marcus westbury

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Artists and gentrification: property v possibility?

June 23rd, 2010 by marcus

ARE rising property prices a threat to cultural diversity? How do we keep artist and creative communities living and working in our cities as rising property prices threaten to slowly push them out?

Later this week, various venues around Fitzroy will host an “anti-gentrification festival” hosted by the “radical craft group” Craft Cartel. Their aim, as they describe it, is to celebrate their presence in the city before they are driven out by what they describe as “crazy living costs”. They’ve even got hold of the stinky, sticky carpet from the much-loved, mourned, dead and soon-to-be resurrected Tote and are making exhibitions, fashion parades and souvenirs from it to raise money for local charities.

It’s easy to criticise this kind of approach. It seems a little naive. It’s certainly neither the first nor the last time that artists in Melbourne and other major Australian cities have complained of being forced out of their stomping grounds by yuppies, developers, nimby regulations, and rising property prices.

It’s certainly difficult to imagine just how this keep-Fitzroy-feisty fest will turn back such an overwhelming tide.

On one level, these kinds of reactions to the changing dynamic over our inner cities are little more than youthful nostalgia. Zoom out a decade or two and the places where artists and creative communities live and meet are always evolving not just because of demographic and economic forces, but from the changing tastes and expectations of artists and audiences themselves.

As much as I’d personally love to see the significant and seminal places of my own formative years preserved, declaring my own once-sacred sites probably won’t help. At its worst, it just invites us to swap a living city for a theme park and dynamic venues for atrophied museums.

But for all the easy pot-shots there is a genuine question here. It’s not merely about how we save any particular place, but how we preserve the ability to make creative places for the next generation. Against the backdrop of much larger forces — the rising speculative value of property prices, the growing (and sensible) policy pressures to move more people into the inner-city suburbs and the encroachment of ever-greater regulation of space — how do we ensure that creative communities still get a look-in?

These are real, live issues and not just for radical crafters. Many artists are constantly fleeing further and further out. Their very presence seems to invite rising property prices. Property investment seminars tell investors to follow the creatives. They seek out cheap space, make it dynamic and interesting and in doing so, they attract the interest of punters, speculators and developers, who, in turn, begin to price them out to the next suburb.

Look over the past few decades as the dynamics have moved from Carlton to Fitzroy to Collingwood, Brunswick, Northcote and beyond.

Against these forces, the way we plan for and support the arts are often inadequate. The way that governments have traditionally made space for the artists — through commissioning buildings and creating cultural infrastructure — has only ever been a fraction of a much greater sum of cultural activity. Then there are all the studios, rehearsal spaces, formal and informal arts infrastructure that artists create and recreate. It’s getting more difficult to find, make and shape these spaces by artists, community groups or others who don’t have much money and don’t expect to earn very much. So much of what we now take for granted in our cultural and community lives was planted and nurtured in cheap space.

The real question is not how do we save a particular place or “nostalgise” a particular suburb at a particular time but how do we ensure that the dynamic continues? How do we keep making and creating new places and spaces for artists to live and work?

There’s no single solution. Inevitably, the near future involves artists moving further afield in search of the underutilised spaces. It must also involve governments setting rules and regulations and offering incentives that encourage creative seeds to be planted and spaces to be used creatively.

Of course, if history, the rest of the world and gravity are anything to go by, this long boom of property prices won’t last forever either. In a dynamic city at some point, inevitably, the booms bust and the cycles begin again.

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4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 john walker Jun 23, 2010 at 10:56 am

    The shortage of cheaper housing/work spaces close to CBDs has some economic costs for the upper half of retail /restaurant/hotel /accommodation kinds of businesses. Staffing is largely restricted to either transient backpackers(whose numbers are dropping in line with the crisis affecting the EU and US ) or people who have to travel extremely long distances from the more affordable outer suburbs. There might be enough commonality of interest between the supply of affordable workspaces and supply of part-time and casual staff for the hospitality industry to make an alliance, in principle, possible. It would also help maintain the inner city an interesting tourist destination. Tourists tend to like things like artisan stalls and don’t want to look at empty office foyers and quarantined designer high rise.

  • 2 Dasher Jun 23, 2010 at 11:44 am

    It’s becoming a bit of a catch-22. I live in the inner city, surrounded by galleries, museums, and other creative people but I don’t have the time/money to produce work. I can’t afford a studio space as they are in such demand and my artistic practice simply isn’t established enough to make heaps of cash, I have a mortgage to pay (Sydney prices- ouch) so I have very little spare cash and no time (all my time is spent earning $ to pay the mortgage). Conversely if I was to move to the country I would have more time & money (smaller mortgage= less paid ‘other’ work) and more space (heaps of sheds and other great buildings to be used as studio spaces) BUT very little in the way of galleries, museums, and other creative people with whom to collaborate and get inspiration. It’s not that country areas are devoid of culture, but that it’s a greater struggle to meet fellow creatives and there is a slower turnover of exhibitions etc.

  • 3 kate Jun 24, 2010 at 12:42 pm

    We moved out of inner Melbourne to central Victoria about 18 months ago because paying rent in North Melbourne became unsustainable for us. Before we moved I had started to feel disenfranchised, we were surrounded by galleries and bars and cafes and I couldn’t afford to participate. Now we have more disposable income and more space for our own creative work, we’re further from the galleries and festival venues but when those things happen I have the cash to go. When we got here we found there were lots of other people who’d moved for the same reasons, so while we don’t have any interesting local galleries, there are a lot of people to work with on changing that.

    I’m inclined to think that Australia’s population has been too centralised for too long, and that artists and other creative people moving out of the cities will help in shifting that imbalance a little.

  • 4 marcus Jul 27, 2010 at 11:41 am