market demands; brokering ideas and spaces. Most in Europe say they’ll never run out of empty buildings but in New Zealand, our building stock is newer and not well made. Earthquakes have reduced supply and an increased demand for retail spaces has made for a scarcity of available sites.

Proving collective benefit and demonstrating collective responsibility.

What remains of UDB projects are traces, experiences, improved practice, fortified communities - and what I would term activist artist spaces where governance of the space is considered as important as practice.

Dunedin City Council supported an opening of the Urban Dream Brokerage in 2016 and we developed it as a satellite project of the Wellington office. Now, still with many good buildings in supply and a more unified property sector that has pride in its city, the Dunedin office is flying solo, re-framed as the Dunedin Dream Brokerage; and appointing theatre maker and former corporate shaker Kate Schrader in the role.  

If Wellington city is serious about supporting artists, it’s time to treat artists professionally and bring our skills into professional contexts.  Our umbrella trust - the Wellington Independent Arts Trust - advocates for experienced artists being offered a seat on the steering committees of new venue building projects or on the boards of existing creative services.

The future of any democratic and creative city is one where the responsibility and authority of the city is visibly distributed.

The future of any democratic and creative city is one where the responsibility and authority of the city is visibly distributed. The key to a thriving arts city is not just one in which space is available, but where the communities are responsible for their own running. There are exciting examples of the arts and democracy sufficiently, but still delicately, emerging.

For now, the open-sourcing of the city’s streets is over for UDB - in Wellington at least.
We still receive weekly emails from people still seeking our service. Temporary use can’t be as easy for a long time because the supply of buildings is much reduced and we have closed the service.
We have called for a new Embedded Artist programme - where art is regarded fully as an innovator to develop relationships between artists and organisations struggling to know how to move on. Artistic views can stimulate and provoke thinking in a time calling for innovation, fast evolution and protection from fear-based politics.


Images, top to bottom:
Trudy Lane's Sunroom, Dunedin. Photo: Justin Spiers
Political Cuts Maverick Barber. Photo: Gabrielle McKone
Block Party - at co-working space Te Patukituki. Masterton 2017 Image: Janelle Preston-Searle
Political Cuts Maverick Barber and Barbarian Productions, Wellington 2014. Photo: Gabrielle McKone

Written by

The Big Idea Editor

17 Nov 2018

The Big Idea Editor

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