marcus westbury

my life. on the internets.

marcus westbury header image 4

Explorations in Emptiness

September 11th, 2015 by marcus


In late 2007 and early 2008, I found myself walking Hunter and King Streets, the two main streets of Newcastle, and the smaller streets that connected them. I was seeing them afresh—looking at parts of them up close for the first time in the best part of a decade. I spent two days peering in windows, noting down vacancies, taking camera-phone photographs and notes about particular buildings and likely spaces.

I knew Newcastle had seen better days, but what I saw on that weekend was confronting and depressing. Empty buildings featured faded ‘For Lease’ signs. Several still had real estate agent contact details featuring an area code that Newcastle had phased out in 1997.

I was there because I was at a loose end. I was between jobs, technically unemployed again but not as desperate as I had been a decade earlier. I had some money in the bank and some time on my hands. I’d been living in Melbourne for five years but was toying with the idea of heading home to Newcastle to start a small bar, gallery and performance space.

It is a sidenote to this story that the Australian state of New South Wales, where Newcastle and Sydney are located, had long had the world’s worst liquor licensing regime outside of Saudi Arabia. Cronyism, lobbying, and quirks of history had meant that for decades, liquor licenses had come bound up with the right to run slot machines.

It is a case study in extreme barriers to entry, patronage, protectionism, and insulating existing entrants from innovation or competition that is worthy of a book in and of itself. The state only offered a limited number of licenses and as a result, anyone wanting to set up a bar had needed millions of dollars to buy out an existing license and was lumbered with the expectation (and economics) of running a gambling den.

In the mid 2000s that changed, as the result of considerable community pressure. Small bar licenses were introduced and under the new system, I suddenly had the opportunity to realise a long-held dream. Initially it wasn’t much more than a thought bubble—an idea worth investigating. I bought myself a copy Running a Bar for Dummies and broadly familiarised myself with the relevant legislation.

I’d been peripherally involved in the licensing reform campaign and was able to pick the brains of some of the people involved. I convinced myself that Newcastle would embrace a more diverse drinking, dining, music, art and entertainment scene, and hopped on a plane for the hour-and-a half flight from Newcastle to Melbourne to do a bit of on-the-ground leg-work.

What followed was not the first (and hopefully not the last) time in my life that an enthusiastic interest in one idea has been derailed by the discovery of another.

Newcastle was dying. I thought I had no illusions, but everywhere I looked the rot was worse than I remembered. Streets that in my memories were vibrant, active, and filled with family and friends had fallen into disrepair and despair. Entire blocks were dominated by buildings that had been boarded up, gutted, and destroyed. As you entered the city from the west, there was a derelict hotel on one side and dust gathering on the empty glass of a new building that had never had a tenant opposite it.

Up near the beach, Newcastle’s grandest building, the 1903-built Post Office with its domes, arches, and sandstone columns sat empty, tagged and fenced off. A few blocks away, the Victoria Theatre, the second-oldest theatre in Australia, sat broken and lifeless. The shop that had once occupied its foyer was abandoned. Windows were broken, seemingly inviting further decay.

The mall in between was more than half-empty. A contagious blight of abandoned spaces and boarded up windows had spread to the point where it had a toehold on almost every block. It was worse than I had remembered, worse than I thought it could ever become. The city felt like it was not merely slipping, but accelerating into decay.

On that walk I counted a hundred and thirty empty buildings. Mostly shops, but a few that were obviously offices and commercial buildings as well. I later realised that I’d missed many of them. For my small bar idea, it didn’t particularly deter me. I noted down a few buildings that were likely candidates and identified a few promising areas or precincts where my little bar idea might take root.

Given the massive number of vacancies, I was under the naive assumption that there would be plenty to choose from. It should, after all, be a renter’s market. I took my notes and my photographs, headed back home to Melbourne, and began to chase up the property agents.

Then things got weird. Over several months I contacted thirteen separate commercial real estate agents. I gave them a price range, one that seemed reasonable given advertised rates for some less suitable commercial properties, and generous given the state of the town; some thoughts on preferred but flexible locations, specific indications of what I was looking for and multiple contact details.

I said I was willing to pay for some modest capital improvements. I offered to fly to Newcastle from Melbourne to inspect any properties that might be likely candidates. My initial fear was that I might well be run off my feet with phone calls and offers.

I needn’t have worried. As I wrote in my blog at the time, my initial inquiries via email were a total failure. The total number of properties I was encouraged to look at was nil. The total number of phone calls received was nil. The total number of, “Thanks, but we don’t have anything for you at the moment” emails was nil. Indeed, the total amount of communication from anyone in the Newcastle real estate industry was… nothing.

Picking up the phone to enquire about specific properties didn’t actually help much either. Many of the agents’ contact details I’d noted from windows were well out of date. They no longer handled the property. The owner who had engaged them no longer owned it or couldn’t be contacted.

Many were not, in any serious sense, on the market at all. Some owners were still holding out for rents that were unrealistic, or for potential tenants to return who hadn’t been seen for years. Agents were uninterested. A lot of property in Newcastle was actually owned by people who, despite the proliferation of ‘For Lease’ signs, weren’t even going through the motions of marketing them. More often than not, no one returned the calls.

There was also a failure of imagination. At one point I turned my attention to a particular building, one that I knew well and that a friend’s family had once operated a business from. Despite the building being on the market, available, seemingly in the right price range and seemingly suitable for the purpose, the agent simply couldn’t be convinced to show it to me.

The agent saw his role, apparently, not just as being a broker but also as an authority on what was and wasn’t a viable business model. He kept asking me what other businesses in the area were like my small bar. I frustratedly attempted to explain that changes to the law had meant that there couldn’t possibly be any precedents. You should come to Melbourne, I explained, there’s lots of small bars down here.

As we talked, it became increasingly clear that if he didn’t get it, he wasn’t interested. He had no reference points. He had no experience of or interest in the ideas I proposed. He felt no need to go through the motions of indulging me in a discussion about the price or particularities of an untested idea that he didn’t understand and wasn’t personally convinced by.

Perhaps that’s a strategy with some logic to it in a successful area. Actually it probably isn’t. But in an area where most of the existing businesses are closed or closing, this approach seemed almost painfully stupid. By definition the things most likely to succeed are the things no one has tried yet. Surely an untested approach—and lots of them—was exactly what the area needed more of… and urgently?

Something more substantial was wrong here. I lost sight of my original purpose—starting that bar is still on the long list of unrealised dreams—and became more and more intrigued as to why the market and the owners weren’t behaving the way Economics 101 told me they should.

An oversupply of properties should have led to a drop in the market price. So many sellers and so few buyers in the market should have meant that agents and owners were falling over themselves for my business. But the response to my approaches was indifference and lack of interest.

It was a diagnosis out of kilter with the debate that the city was having at the time. The debates in local papers or in political circles had always begun from the premise that the reason the city was failing was due to a lack of interest and investment. No one wanted to do anything there. But as I had directly experienced, this wasn’t always true. What if the problem was more complex? What if the problem was not that no one wanted to do anything but that those who wanted to, for whatever reasons, couldn’t?

The problem for me was not entirely new. My friends and I had experienced similar issues ten or fifteen years earlier, when the city was nowhere near as far into its downward spiral. When we were twenty-somethings, my talented but almost universally undercapitalised friends and colleagues had a stream of ideas for projects and businesses from cafés, shops, studios and galleries and various other marginal propositions.

As we left university or entered the workforce with no realistic possibilities of finding a job, so many of us were, initially at least, attracted by the idea that we would make our own work. That we could start our own businesses, or at least make our own fun. But we always hit road-blocks of the bureaucratic and practical kind.

When we did actually manage to find a place, we used it to establish a community organisation with pooled unemployment loans founded in an old warehouse. It is still going strong in another location to this day.

When I was younger, I had put a lot of these problems down to inexperience. The city’s establishment was probably right to be wary of a bunch of pretty rough-and-ready young guys with ill-defined ambitions, suspicious haircuts and questionable capacity. But in the years since, Newcastle had been going backwards, deteriorating and seemingly getting more desperate while my own level of experience had increased dramatically.

Here I was in my mid-thirties, established, financially capable, confident in my own abilities. I felt like I was back at square one, incapable of getting most real estate agents to return my call. When they did, they were overtly treating me like some kind of idiot because I wanted to do something different.

I wasn’t alone. As I incredulously recounted my experiences to anyone who would listen and wrote about them on my blog, it became obvious that my experience wasn’t an aberration. It turned out that Newcastle was full of similar stories. Shops that never opened. Offices that never existed. Galleries and studios that ended up elsewhere.

Over beers and coffees, in phone calls and emails, a pattern started to form. The people being shut out were people with ideas but little access to capital, networks, or professional expertise. Their ideas and efforts—whether they were good, bad or indifferent—were never given much of a chance. The system was, in effect, designed all wrong for their needs. A city in desperate need of imagination, effort, and ideas had inadvertently created a whole series of barriers that made it unlikely, if not impossible, for people to try them there.

The city had changed a lot since I was younger. But perhaps the biggest change that had taken place over the last fifteen years was in me. Once I may well have been inclined to tilt at the problems by getting angry with the agents and the owners. I thought about it. I registered the domain name and briefly contemplated an angry campaign of plastering empty shop windows with protest signs, writing ranty op-eds against stupid landowners, and picketing real estate agents.

Fortunately the 2008 version was more patient and a little luckier. I now found the problem to be compelling. I was at a loose end, I had time on my hands, and I needed a new obsession. It was a dynamic that needed pragmatism more than protest. I gradually got sucked into asking why the city wasn’t working for people like us, and how it might be made to work. Something systemic was wrong here, and I turned my attention to trying to figure out what that was.

The Map from that walk

This is the second chapter from Creating Cities. You can order the full book from here. You can also view the rest of the photos from that walk on that site.

Tags:   · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · 8 Comments

I (finally) wrote a book: Creating Cities is out now

September 1st, 2015 by marcus


I finally have a book!

Thanks to the support of nearly a thousand people who supported the crowd funding campaign via Pozible and nearly a two years of writing, editing, rewriting, designing and printing I’m pleased to finally be able to say that Creating Cities the book officially exists!

The book has it’s own web site at so for more information about it encourage you to go direct to the site.

Duck over there to find out more or order a copy. The book is available in limited distribution through good book stores (if you want to stock it you can contact us) and in ebook formats as PDF, .mobi and .epub suitable for all the main Ebook reading devices.

If anyone is interested in review copies, the media kit, interviews, copies to give away or anything like that feel free to drop me a line.

My thanks to everyone who has supported this project. I hope the book is an engaging, interesting, inspiring and generally useful read to anyone interested in cities, how they work and why they sometimes don’t.

Over the next few months I expect I will be doing a fair bit of travelling and talking about the book so hopefully I will get to see some of you around and thank you personally.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t already, go and order a copy!

Tags:   · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · 5 Comments

Bespoke: Premieres Thursday night on ABC1

August 31st, 2015 by marcus

For the last year or two I have been working on a new TV series that premieres on Thursday night at 10pm on ABC1. Bespoke is a series about the rise and return of makers across Australia. It covers everything from leathercrafts to 3D printing.

Check out the preview:

The blurb:

Bespoke is an engaging, amusing, irreverent but thought provoking look at the return and rise of the handmade, the locally produced, the small scale and the artisanal.

Writer and presenter Marcus Westbury takes us on a journey from the lovingly crafted to cutting edge technology – from artisanal jewellers and wood-turners to craft distillers and 3D printers, from Newcastle to New York – to answer the questions of who is making, why are so many of us making, who is buying and is it here to stay? Is it an old arts and crafts movement in hipster clothing, a passing fad, a middle class indulgence or a profound cultural and technological shift that has the potential to remake our cities, our economies and our communities from the top down and the bottom up?

In the last decade the number of people making arts, craft and all manner of bespoke and artisanal objects in Australia has grown enormously. The number of people making jewellery alone has increased by 700%. Two million Australians are active makers and many millions more are buying and appreciating what they make.

Changes in technology have given artisans and entrepreneurs access to global communities and international markets no one would have dreamed possible only ten years ago. Meanwhile consumers are increasingly rejecting mass produced products and seeking out the handcrafted and the unique. The result is an explosion in the growth of the hand-made, the bespoke and niche production.

Making is a cultural phenomenon. The labels “handmade” and “artisanal” have become marketing gimmicks for everything from beer brands to breakfast cereal. Banks claim to be “For the Makers”, property developers are selling “handmade” apartments and ETSY, the Ebay for the handmade, is now a billion dollar business. 

Marcus explores how genuine makers strike a balance between affordability and authenticity, and asks how big can you grow without losing something essential?

Finally, Marcus meets the geeks behind technologies and communities that are transforming who can make. 3D printing, hacker-spaces and open source hardware are all part of a global makers movement where technology and crafts are combining to transform the means of production. Marcus explores a movement that has been called ‘the next industrial revolution’ and unpacks the hype from the truly revolutionary potential of this meeting of the handmade and the high-tech.

Are we really on the verge of remaking the world?

Tags:   · · · · · · 13 Comments

In the current edition of Griffith REVIEW: Resurrection Myths

May 9th, 2014 by marcus


I know several of you have seen it but if you haven’t I have a very personal piece in the current edition of Griffith REVIEW. The edition concentrates on the ability of cultural projects to solve otherwise intractable problems and in this case i decided to go back to some of my own.

According to a review in Arts Hub this week:

“Marcus Westbury’s ‘Resurrection Myths’ is a … visceral description of his fractured upbringing and his subsequent recovery as he inadvertently finds himself in a ‘world of ideas’ is delivered with such panache the images he conjure linger long afterwards.”

I’ll take it.

The full essay — which is probably the most personal thing i’ve published —  is online (potentially for a limited time) on the Griffith REVIEW site and available, as they say, “wherever good books are sold.”

If you’re interested in hearing me talk “Cultural Solutions”, i’ll be joining Julianne Schultz, Scott Rankin and Robyn Archer to at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne on monday night (12 May). Tickets are free but bookings essential.

Tags:   · · · · · · · · 10 Comments

What’s the difference between enabling and programming?

October 26th, 2013 by marcus



Following on from yesterday’s post where i boldly declared that “interaction with funding bodies actively destroys enabling mechanismsseveral people responded to what i thought was pretty much a throw away point. It was my quick and dirty way to frame the debate. They either asked about or noted that they’d appreciated the explicit distinction i’d made between an “enabler” and “programmer” when it comes to arts policies and arts organisations.

As the comments accumulated, particularly over on Facebook, I realised that this “enabling” v. “programming” distinction is one i’ve used in my head for a while. I’ve probably kind of grazed past it in writing but never really stopped to take the time to articulate it. So, just for fun, this morning i sat down and did a little lazy table that makes a distinction between how i see an enabler differing from a programmer. This list is by no means definitive. It’s not even particularly thought through given i knocked it up an hour ago. Consider it my whiteboard scrawl, not my thesis — but it’s the basis of a discussion i’d be keen to be part of.

I believe we need more enablers or more organisations that behave that way. The overwhelming majority of funding and resources goes towards Programming and that we need to invest a lot more Enabling, but it’s also worth making one additional point:  reality is most organisations do, in fact, have some qualities of both. This isn’t a binary thing but i think if you take this frame in mind you can see where resources cluster in relation to the spectrum.

So with that in mind, should you find this the slightest bit interesting i actually did you all a bloody table…

Enabling Programming
Relationship to the creative practitioner The practitioner is independent and autonomous. The enabler is primarily a service provider who works for the creative practitioner – designed to do things they cannot do themselves. Endeavours to be responsive to their needs and limitations. More likely to “employ”, engage, hire, or direct a creative practitioner. The artist, at some level, is a means of filling the organisation’s need for a program.
Certainty A low degree of certainty, security, and predictability is traded off against the ability to do more things, take more risks, and support more people and experiment with more audiences. A high degree of certainty, security of funding and resources traded off against a more limited capacity for risk, experimentation, and failure.
Assumption about creative practice That it is relatively decentralised. That it comes from a very diverse range of independent practitioners, with a diverse range of qualities, needs, and opportunities and is made for a diversity of audiences. That is relatively centralised. That there are a smaller number of higher quality artists whose works can be channelled, promoted, sold or exposed to a relatively fixed/ predictable series of audiences.
Identity That projects, artists and programs are primarily presented with their identity (and not the brand of the enabling organisation) at the forefront. That this is important in building the capacity of their practice. The programming entity tends to subsume the identity of individual artists, events, programs and initiatives under its “brand” eg the venue, the company, or the festival, etc
Timeliness Accumulates smaller activities and grows them over a longer period of time. Starts with today, tomorrow the next day and builds a cumulative capacity of projects individually and collectively. Plans well ahead and at a larger scale. Does individual activities, sequentially or in parallel but usually for fixed period of time before moving on to a new one.
Audience Seeks to connect an individual project or artist with the appropriate audiences not the organisation’s fixed one. A diversity of audiences to match its portfolio of approaches. Connecting audiences and discovering new ones results from engaging with a breadth of projects. Usually stems from a fixed idea of who the market, the demographic or the audience is. The relationship to the fixed audience (eg. The subscriber, the return visitor) is actually the key value the programming entity holds. The brand positioning of the organisation determines the market and content.
Approach to “quality” More likely to involve a “portfolio of risks” where are a variety of things of different standards, experience, and potential are allowed to co-exist. A spectrum of “qualities” as opposed to fixed idea of quality. Primarily emphasises “quality control” where the bar to entry is high or matches the perceptions of its relatively fixed sense of who its audience, constituencies and stakeholders are.
Risk Focuses on upside risks and opportunities of doing something. Sees the dangers of not doing something are more important than the fear of doing the wrong thing. Is driven more of fear of the dangers of downside risk. Risk averse and afraid of doing the wrong thing.
Genre boundaries Less likely to be defined by boundaries of genres and artforms – more likely to be defined by areas where practical needs intersect (eg. Creative people who need empty space, or legal advice, or some other area of benefit). More likely to be defined by traditional boundaries of genres, artfroms, and areas of practice.
Infrastructure Assumes that a variety of infrastructures are required to achieve a range of ends. Looks for the possibilities within a range of formal and informal, physical and virtual infrastructures – is willing to vary those as required. Often tied to infrastructure – a theatre, a venue, a hall, a gallery, a program that needs to be filled, relationships with services providers (eg. caterers). The logic of filling the fixed infrastructure drives may creative and programming decisions.
Use of resources Seeks to do a lot within the limitations of any available set of resources. Seeks to be adaptable and flexible in response to resource constraints. Seeks to attain the resources required to do things “properly”, “professionally” or to a fixed standard. Reluctant to compromise on “quality” and places more emphasis on seeking appropriate resources than adapting to available ones.
Legitimacy and authority Has a low (but not zero) capacity to confer legitimacy on a project or artist through a relationship Has a high capacity to confer legitimacy or authority on an artist
Financial arrangements Usually not in an position to take a great financial risk of investment in an individual project so must compensate by providing practical support of other kinds Can, in some cases, invest considerable finances in individual shows or projects. Can lead to higher quality outcomes but more risk averse programming or greater consequences of failure.
Allocation of Resources Resources often tend to remain outside the enabler — they flow directly to, or are brokered directly on behalf of the artists and creative projects. They are less likely to pass through the enabler’s books and less likely to be cash. Can be harder to quantify but more efficient. Resources are more likely to pool within the programming organisation in the form of overheads, salaries, facilities and other costs. More likely to be quantifiable and show up on the books of the programming organisation but less likely to be efficiently delivered to the artists.
Uncertainty Embraces uncertainty as fertile ground for possibility. Treats it more as a series of risks to the status quo

Image: Studio Batch (a 3D printing, craft and design studio) which is part of Renew Australia‘s Docklands Spaces program. 

Tags:   · · · · · · · · · · 34 Comments

Enabling as Arts and cultural policy, the problems of prediction and a modest proposal

October 25th, 2013 by marcus


I’ve spent the last couple of days at an Australian Academy of Science hosted event in Canberra where 50-odd very impressive thinkers, scientists, business leaders, former politicians, even military leaders and came together to basically talk about scenarios for the future. It was great and I learnt a lot. There were also a few arts and culture people there and at one point as we grasped with scenarios of uncertainty, I found myself connecting some dots about the inherent contradictions in forward thinking and embracing unknowns.

Recently we found out that Arts NSW will not be funding Renew Newcastle this year. Their reasons were varied but they followed on from some very mixed messages: on one had there has been an active attempt to change the guidelines so as to make programs like ours ineligible, and on the other hand Arts NSW has an entire section (linked to from the front page of their web site) boasting about supporting and encouraging others to develop programs like ours. A couple of years ago they were sending me to every corner of the state to try and drum up interest in this kind of approach. Now they want nothing to do with it.

As it transpired our application did manage to get past the new eligibility guidelines. It was was considered but unsuccessful. The reasons given are a mix of fair, confusing, and — in one case which i want to explore here — a really interesting policy question. Officially the reasons were that they got more good applications than they could fund (undoubtedly true), another was apparently Renew lacks “evidence of community support and engagement” (I disagree with that) and that there is a “lack of private support for the program” (again, this is confusing as the program has won the highest award in the country for business/arts partnerships) but for the purpose of this exercise I will take those three reasons at face value and assume the committee genuinely believed all those things for whatever reason.

The final major reason, was, essentially, that they couldn’t work out how they evaluate a program like ours looking forward. Evidence of our program looking backward is pretty impressive. I will happily compare it to any organisation, festival, or institution that receives $50k per year or less in total government arts funding. But looking forward, how do you compare the curatorial approach of Renew — which is essentially responsive, immediate, collaborative and about leveraging the momentum and initiative of others — with that of, say, a gallery or a theatre company? They work with fixed infrastructure. They close off opportunities for spontaneity and responsiveness but in return have the luxury then to be able to run a chronological, predictable program of events in a room or to plan two, three, four shows in a years time. They actually can pick and choose what they will have on in 18 months time and know with some certainty that they can deliver it.

Renew Newcastle is not that. It essentially an enabling mechanism. It is an entity designed to facilitate, in a timely and efficient way the works and ideas of others. It is not a programming structure it is an enabling structure. What i have come to realise is that funding systems are incapable of grasping with enabling mechanisms. Indeed, i will go further and say interaction with funding bodies actively destroys enabling mechanisms when they engage with them. The culture clash forces the enabling mechanisms to morph into ones that centrally plan and direct their activities in order to get funding.

In Newcastle alone i have been involved in starting three organisations — all of which exist to this day — that were designed initially as enabling mechanisms for independent cultural producers. The first was the organisation that has become Octapod back in 1996, the second was the festival that has become This Is Not Art (and many of the festivals that make it up or once made it up) in 1998 and 1999 and the final was Renew Newcastle which began a decade later in 2008. Renew came, in part, from the lessons learnt from the first two.

Essentially, conceptually, all three platforms began from the same premise: that there are a large number of artists, creative producers and culture makers of various kinds who want to act on their ideas and inspirations but, for whatever reason, they are finding it too hard. So the aim of the entity is to create a legal, practical and logistic framework that allows people with ideas to plug into appropriate infrastructure. That was a space, a community and an auspicing entity in the case of the original ‘pod, a logistical structure, a program, venues, and an audience in the case of TINA’s relationship to the independent festivals that make it up, and, finally space that would otherwise go empty and support navigating the legal complexities of accessing and using it in the case of Renew.

All three succeeded as enabling entities. Indeed they all grew quickly and with a vibrancy and a dynamism that would simply not be possible in a traditional top-down structure. That’s why they worked. Eventually they were rewarded for it with funding. Then it becomes awkward because they are expected to morph into something else. Their enabling functions weren’t really part of the package but they managed to sustain them by scraping off resources allocated for something else or exploiting ambiguities in how you talk about and deliver what you do.

Today, its interesting to look back and see what happened to that enabling capacity: Renew very much still has it but as noted above in order to maintain that we have effectively rendered ourselves unsuitable for arts funding, TINA still has elements of it but it’s enabling capacity has dramatically diminished, Octapod has morphed into more of a conventionally led arts organisations and probably doesn’t see itself as an enabler any more than most small to medium organisations do.  But looking back, to the extent that they have lost that capacity, it has largely been from the pressure of funding expectations to stop enabling and start “directing” or “programming” from the top down because enabling uncertain and not yet existent initiatives doesn’t score well on funding applications.

Perhaps this is an entirely theoretical problem or simply the reflections of a disgruntled and (repeatedly) unsuccessful applicant but i think it’s actually a bit more than that.

It’s a core policy issue for a few overwhelming reasons. The first and most obvious problem is that we are increasingly living in a rapidly changing and disintermediated world. Many artists and cultural organisations are operating in an environment where flexibility, spontaneity and adaptability are more critical than ever but they can’t respond to it.

Most artists and cultural producers are — whether funding bodies like it or not — independent creators of the type who need enabling more than they need bureaucratically acceptable infrastructure. They can only rarely be programmed 18 months ahead.  There is clearly massive unmet demand out there for this kind of practical help — based on my experiences sitting on cultural committees Renew Newcastle probably gets as many applications for opportunities as many state funding bodies get for funding.

The second problem is basically a simple value for money one. Enabling rather than directing or demanding simply gets more bang for your buck. You can do a lot more with a lot less by identifying and supporting creative initiative than you can through old fashioned, top down, institution-centric models. But in order to do that, you need to admit, that the opportunities to be enabled will vary from day to day, week to week, month to month. You can only vaguely know what they will be in 18 months time which is the typical frame in which funding applications are asking you to say what you will do.

So, i’d like to round this off with what i think is a modest proposal that could potential solve this problem. To be honest given that the stakeholders for most funding bodies are ones that are already funded, it is quite likely that this is not a problem anyone wants to solve. But on the off chance that you might a subtle reconfiguration of the funding paradigm could be in order.

Essentially, the trick is to change the form of the question that asks “what is your program going to be?” to something more along the lines of “what is your approach going to be?” Tweak a criteria that says or implies “Evaluate the calibre of the artists in the program named in this application” to “evaluate the likelihood that this approach is going to lead to quality outcomes.” There is a subtle but important distinction between the kind of approaches those questions allow for — a subtle shift to the latter should do nothing to exclude a good quality fixed program but it would at least allow for the possibility that responsive, dynamic, contemporary enabling structures can form part of the spectrum what arts programs can actually fund… if they wanted to.

This follow up post tries to explore the distinctions between programming and enabling. 

Image: Four Points Gallery, Newcastle West (one of more than 30 current Renew Newcastle initiatives) Photo by Boony Loahajaroenyot

Tags:   · · · · 66 Comments

About that book…

September 9th, 2013 by marcus

Screen Shot 2013-09-09 at 7.12.44 PM

My grandfather was a tinkerer. He was incredibly good with his hands. When he passed away, it took a small army to clean out his sheds of a mostly completed speedboat he was building, a half built 1/6 scale model Tiger Moth plane (built from the actual plans of real one) he was building for a 6 year old grandson, countless contraptions and as many perfectly crafted but partially completed popular mechanics projects as he’d had weekends to start them. My grandfather was awfully good at starting projects but he wasn’t particularly good at finishing them.

Apart from the good with my hands bit, i think i get a lot of from grandfather. I’m incredibly good at starting things but often lousy at finishing them. I’ve started at least a few festivals, i’ve initiated the Renew stuff and made a habit and a career — to the extent that bailing on things just as they become financially viable is a career move — of being a serial starter of stuff. Over many years i’ve been involved in starting a lot of things and then gently sneaking away from it as it gets up the legs to stand on its own or i start distracting myself with some other thought bubble that attracts my attention. I’m impatient and always in a hurry. I can be incredibly motivated in the moment and but don’t care enough to hang around long enough for the big pay off.

I’ve also realised over the years is that my strengths in collaborative mediums. Events that involve bringing people together so that the team endures beyond my involvement in it. Making TV or even radio where my own inadequacies are well compensated for by the strengths of others. Projects where starting and finishing are two very different skill sets. I’ve realised I need other people to depend on me before i can push myself and nothing i ever do is on my own.

All of which is a round about way of bringing me back to this book thing…

For nearly as long as i can remember i’ve been threatening to write a book. Indeed, i have actually been writing a book for about as long as i can remember. Several of them. Over the last 15 or 20 years I’ve written two or three hundred thousand words of not-quite-a-book. It’s my default project — the thing i return to whenever the rest of the show stops for long enough to allow my brain to go up or down a gear. Weirdly it’s also one of the few things i do — and like to do — completely alone.

Professionally, I’m not really a writer but i write. It’s an occupational hazard that sits between ideas and execution, inspiration and collaboration but not really an end itself or something i want to be. I have something to say I think — as evidenced by the occasional useful post here — but the idea of the book as the project i never really have to finish or share is one of the reasons why i return to it.

I’ve had lots of reasons to start a book. Lots of ideas. But i’ve never had a reason to finish one. “The book” is my shed. It’s the place i go and start something on a lazy weekend or start putting together pieces that don’t quite fit together to see what shape they make. With tinkering there’s never any reason to finish. I want a project not a profession.  Although i’ve had plenty of actual offers from real publishers that’s never really been the point — I want, as i do with most things, to play with the form not produce to the formula.

Now i have crowd funded a book… Crowd funding the book has been one of the best moves i’ve made in a long time. It’s not a coincidence that several of the most enthusiastic supporters who know me best of the Creating Cities Pozible campaign did so with a comment along the lines of “i’m supporting this book to make Marcus write it”.  It’s given me a deadline — an insanely soon one that suits my impatience, More importantly it’s given me a sense of obligation and expectation beyond an abstract or artificial deadline. It’s given me an obligation not to a corporate entity but to people who care for what I do and people I care about. It’s given me a reason to finish something and, importantly, it’s given me the resources to bring together the collaborators i’ll need to be strong where i’m not and finish this thing.

So, at the end of next week i’m heading off for 8 days in an undisclosed location (The Grampians) to sift through the thousands of fragments of not-book and start finding and polishing the book bit. I’m going to go and start finishing something and, just to keep me on my toes, i’m bringing 921 collaborators with me. I hope they fit in the shed or at the very least help me clear this mess out.


Tags:   · · · · 3 Comments

Creating Cities Crowdfunding Book Update

July 8th, 2013 by marcus

The first day of crowd funding the Creating Cities book based on the  work we’ve been doing with Renew Newcastle and Renew Australia has been a great success. This will sound oddly back to front but my particular thanks goes to the person who gave one single dollar. In some ways that’s the point of the work we have been doing with Renew — it shows that the little things, the small actions of the many, can make a real and tangible difference — as the campaign evolves i’m going to have a think about how we can reward small contributions (particularly from those who want to acknowledge this work but don’t actually want or need a book) a little better.

Fortunately a few people can afford more than that and we’ve actually managed to reach about 75% of my pre-funding target with less than a day and (just as importantly for me) pre-sell over 130 actual books!  That seems like an amazing effort. Very big thanks for everyone who has contributed and particularly those that bought a book already.

A quick reminder that the campaign doesn’t stop when we hit the magical $10,000 though — that’s the bare minimum. That’s the “i cobble together my notes, do my best to polish them up and hack them into a book version.” It’s the level where i still rely on calling in a lot favours, mates rates, and my own inept efforts to see a good book get made. The ideas will be good but it won’t be the best version possible in the execution so the more the campaign grows the better the outcome will be.

Progress so far has been fantastic but if you haven’t contributed by either donating or pre-ordering a book please jump in and do so! Oh and please pass it on to your friends via facebook and twitter or loud hailer if that works for you.

Tags:   · · · · 11 Comments

A crisis is a terrible thing to waste (Help – i’m crowdfunding a book!)

July 7th, 2013 by marcus


First let’s cut the chase: I’m crowd-funding a book and everything below is an attempt to get you to give me money or stuff.  Just go here and do it if you don’t want the long explanation.

The longer version is I’ve spent the last two years working to build Renew Australia up into a successful  sustainable, national organisation and — for the most part we’ve been getting there. We are a not for profit social enterprise. Renew Australia doesn’t get government funding (although Renew Newcastle does and Renew Australia are most definitely working on it!) so we are entirely dependent on contracts from main-street committees, local governments, property owners, corporate clients, etc to pay the bills.

The good news is that in the long term, we’ve got plenty of interest (132 separate communities around Australia have contacted us asking for support!) and we do have plenty of good projects in the pipeline. In the short term though two of the three biggest projects we had on for the first part of this year fell over for reasons that were largely beyond our control. As a result, as a small organisation with no buffer, we’ve had to cut back staff and find savings to keep the organisation ticking over until some exciting new projects start to ramp up. The good news for Renew Australia (but not so much for me) is that there is one substantial expense can be cut back very easily and mostly solves the short term problem: paying me.

So, I’ve agreed to work for free for up to three months to get the projects we know are coming over the line. I have no doubt we will and i have no doubt that it will pay me back one way or another when we do.

Plan B: I’m crowd-funding a book! 

Fortunately a crisis is a terrible thing to waste so i’ve come up with a plan that will hopefully both help me keep myself afloat and get me to finally knock off something that has been on my to do list for a long time. I’m putting the ideas and experiences behind Renew into a book.  Since before Renew even existed i have been writing and thinking about cities, culture, creatvitiy and how they intersect and why they often fail to. I’ve been collecting notes on this for at least 4 years. I have a few high quality pieces and at many tens of thousands of words of notes — some of which has been published in various forms but much of which is waiting around for me to polish it up and do something useful with it.

So, to kill two birds with one stone, if enough people get behind it it will work both as a means to pay my bills for the next few months (maybe even pay me back some of the many tens of thousands of dollars of my own savings i’ve spend on this work) and it will create a chance to get some interesting ideas out there and start a debate or two. The aim is an Ebook primarily — made up of short essays and snippets. It will, at worse, include a mix of new and previously published work but if the crowd funding campaing really goes off i’ll aim for 100% new material. There will also be a limited print on demand version that you can preorder through pozible.

How you can help

1. Support the campaign. Buy the book! 

The first and most obvious thing you can do is get behind the Pozible campaign. Visit and make a donation. Share the link with your friends, spruke it up, talk it up, and pass it on. At this early stage the main reward will be a copy of the book, getting your name in it as a thank you and the warm and fuzzy feeling of supporting my work. If you have money and means and you’d like to see this happen just get online and donate.

2. Can you help provide a reward?

Crowd funding campaigns often stand or fall on the quality of the rewards. Sadly, I’m not an artist but fortunately I have spent half my life hanging around them and leeching off their talents and occasionally had them leech off mine. As the crowd funding campaign will run until the end of August i’m going to use the first 30 days to crowd source some interesting works and donations that i can offer as rewards in the later stages. Right now i’m simply offering stuff i can do myself but come the 1st of August I hope to switch gears and start introducing some unique, exciting, quirky and wonderful rewards.

This is where you, my artist friends, all come in – i know most of you aren’t exactly flushed with cash so there’s an alternate way I’d really like to ask some of you for a favour. If you are an artist who has benefited through Renew Newcastle or Renew Australia would you consider donating a small object? Are you someone whose career was helped by LOUD, Noise, Sound SummitNational Young Writers’ FestivalTHIS IS NOT ART or Next Wave, Free Play or any of the other events I founded or was involved in. If so, i’d love you to consider donating something. It doesn’t have to be expensive, just interesting and meaningful.

I’m specifically looking for:

  • Simple, original fit-in-an-envelope style artworks that can be offered as random prizes to, say, donors of $20 or more. Ideally this won’t cost you much to make or me much to post and while every donor will be credited on the pozibe site it will be luck of the draw as to who gets what. If you want to provide one or more such works then simply send them in or pass them on (See below for details)
  • Signed books, CDs, or whatever. If you are an author or a musician whose been involved in something i’ve done in the past donating a CD or signed book would be greatly appreciated (at least the participants can be confident that they will get one good book out of it!).
  • Larger, bespoke, one off more valuable things — a large artwork, a piece of jewellery, etc. If you are happy to donate such a thing (say something enough to bundle with a donation of $50 or more) then email me (marcus[AT] a line, let me know what it is, what it would usually sell for and we will promote it as a special one off reward. We will probably need to manage the complexity.
  • Experiences — are you in a band or something a bit famous? Could you play an acoustic set in someone’s lounge room? Can i auction your time or might you want to be part of one of our beers and ideas nights? Zany ideas most welcome but drop me an email first.

The only important criteria for donations is that we are only interested in original stuff! You must have made it and in an ideal world I’d love to know the story that connects it back to Renew, TINA, Next Wave or any of the other projects that i’ve been involved in if they influenced, enabled or just inspired you.

How to practically do it:

Drop stuff off

We will be collecting crowd funded object donations until 1st of August and offering the donated objects until the campaign closes a month later.

If you are in Newcastle and would like to make a donation, the Renew project Make Space will gladly receive them from now until the end of the campaign. They are located at 200 Hunter St Mall (opp The Emporium) and are open Wed – Sat 10-3pm. Your contributions will be collated at Renew HQ and sent on from there.

If you are in Melbourne then feel free to drop things in or off at the Renew Australia office at upstairs 242 Victoria St Brunswick. The office is only attended part time but we are part of a great co-working environment and we will do our best to creates a drop off system.

By mail: If you aren’t in any of those places then feel free to post contributions to Renew Australa’s PO Box: PO Box 415, Brunswick. Victoria 3056.

IMPORTANTLY: Please make sure your donation is clearly labelled with your name, contact details, brief description of the work (including title and it’s estimated value) and a little note about any project which you have been involved with if relevant (Renew Newcastle, Docklands Spaces, This Is Not Art, etc) that would be appreciated.

… Oh, and one last thing. I’m looking for a squilionaire philanthropist with a crazy passion for art, culture, cities, towns and empty spaces. Both Renew Newcastle and Renew Australia have DGR status to donations to both can be tax deductible (this crowd funding campaign is not). On the off chance you know one or are one do feel free to drop me a line.

Image credit: Brenda Gottsabend  via Flickr used under a Creative Commons license. 

Tags:   · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · 36 Comments

Cities: Are they YouTube or Hollywood?

May 22nd, 2013 by marcus

Illustration by Andrew Fairclough

This essay was commissioned for the May edition of Desktop Magazine. Illustration by Andrew Fairclough.

Over the last few years, I’ve been involved in launching more than a hundred creative projects from artisans, makers, designers, photographers, filmmakers, artists, musicians, publishers and creative entrepreneurs in empty buildings in Newcastle, through the scheme Renew Newcastle. Renew has worked with, inspired and been inspired by dozens of amazing creative urban and regional projects across Australia and around the world. After it all, I’ve come to a simple conclusion about where city leaders go wrong: the problem with too many Australian cities is that they think they’re Hollywood.

Not Hollywood the place (although too many Australian cities do take their lead from the car dependent clusterfuck that is Los Angeles), but the big top-down metaphorical film industry that shares its name. Out there online there is a maker-based, design-led, web- and app-enabled DIY, small-scale creative revolution that is taking place virtually everywhere. While it’s everywhere virtually, most Australian cities are failing to come to terms with it. If they want to, they need to start behaving a bit more like YouTube and a lot less like Hollywood.

The contrast between the industrial era system epitomised by Hollywood and the participatory, slightly anarchic, open and engaged dynamic of YouTube (or dozens of other platforms for sharing video or virtually anything else online) is as good an analogy as any to illustrate the problem of what happens when inspired but under-resourced creativity meets Australia places. While both Hollywood and YouTube are nominally in the business of making films and videos and connecting them to audiences, the scale at which they operate and the processes through which they work result in very different outcomes and dynamics.

Most cities and communities in Australia behave a lot like the film, television and broadcast industries do. They act big, think big and they work best on a big scale. At their best, they the produce a streamlined system where everything happens in the right order and everything works – from putting up new skyscrapers to rolling out whole suburbs. A lot of what they produce is only possible due to the sheer scale of the system. Some of it is absolutely brilliant, a lot of it is filler. Some of it is downright awful, but you can get away with that if you have tight enough control over the levers of power and distribution.

If you take Hollywood as a metaphorical city, the most obvious thing is how few really significant players there are. Sure, there are a smattering of indie filmmakers and international film markets, but in reality the place is pretty much an oligopoly. The studios and distributors control so much of what gets made. Too often in our cities, too small a number of developers, stakeholders, planners, and political and civic leaders control the distribution, design and content of physical space and the processes are designed around them. Whether producing blockbusters or busting large blocks, both industries work to a financial formula – X number of residents equals Y amount of square metres of shopping space equals this particular mix of chain stores.

Oligopolies are great if you’re in them, but they’re not big on innovation. By sheer inertia they shut out the small-scale. Too often their processes are archaic and difficult to navigate and the exclusive domain of the well-lawyered. Whether it’s getting a liquor licence, trying to do a low-cost conversion, set up a food truck or simply trying to work out what permissions you need, these challenges can be transparent and expensive or complex and counterintuitive. If you’ve got passion and imagination but limited access to capital, many more resources will be spent in negotiating the petty complexities and technicalities than on the creative process.

If, like me, you believe in innovation and experimentation, the big problem is that the cost of participation is high. The cost of failure is out of reach for most. A high cost of failure is a price on innovation. In Hollywood, most projects will fail before ever starting. Many of the potentially greatest films ever never got made, while many of the best ideas for projects in your own community fell over at the first council permit.

So what would be different about a YouTube city? Well, the first and most obvious thing is how very low the barriers to entry are. Pretty much anyone can play and, as a result, a lot of people do. YouTube had four billion hours’ worth of content when I last looked. It has a very high number of entrants, which creates its own problems – but, compared to Hollywood, there is a very low or even negligible cost of failure. As a result, a lot more things get started. The percentage of people who have thought about making a YouTube video and have actually gone ahead and done so is at least a million times greater than the percentage who have been able to act on their desire to make a Hollywood movie.

As a result, the mix is really very different. There are qualities on YouTube you will never see in a Hollywood movie. Production values can range from camera phones and ageing webcams to those as slick as in a Spielberg movie. They can still matter in this context, but you don’t always need them or need to put them first. A good idea – or engagingly bad one – can triumph over a polished production. As a result, a much more diverse set of tastes is catered for.

Indeed, YouTube has several key qualities that a good city or place has that you’ll never find in Hollywood. It’s scalable – it can work for you whether you are a movie studio or a bedroom guitarist. It’s designed so that you can plug your ideas into it. It’s also an infrastructure and a delivery mechanism into which many diverse kinds of programs and projects can be plugged – something that a good city should be.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the way that YouTube – or Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Blogger, WordPress or the web itself – works is the way in which it handles risk. Hollywood demands miles of lawyers and agreements, and complexities are negotiated before you are allowed to do anything. The alternative, buried in those terms of service agreements that none of us ever read, is the idea that you take responsibility for staying within the rules. It offers an invitation, rather than demanding a permit, which is something cities too can, and should, do a lot more of.

Our cities are – for the most part – heavily pre-moderated. They are designed primarily to prevent the wrong action and to not encourage the right ones or discover the unexpected ones. Even where things are actually permitted, rarely do they actually encourage and issue the invitation to do so. Of course, there are very good reasons why cities have evolved careful protections: after all, no one wants to risk the collapse of a shoddily constructed skyscraper.

But the reality is that most people aren’t trying to build skyscrapers. There were mostly good reasons (at the time) why Hollywood evolved its complex web of the legal and financial culture on which the place operates. There are equally good reasons why this doesn’t apply to YouTube films and there should be equally good reasons why some – not all – of the rules governing restaurants don’t need to apply to food trucks and rules designed for developers shouldn’t apply to pop-up shops. Space should be cheaper and simpler to use, rather than sitting idle.

Of course, cities need sensible rules and protections, but rarely do they use the simplest and most obvious one: that what you have done can be undone and can disappear. There are many things in the real world too that could be easily undone, but rarely are we invited to try them. We need to create places that aren’t simply about the implementation of master plans, but where people can learn by doing: failing, learning, iterating and trying again.

For a lot of cities, there is a single compelling reason why they should be at least a little bit more like YouTube. They simply don’t have the luxury of being Hollywood. They don’t have Hollywood style budgets, or settings or scale. As we’ve learned through the hundreds of people who have taken the opportunities offered by Renew, what they do have is a swarm of motivated creatives who are cutting their own paths online, but being cut down when it comes to transitioning out of it. Cities need to lower the barriers and give these people every opportunity possible to start, to scale, to survive and, ultimately, thrive if for no other reason than there is no excuse not to.

It is, of course, an imperfect metaphor. A place probably doesn’t need to make it a million times easier for people to act on their ideas. But as the culture of citizen initiative, creativity and entrepreneurialism moves offline and into the real world, we’ve learned with Renew that if you can lower the barrier enough so that two or five or 10 times the number of people can play, very interesting things start to happen.

Tags:   · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · 28 Comments