Newcastle has great beaches, Darby Street and Renew Newcastle (RN). Actually, it has a lot more than that but those three things reinforced my decision to relocate to the Steel City. As soon as I heard about RN, I knew I wanted to be involved with it. Somehow. For the time being, it is with an ongoing series of interviews and profiles of some of RN’s projects that a collaboration will take form. In order to properly introduce Renew Newcastle, Aloud. sat down with Marni Jackson, RN’s General Manager, to discuss how supporting and promoting creative projects and individuals can play a significant role in transforming the cities we live in, reactivate neglected areas and contribute to the cultural revival of overlooked centers.
ALOUD: Marni, you are the General Manager of Renew Newcastle (RN), a position you have held since April 2009 when RN was in its infancy. Could you talk about your background and how you became involved with this project?
MARNI JACKSON: I have been working alongside artists making projects happen on a small local scale for a while. I did a little bit of performance with a group called “Lovelorn Living Party” which was hired to do public and private events based around character performance, old school sort of skills but most of us were relatively untrained and unpracticed. It was more that we liked dressing up and interacting with people but we did have some idea of the transformative power of this kind of performance. I often found myself being the organizer, the practical one with spreadsheets and a calculator trying to make things happen. I volunteered on a couple of projects like the This Is Not Art (TINA) Festival and eventually became the Festival coordinator from 2005 to 2008 which is where I met Marcus (Westbury, co-founder of TINA and creative director of Renew Newcastle).
Marcus was visiting Newcastle quite a bit in 2008 researching for a television show called ‘Not quite Art‘, getting a sense of what the creative communities were up to. It was during that time that he started to really notice the dereliction, the decay and the emptiness of the city centre and started connecting up the thinking about how cities can reinvent themselves, and how the creative communities can be a catalyst for that.
There were lots of interesting things going on in Newcastle but not necessarily in a very public way. Renew Newcastle came from the idea of matching under-utilized spaces in the city with under-represented creative projects. We started the company on the 13th of October 2008. It’s a not-for-profit organization, independent of any other entity, political or otherwise.
ALOUD: Did you experience turning points where you could see that the idea of Renew Newcastle might work?
MARNI: When it started, I was still ‘recovering’ from the last few years as the Festival Coordinator for TINA, thinking I could just get involved with RN casually. In December 2008, Marcus went away for a few months and handed it to me. I was suddenly dealing with the complicated process of getting projects into spaces. By January, we had 12 projects. We did a launch in February and got hundreds of people turning up to have a look.
After we hit the 2 year period, I think I was still surprised that we were still doing it. Not that we didn’t know what we were doing but we didn’t fully realize what the extent of it would be, the impact and the effectiveness. It kept expanding without ever feeling like it was the end or that it was enough. I am still learning even though I have done it plenty of times: each new property or project brings its own set of challenges and rewards.
ALOUD: Since those early days, you have had 70 projects in 42 properties overall and you are currently supporting 28 projects in 22 properties. Could you describe the range of projects that are currently running?
MARNI: We get a space first and then match a project to it. That defines the kind of projects we are able to support. There are shops and galleries which act as the public face of RN. The shops are generally small collectives of people selling the things they are making. Art, fashion design, jewelry, children’s wear, visual art, soft sculpture. Most of the makers had existing labels and come together to present it under a ‘concept’ store. The galleries have been both commercial in style and artist-run spaces.
Then, there are projects that would fit into the category of commercial office spaces, studios for creative industries professionals: graphics, web design, interior design, styling, sound and video. The kinds of activities where people need a clean space to set up a desk and a little bit of equipment.
We have some visual artists (painting, illustration, printmaking) who have studio spaces which they use for the production of their work.
ALOUD: Could you describe the nature of the agreement between RN, the projects and the property owners?
MARNI: Renew Newcastle has a license to occupy unused commercial spaces which is an agreement between RN and the property owner. We then engage the artist into a Participation Agreement to use the space on an ongoing basis. There is no fixed term, it is just until the owner has a better use for that space. There is always a 30 day notice period to vacate when the owners do get a better offer. The projects act as custodian of the space, keep it clean, refresh it, renew signage and most importantly, occupy and activate the site which is beneficial to the surrounding businesses, generating new kinds of activity while giving the artists a cheap space to occupy. In most instances, the projects pay $20 a week for a participation fee which goes to RN to help us run the program and assist with maintenance of the property. It’s a very low-risk environment to test and experiment. Developing ideas and seeing if something is working is part of what this opportunity provides.
ALOUD: In which ways does RN support the projects?
MARNI: That has changed overtime. When we first started, we were just matching projects to properties. We then realised that there was probably a bit more that we needed to do to make sure that they were thriving and reaching some of their potential. We have set up a couple of mentoring scenarios with people in the community who were a good fit for talking through some of the issues. We have been able to deliver more support akin to professional development. Business mentoring, training programs, workshops. We look at where gaps exist in their skills and interest in the business side of things or their professional practice. Generally, they are incredibly self-sufficient and tenacious, working really hard to find out what they need to do.
ALOUD: A lot of people I have spoken to, in and out of the creative world, seem to agree that Newcastle has been changing quite a bit over the last few years. It is attributed, in part, to projects like Renew Newcastle. Do you feel that Newcastle really is changing and to what extent?
MARNI: There have always been plenty of interesting things going on but we might have been influential in bringing some of it to the fore and getting more general public awareness. Maybe it says that Newcastle is not all bad and that creative people don’t have to disappear and go to Sydney or Melbourne. There is definitely value in going to the big cities and finding out what’s going on in the world but it doesn’t mean that you can’t stay here and make things happen for yourself. I think we have kicked that into the public sphere and people feel they have permission to try things.
ALOUD: Renew Newcastle was created to bring visibility to the creative community, reactivate parts of the city and transform Newcastle. Would you say that RN is doing what it set out to do?
MARNI: I think it has done a pretty good job of all those things in a really genuine way. We are not politically aligned, we are not pushing our own agendas, It’s not about me trying to get space for my artist friends. There are some really good intentions behind what we are doing and I think we managed to do it keeping different interests relatively happy and pushing some really great stories about Newcastle. It’s quite nice to be a part of that.
You can learn everything you need to know about Renew Newcastle on their website.
If you are an artist or designer and you are using your skills to help others through community based initiatives, I would love to hear from you and help you get the word out there. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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