marcus westbury

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Creative revival in Europe

October 23rd, 2009 by marcus

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There is a palpable sense of decline, decay and even a little despair in Europe. I’ve spent the past few weeks passing through major centres such as Dublin, London and Cologne and made a few side trips. The recession is hitting, creative communities are suffering and yet they’re demonstrating initiative and resilience at a time when other parts of the community and economy are in meltdown.

From Australia, the great global crisis can seem a little unreal.

In Europe and the US, it’s hard to ignore. In Europe, Australia’s relative prosperity is hard to believe. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve reluctantly credited both the Rudd and Howard governments, or simply reverted to using the phrase “the Lucky Country”, without Donald Horne’s original irony, to explain Australia’s comparatively fortunate economic circumstances. I know plenty of people doing it tough in Australia, but in Europe it feels as though everyone is.

Our host in Dublin is commuting to Manchester for the only job available. Our friends in Cologne are scraping by: she is working on a major theatre project with a 100,000 euros hole in the budget, he works in film and video and has gone from more work than he could handle to scrapping for whatever jobs become available. In London, a literary agent explained that most major publishing houses “had virtually stopped” commissioning books. My book designer friend has gone from a stable job back to freelancing — and there’s comparatively little of that.

Away from the bigger cities, some of the effects are a little more obvious. Part of the reason I’ve been in Europe is to look at empty shops — or, more specifically, what artists are doing with them. The collapse of supermarket chains such as Woolworths (the British version), the closure of banks and the shuttering of small shops have left giant holes on England’s high streets. There are apparently 135,000 empty shops across Britain — the highest number ever recorded. There is a real fear that structural shifts towards online shopping and the consolidation of megastores may mean that this recession threatens to do for many of Britain’s high streets what the last couple of recessions did for manufacturing.

Inevitably, in many places, artists, community groups and those with creative initiative are trying to make the most of these spaces. A range of movements, and more organised groups such as the Empty Shops Network, are promoting, networking or managing these spaces as temporary homes for low-budget DIY artist initiatives. The British Government has formally announced a £3 million ($A5.5 million) scheme to promote, seed-fund and support the use of empty spaces as temporary art spaces. It has tried to relax planning laws, create incentives for property owners, create guidelines and financially support a range of projects. In these early stages, the project is suffering many of the transitional problems associated with grassroots movements becoming government schemes — red tape, shifting political imperatives and a whole-of-government deficit crisis means it is unclear if and when all the money announced will actually materialise.

Also, inevitably, it has provoked some vigorous discussion about the role of artists in regeneration, and the wisdom of government intervening in an organic phenomenon.

On the ground though, artists, architects and creative types persist regardless. Websites have sprung up, co-ordinating and sharing knowledge. There are empty shop projects across Britain, community festivals are being organised out of Worthing’s empty spaces, and much of the town centre is being brokered for artists in Coventry. Seeing the results is a reminder that creativity, resilience and initiative — perhaps what I value most in artists — are the skills that are critical in difficult times.

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