marcus westbury

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Culture and Recessions

June 22nd, 2009 by marcus


A FRIEND of mine visited Melbourne for the first time in more than a decade last week. The last time he was here was in the early ’90s, in the middle of the last great recession to hit this city. The Melbourne he remembered was the one that was broke and broken. He’d heard about the stylish, fashionable, diverse and creative city that Melbourne had become but I’m not sure he believed it until he saw it.

I know why. The Melbourne I first visited in the early ’90s was a bleak city. Large parts of it were emptying and verging on abandoned. Many of the now famous laneways were no-go zones, apart from a few hardy souls moving in and setting up homes, galleries, workspaces and hosting the occasional illegal, late-night warehouse party.

The city was reeling from the collapse in manufacturing. Flinders Lane was a failed textile district, not a funky retail strip. A thousand people each week were moving to exciting, trendy places to the north such as Sydney, Brisbane and the Gold Coast.

What a difference a decade or two can make. As we teeter on the brink of another recession, suddenly people are very interested in the transformation of Melbourne.

My friend is a journalist. We combined our catch-up with a “research tour” of Melbourne’s laneway bars. NSW has finally changed its liquor licensing laws. They’ve grasped that not everyone wants to drink in a beer barn full of plasma screens and poker machines. They’ve realised that there’s a whole other world of potential creative alternatives to grog and gambling. For better or worse, after decades of ballooning real estate prices, they too might soon have cheap spaces.

The further we progressed in our long research tour, the louder and more animated I became about Melbourne’s charm and the more convinced I became that so much of what I love about Melbourne is in many ways the upside of that last downturn. So much of Melbourne’s character from the laneway bars, the city galleries, the music scenes, the small fashion shops, the distinctive inner-city retail strips, the collection of small and strange and wonderful places, has grown out of the DIY infrastructure built in that last collapse.

We may soon be experiencing some of the same dire opportunities again. Unemployment, vacancy rates and foreclosures are on the rise. A major downturn will surely wreak a great toll in lives upended and personal tragedies. But while they slam some doors shut, recessions can also prove the resilience of artists and creative communities.

We can already see the downside. Large companies and major events are struggling to maintain their pre-recession sponsorship levels and meet their budget targets. Visual artists are dealing with fewer buyers than in the heady days of the art market bubble. Creative fields such as fashion, design and architecture are hit hard as people pay down rather than run up their debts. It’s likely to get a lot worse before it gets better.

Yet recessions create interesting opportunities for artists and people willing to take cultural initiatives. That’s because many creative enterprises begin life as a passion and not a business plan. While recessions might make expensive things more difficult, they make a lot of other things cheaper and easier. If you’re worried about how much money you’ll lose and not how much money you’ll make, falling costs, cheaper space and creative people with time on their hands make a whole range of new things possible.

Artists and creative types are also resourceful. They tend to see possibilities in places where others fear to tread. In the last recession, they colonised stinky laneways and empty warehouses. Perhaps this time they’ll see possibilities in the detritus of our shrinking finance sector.

Smart policymakers will recognise the role creative communities can play at times like this. As I incoherently attempted to explain far into our late-night study tour, the lesson to take away from Melbourne’s transformation is about the process and not the result. Sydney and other cities would be wise to get past the desire to clone Melbourne’s laneways, and to concentrate instead on unleashing the same processes.

Perhaps we’ll all be moving north again as Sydney emerges as home to a thriving scene of boardroom bars, office cubicle galleries and stockbroker studios.

Originally published in The Age.

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3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Sophie Munns Jun 23, 2009 at 1:22 am

    Interesting Marcus!

    I took a risk in Melbourne in ’93 setting up a shopfront studio for my rather fledgling art/ design practice in Collingwood after returning a few years before from London.
    It was definitely passion led, although I had, a year previously, done a business plan for a very small initiative that got me going. Despite all the odds and lack of admin expertise I had a fabulous ammount of community interaction happening that kept the doors open over 4 years. In hindsight I should not have been so doubting of the project …but it felt tough to hang in there being compared to other more mainstream businesses and at times I lost focus, allowing the odd negative message to define the project instead of recognising that to even exist for over 4 years as a going concern and to have cultivated a lively alternative art venue was a success in itself. 12 years later and dont I know that now!

    I say BRAVO to any creative artisan/ artist/ designer who has the courage and energy to start up a project up and run with it…for it is very much in the doing that you really learn… you discover the absolutely wonderful community spirit of support for such ventures and what you will learn will take you far. It was easily the most interesting and rewarding of times, despite being the most challenging.

    Frankly…there is so much bleak conformity and of the ‘shopping mall/ franchised high street’ mentality out there that begs for this whole other layer of creative (business) activity to burst forth to counter it. There’s no time like the present…and maybe the point is to notice what is seriously lacking in the mainstream and really home in on filling the gaps with loads of creative thinking, rethinking and reinventing. I think one has to really engage with one’s community to discover what’s missing…what people could be hungry for…through experimentation and trial and error. Its a bit of a to-ing and fro-ing relationship… the authenticity of one’s own creative project and yet relationship with and discovery of others and what speaks to them. this is where much learning takes place I suspect…. finding a unique audience….building on that. Connection is required… dare I say conviviality and openness. Going beyond the known…in any number of ways.

    Its a long-considered suspicion of mine that saving all one’s creative enterprise for the gallery wall can at times, for some, be a rather narrow pathway and an oversight that may hinder one’s exposure to valuable experiences that can only add to the long term, slow unfolding of a vocation in the arts.

    Some may well find their feet early and spectacularly…and we can only wish anyone in this position well! But, for many, it is a much slower apprenticeship and the road is long and winding. This is not to say that what comes from this journey has to be necessarily inferior or otherwise…rather… the more circuitous unfolding may ultimately become part of the richness of that particular artist’s story and work.

    Well done you for championing the endless possibilities that exist for creative people to be creative… the ground is shifting and its good to hear reports from all over…and to recognise that this is an open moment…all things are possible!

  • 2 Melissa Hall Jun 23, 2009 at 3:41 pm

    With these trying times, it is best to start going after your dreams rather than sit around and mope about what happened to your stable life. That way, there is a better chance of success :-)

  • 3 Justin Jan 30, 2013 at 12:06 am

    I know this article is old but I laughed so much at the close… No one will ever being moving north again. Not at the 1990’s rate. Brisbanes underwater, the Gold Coast is tacky & Sydney is a sham. Melbourne will continue its ascension into eternal greatness.