marcus westbury

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The culture of hard times

January 30th, 2009 by marcus

Image ripped from patrick pitman without asking.

From my small air conditioned bubble in a sweltering Melbourne the abstract economic gloom of stock shocks and far away corporate collapses is getting less and less abstract with each passing day. Anecdotal reports of jobs drying up, businesses closing, incomes evaporating and people fast becoming un or underemployed are mounting around me.

It is probably a good time to remind myself just how much of the culture that i find interesting is the product not of the big budget top end of town but of the unique possibilities of the down side of the economic cycle. It seems obvious to me that in cultural policy – as with almost everything else – changing times call for changing approaches.

Yet the impending new realities have not gained much traction in our cultural debates. Over the last few months, I’ve been travelling up and down the east coast and dealing with arts agencies and organisations at various levels. I’ve been a little surprised at how little recognition there is that cultural policy – like most forms of government policy – can and must adapt and respond to economic conditions.

Each phase in the economic cycle creates a different set of cultural possibilites and problems.

Booms – like the one that we have experienced for a decade or more – have their obvious upsides. They are great for sponsorship and advertising, they create thriving commercial markets for visual arts, they improve ticket sales, they boost government revenues and potentially spending. At their best they allow creators to create and to more readily access people with money to buy and support their creations.

Yet all the money that sloshes around in boom times comes with its own problems. Valuable things become far more expensive – volunteer and paid labour is much more competitive to come by, space is at a premium, the demand commercially for creative talent can crowd out cultural initiative and low budget DIY creative activity becomes increasingly rare. Frankly, when it is too easy to make money or too much money is simply chasing too few opportunities in the “high status” world of creative cachet the reality is that a lot of diabolical shit from websites, to film and TV to any number of sponsored indulgences gets made and sold.

On the flip side, busts and recessions have their own set of perils and possibilities. The downsides are dire and self evident – dwindling arts budgets pale beside the damaged wrought in lives destroyed and certanties upended. Yet recessions can be great times for low budget cultural initiatives. Space – the almost impossible to find holy grail of artists in the boom times – becomes relatively cheap and available. Higher levels of unemployment means that talent has more time to experiment and innovate and less temptation (or opportunity) to chase big bucks elsewhere. Large scale cultural production – with it’s expensive overheads and high costs – becomes relatively more difficult. Small scale production – which works best when there is a very high ratio of initiative and labour to expenses and overheads – benefits immensely from the rapidly falling costs.

It’s no secret that i am a fan of the low budget at the small scale. It is reflected in almost everything that i have ever been involved with and is undoubtedly a bias from my formative experiences. It is a product of coming of age in Newcastle in times of 40 percent youth unemployment and finding some sense of purpose not in an imported static professional culture that came from above me but from a dynamic, evolving, often ramshacke and at times hard culture that was around me. Different times and different economic conditions create different cultures and different people. I would never have ended up stumbling upon this path if employment opportunities in those years had been more plentiful.

Looking at a post boom Melbourne it is easy to forget how much of what i love about this city is the product of the last great recession of the early 90s. Its laneway bars, its smart graffiti, its living CBD, its distinctive inner suburbs of eclectic shops and retail strips, its creative community are not the product of arts agencies or central planning but of the fertile ground, cheap space, and hard working initiative of a decade ago. The city is a rich ecology not created through central planning but grown in economic detritus and forged in the harsh and searing furnace of hard times.

Assuming that dire predictions of recession and stagnation prove true, then we are heading towards a similar point in the cycle again. Perhaps it’s time we started to ask ourselves what will this legacy will be?

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9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 feargus Jan 30, 2009 at 11:15 am

    It is taking eberybody a long time to catch up with the harder stage of the econimic cycle that has kicked in over the last 12 months. What is coming may be completely terrifying on a scale that we have never seen before, or perhaps it will just be a reasonalbly normal economic downturn/recession, but whatever the case we are in for some tougher times where we are going to need to be smarter, more creative, and more flexible in our thinking and approaches.

    We are also all going to have to live our lives a bit leaner. But as u say Marcus, the one thing that we all probably get more of in these times is Time. I’m already down to 4 days per week, and i am loving it – 2 days on, 1 off, 2 on, 2 off – I never have to work more than 2 days in a row, and that is brilliant.

    One part of my life that will benefit is my involvement in the Berry Drama Group – a little theatre troupe in a little country town that puts on kick-arse shows for the local community.

    I have believed for a long time that in the tougher times humanity’s better angels come to the fore. I hope this will be the case in the years ahead.

  • 2 suse Jan 30, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    interesting post. i think that one of the most interesting aspects of human society is that we make many of our greatest advancements when times are tough – when we are left to adapt or die. it is often from desperation that great innovation is borne, which is why we make so many technological and medical advances during times of war.

    in arts, and in other areas, many of the most interesting innovations come from the grassroots and the niche, when people feverishly work with little or no external funding, but also little need to compromise in order to meet the criteria of said funding. and i think that leads to more room for experimentation, and for making mistakes – which is incredibly important. from mistakes we can sometimes gain the most, and it is the mistakes that i don’t think that creative planning, or government policy, can ever make room for.

    one of the great benefits of recession is that we as a culture turn more towards the communal, and focus less on the self. from an artistic point of view, this has the potential to lead to greater collaboration, and to people measuring success not just by the amount of money a project makes, but how it can impact upon the society in a positive way. all of these are positive things.

  • 3 b Feb 1, 2009 at 8:57 pm

    so glad you are keeping this blog. It’s lovely to be able to read intelligent right-on shit from across the world from someone i love at 5am. Makes me not worry so much. x

  • 4 Simon Feb 2, 2009 at 6:12 pm

    I wonder whether the same sort of cultural interestingness will come out of the present conditions; my experience of the 90’s in Melbourne was that our fun was greatly aided by readily obtainable welfare and cheap and abundant real-estate. At the moment I am in Berlin where similar conditions prevail; the dole is generous by European standards and there are lots of empty buildings. The advantage of this is lots of cultural activity, the disadvantage is an expectation that people will work for free, in the more commercial creative industries creating a small group that get paid (often not very much) while many others work as interns, and other creative areas no-one gets money.
    I worry that without the space to make things happen and with less money to make them happen combined with the added pressure of high rents and little government welfare, less will actually happen.

  • 5 Nicholas Roberts Feb 3, 2009 at 7:08 pm

    Its going to be a lot worse than the fondly remembered 90s recession. No doubt you’ll be better off personally now you are a landlord.

    What will be the product of the last bubble ? the neo-liberal era ? if the 20s boom, 30s depression are any guide; fascism and world war 3

    speaking of models of inner-city renewal; I think we will see more of the Freetown Christiannia approach.
    The spirit of Christiania quickly developed into one of the hippie movement, the squatter movement, collectivism and anarchism, in contrast to the site’s previous military use.

    As to the future of Newcastle. As the grafitti that replaced “This Is Not Art” now reads “Newcastle exports climate chaos”… many scientists are talking of extreme and sudden climate change and global disruption, including sea level rise.

    Even a few metres, well within the likely low range acknowledged by many will wipe out the town.

    My suggestion is focus on community projects that seek to address the growing underclass, the lack of affordable accomodation, the lack of jobs.

    Green collar jobs, activism to stop the coal exports, community cooperatives and collectives are needed.

    Culture and creativity are not the monopoly of young people who decide to be “cultural creatives” and put on interesting arts shows.

    One of the differences I noticed while at the European Social Forum was that there where plenty of people from Berlin there, I assume therefore the cultural creatives are also involved in politics and activism.

    One of the repercussions of Chomsky’s lifelong work is that human language and most behaviour are dependent on a huge, impulsive capacity for creativity, an “instinct for freedom” to use a term by Bakunin. This concept places Chomsky at the “frontier of psychology, philosophy and linguistics and square in the 18th-Century tradition of the Enlightenment — Rousseau, the Cartesians and other ferocious libertarians.” Believing that the best way to maximise our genetically endowed freedom is through anarchism, Chomsky defines his worldview as “libertarian socialism.” Such a brand of anarchism has both a historical force and stands for a deeply positive ideology that aims towards the absolute welfare of the public, though in the hands of the media and its controllers, this school of thought takes a rather destructive and a negative complexion.

    I wonder how many “anarchist” projects will emerge in Newcastle

  • 6 marcus Feb 3, 2009 at 7:13 pm

    Now that i am a landlord?

    My burgeoning property portfolio must have passed me by!

  • 7 Nicholas Roberts Feb 4, 2009 at 12:02 pm

    are you personally an owner of property ? a landlord ?
    technically and legally its impossible to tell whether Renew Newcastle is a landlord, a real-estate agent or some hybrid… common sense would suggest its a landlord.. and as founder its pretty fair comment that you are now a landlord..
    you now have a position of privilidge and power within the community and considering the hopes placed on the project, basically along with the GPT mega-complex the entire future of down town Newy, its a pretty mild post.
    Could you publish the various internal documents and correspondances you have with your various partners, property owners etc. Or at least provide templates of examples ?
    Will you publish the process by which you decide projects ?
    Will you connect the people making submissions to others ?
    why not make the entire process public?
    How many vacant properties are there now ?
    What is your position on the Rudd governments support for the commercial property industry ?
    do you support the bail-out to the commercial property sector ?
    the bail-out for the banks ?
    Do you think its a good use of tax-payers money ?
    why shouldnt all subsidies and tax breaks to commercial property be removed and the market allowed to work ? wouldnt that actually force commercial property owners to rent or sell ? at a realistic price ? shouldnt the tax breaks for negative gearing be removed from commercial property ?
    etc etc
    there are harder questions and more extreme critiques

  • 8 marcus Feb 4, 2009 at 12:59 pm

    @Nick. This is getting kind of paranoid and ridiculous. But lest anyone think that we have something to hide i’ll clear up the facts:

    * It isn’t impossible to tell how Renew Newcastle works, you could just ask. Renew Newcastle is not a landlord and i do not personally make a cent out of it. In fact i’ve sunk a small fortune of my own money into it which i could have potentially spent on a deposit for a house so it is probably a major reason why i *don’t* own property.

    * “Could you publish the various internal documents and correspondances you have with your various partners, property owners etc.” Which documents do you want to see? As a courtesy i wouldn’t publish private correspondence without the permission of the other peoople concerneed. Our legal licensing agreements with the property holders are all shared with every project as they are a party to them – nothing secret there. I’m not sure whether we will “publish” them but i am keen to share them with other similar organisations so they can do similar projects to Renew Newcastle in other places.

    * “Will you publish the process by which you decide projects ?” It”s no secret and i think it’s outlined to some extent on the Renew Newcastle web site. Maybe it’s not clear. We find property owners, we ask them what sort of things they might want or would be happy to have happening in their buildings. We do an open call for submissions. Where a submission matches what a property owner says they are interested in we pass it along. If they like it we go ahead and draw up the agreements where the property owner makes a property available and we cover the relevant insuraces etc. The “we” in this case is a subset of the Renew Newcastle board – mostly the arty and creative end.

    * “Will you connect the people making submissions to others ?” yes, we have been doing this a lot since we started. We’ve done a lot of connecting people to others who seem to be on the same wavelength. it’s not a huge priority beyond where it’s obvious and easy as we are all volunteers and there’s a LOT to do on this project.

    * “How many vacant properties are there now ?” In Newcastle? I counted a 138 on the two main streets but it’s probably more. In Renew Newcastle? We have so far given projects keys to 7 properties and are reasonably confident that we may get 10 to 20 more in the next few months depdending on how long we can maintain this pace.

    * “What is your position on the Rudd governments support for the commercial property industry?” Largely ignorance so i am reluctant to talk out my arse. However, bailing out the commercial property industry wouldn’t be the end i would attack this problem from (see: Renew Newcastle, see: My post about board room bars)

    * “do you support the bail-out to the commercial property sector ?
    the bail-out for the banks ? Do you think its a good use of tax-payers money ?” Can i just pass on these because my answers would be long, qualified and complicated and have nothing at all to do with Renew Newcastle?

    * “why shouldnt all subsidies and tax breaks to commercial property be removed and the market allowed to work ? wouldnt that actually force commercial property owners to rent or sell ? at a realistic price ? shouldnt the tax breaks for negative gearing be removed from commercial property ?” Broadly, i think yes. We could talk about specific mechanisms and their economic effects but the reason we set up Renew Newcastle in the first palce was to counter the fact that all of the incentives run in the opposite direction. It is more profitable for people to *not* rent buildings in the Newcastle CBD than the rent them – it is a distortion created by the tax system and to a lesser extent some of the OH+S and liability costs that people take on when they rent out property. Frankly, if the tax system had incentives towards activity rather than disincentives then Renew Newcaslte would probably not be necessary.

    * “there are harder questions and more extreme critiques”. Bring them on. I am not afraid of answering all the tough questions in the world. But i do think it’s important that they’re based on reality and not misinformation.


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