marcus westbury

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How social media saved Renew Newcastle

October 23rd, 2010 by marcus

The Room Project, a Renew Newcastle installation

I was recently asked to give a talk to the Victorian Association of Performing Arts Centres annual conference talking about how social media is changing the arts and i was specifically asked to use Renew Newcastle as an example. What follows is my notes from that talk – as with all times when i post speech notes it’s probably a little scrappy and only particually thought through in part. Sorry about that.

Thanks to VAPAC for having me. I appreciate the opportunity. I also appreciate that I’ve been encouraged by Jenny from VAPAC be a little provocative which is an opportunity that I always relish and hopefully not something that either of us will regret by the end.

As the directors and managers of fixed performing arts centres, you’re probably not really my target audience for a lot of the issues that I talk about but I hope we can learn something from each other. As per the session title I’m going to talk a little bit about Renew Newcastle – particular it’s use of social media – but it in order to get there I thought it might be best to start with something more recent.

Last week – last Friday to be precise – I started a new project, Renew Australia. Essentially, it’s a scheme aiming to take the model that we have developed in Newcastle and try and seed and roll it out nationally.

I will come back to that model later in the talk but essentially in Newcastle we’ve invented a system – a legal mechanism, a philosophy, some template agreements, some negotiating tactics and a bunch of other tools that allow us to take otherwise empty buildings and make them available to artists and community groups on an ongoing but temporary basis.

We’ve taken over about 40 once empty buildings in Newcastle in the last 18 months or so and used them to launch about 60 arts projects, creative enterprises and community groups of different kinds. It’s worked well in Newcastle and will hopefully work well in other places – hence the interest in taking national.

Last week, in response to the potential for a little more funding and a flood of incoming requests I formally announced that I was planning to try and set up a “Renew Australia” project that will attempt to work with local groups to seed and replicate the project nationally. At this point Renew Australia has no budget to speak of.

I have been promised but not yet received a small seeding grant of $10,000 from a group called Social Traders who are running a great social enterprise incubation initiative called The Crunch. That money is essentially for a feasibility study and business plan that will allow us in turn to bid for funding early next year. But formally, legally Renew Australia does not yet exist. We have also been shortlisted for funding by The Australian Centre for Social Innovation and I have every intention of aggressively shaking the tin around next year.

To date though Renew Australia hasn’t actually received a cent.

I launched Renew Australia last week not with a press release, or a media announcement but with a blog post on my personal web site and on the Renew Newcastle site and a link from me on twitter and Facebook. I asked my friends and supporters of likeminded organisations to register their support by becoming “Fans” of Renew Australia on Facebook.

Now, it’s less than five days later as of this morning the non-existent, as yet unfunded Renew Australia has about two and a half thousand fans on Facebook. To put that in context – after only 5 days – Renew Australia has more Facebook fans than all but a handful of the nation’s largest arts organisations.

It took less than 20 hours to overtake Opera Australia. It took a few days to overtake the Melbourne and Sydney Symphony Orchestras and the main stage theatre companies are very much in our sights.

Is there anyone here from The Victorian Arts Centre? You’ll be pleased to know that you’re still ahead of us. Last I looked Renew Australia was about 5 fans behind The Arts Centre. However, at the rate our fans are growing I’d be reasonably confident that we’ll pull ahead if not by the end of this presentation, certainly by the time I get back to the centre of Australia’s newest national cultural institution – located in the salubrious confines of my front bedroom/ baby room/ storage area in Brunswick – some time this evening. [Renew Australia had actually overtaken the arts centre by the end of the talk].

I am using this as an example for two reasons.

The first and most obvious reason is that although I don’t like boast, I’m just boasting. I think it’s always important to preface any gratuitous boasting with “I don’t like to boast” even when it’s obviously disingenuous. In this case the opportunity presented to do so is irresistible.

The second reason is far more substantial reason actually relates to why I’m here. The Renew Australia example demonstrates far more effectively than any long elaborate argument just to what extent Social media is proving a great leveller between established infrastructures and institutions and what I will for lack of a better term and because it sounds sexy call insurgent initiatives and ideas.

The point here is not simply that we’ve had a good run on Facebook thus far but just how quickly the dynamics are changing around where cultural audiences are coming from and how those audiences and communities create and recreate themselves.

Renew Australia’s five day unfunded, mostly spontaneous marketing campaign has basically fitted into the spare time between my various overlapping day jobs. I’ve juggled it with my sudden and slightly overwhelming responsibility as a first time dad to a six week old. It shows how effectively those with a good network (or access to one) and a good idea can quickly access and activate large-scale national and even international networks of support.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, i would actually argue that these kinds of projects and initiatives have access to audiences and supporters in ways that even the most well funded of the nation’s formal arts infrastructure will struggle to compete with. I can’t know for sure but I realistically predict that by the time it actually legally exists some time next year Renew Australia will be – in Facebook but certainly not funding terms – could well be one of the largest arts and cultural initiatives in the country.

How Facebook saved Renew Newcastle

Renew Australia is not an entirely new scheme. It is based on a model I have been working on in Newcastle since 2008. But Renew Newcastle too is very much a social media project and has its origins in the social media landscape.

Renew Newcastle is a project set up in response to the decay that was evident in Newcastle CBD. To cut a long story short there are about 150 empty buildings, I believed there were a lot of artists and creative types who would and could use them, so we set up a not for profit company to effectively borrow them while they are empty and make them available to artists creative types who use them to incubate their own initiatives.

Before today how many of you had ever heard of the Renew Newcastle project?

If you answered yes to that question [and the vast majority of the audience did] it may surprise you to learn that Renew Newcastle has never taken out an ad. I have only once in the entire history of the project sent out a media release – which was way, way, way back in early 2009 when we launched our first projects into empty shops. Pretty much the only way you could know about is directly and indirectly is via social media.

If you follow my blog, you may have read about it there, but you wouldn’t have read more than oblique reference to it in my column in The Age for example. I write for a Melbourne based newspapers and they generally like me to write about goings on in Melbourne not my Newcastle based pet projects so while I’ve made the odd reference to projects I’ve been doing with empty buildings my editor has so far not let me indulge my urge to write about renew.

Indeed as I put my email address and twitter contacts on the end of my articles I do get the odd angry email from someone who points out that while I’m very opinionated about what others are doing I should “put up or shut up and try doing something myself for a change.”

As we generally don’t do traditional media releases and haven’t taken out any ads, if you’ve heard about Renew Newcastle – even via TV or on the radio, you have almost certainly heard about it from someone who heard about it via social media. From people who joined our Facebook group or heard about it from people who did. From someone who follows me on twitter or from people who wrote about it after hearing about it from someone who follows me on twitter. In some cases its come via someone I’ve emailed directly but much of our media coverage has come as the extension of the social media conversation into the traditional media space than because we hired a publicist.

Social media is – and this example demonstrates – a giant conversation. Or another way of looking at it is as hyper accelerated word of mouth.

Out of sheer necessity Renew Newcastle began life as a social media project. If it hadn’t it wouldn’t have happened. Social media made this project. Back in mid 2008 when they idea was slightly more than a well developed thought bubble I started a Facebook group to float the idea.

I did this for a couple of reasons. One is that I simply have an annoying habit of starting Facebook groups for my pet ideas – many of which i hasten to add turn out to be total duds. Another more practical reason was that while Newcastle is my hometown I now live in Melbourne and found it difficult to gauge from afar whether and to what extent anyone in Newcastle might be interested in such a scheme.

At a time when I start the Facebook group I was not yet fully committed to the project. If anything it was almost at the point where i was retreating from it.

Every funding body from the Australia Council down to the local council was telling me that they weren’t interested because the project didn’t fit the boxes and/or that they were already doing it and/or that i should come back later as now was really bad time and/or that would gladly support it provided I made a few changes and turned it into something completely different.

Indeed it’s amazing just how unsuccessful everything other than social media was at incubating this project.

Initially the idea was that the project would be a TV doco and/or series following my entertaining but quite likely futile attempts to get artists into the empty buildings of Newcastle. The ABC had decided that they weren’t particularly interested in that either and my producer decided to simply disappear off the face of the planet at exactly the crucial moment when we shopping it around to a couple of film funding sources. My pet idea for extending my short lived career as a TV presenter on Not Quite Art in turn turned out to be a project so entirely out of control that it actually killed it. Juggling Renew and everything else effectively killed of any hopes of having any time to make any more tellie any time soon.

As you could imagine, having been rejected by absolutely everyone, the prospect of spending an awful lot of my own money on the project – making what has turned out to be about 40 or more return trips to Newcastle – mostly at my own expense, and generally throwing myself into something that seemed to be all downside and of no interest to anyone who might actually have the power to help was becoming a less and less appealing prospect with every passing day.

Then something incredible happened. Facebook saved the project.

Having started the group at one of the more optimistic moments and invited my friends who either lived in Newcastle or I thought might have a bent for this kind of DIY project and approach, a snowball started to form. Within a day or so there were a hundred people, then there were 300 then 800 then 1000 then 1500 then 2000. Every day i woke up it seemed someone new, in most cases someone I’d never met was joining the group. Many were emailing me directly to tell me that they believed in the project and they wanted me to do it.

While the powers that be could see little interest or value in it, the people of Newcastle certainly could. How can you say no to that?

Like word of mouth – or gossip – social media like Facebook in this case can become a self-perpetuating brushfire. When several of your friends join a Facebook group, Facebook points it out to you and suggests that you might want to do so too. It was that effect more than anything that for me that quickly established that the group had genuine deep roots in and interest from the Newcastle community.

At first I feared it was simply all my Melbourne arty friends and their friends who were supporting the project yet one of the other neat things that Facebook does is tell you which groups have the highest correlation of members with yours. The number one group associated with Renew Newcastle wasn’t some inner city Melbourne wanky arty thing, it wasn’t the one i started for my own Tv show, it wasn’t even one I was personally was a member of – it was a group called Bugger Off, It’s Called “Gardo” a group set up by a bunch of pissed of Novocastrians who weren’t impressed with the new rebranding of “Gardo” (or the shopping centre formerly known as Garden City) as Westfield Kotara.

Renew Newcastle now has abut 3500 Facebook group members but that correlation is as good sign as any that it has deep local roots.

The unfair advantage of having nothing

Over this last weekend I was privately gloating. After my recent Festival of Dangerous Ideas talk (which you can read here or watch here) I couldn’t resist noting the milestones of which major national arts organisations Renew Australia was knocking off as it was rapidly accumulating facebook fans. At one point I emailed colleague to point out just who we’d knocked off and how quickly we’d done so.

Her response was that I was being a little unfair. She pointed out that it was a little unfair to compare Renew Australia to the likes of the MSO, the SSO, Opera Australia or any of the others we were shooting past in Facebook fans, after all, Renew Australia she said has such huge advantages.

She’s right…  But let’s just take a second to parse that comment.

Renew Australia — a project that does not yet exist, has not yet received a cent in funding, has no employees, has no marketing department, no buildings, no fixed infrastructure has huge advantages over the nation’s largest arts companies when it come to using social media to market and promote itself.

Welcome to the crazy world of 21st century cultural dynamics. It’s true but if you’re a traditionalist it’s almost impossibly weird to contemplate.

So what exactly are our huge advantages?

The first is simply that it is a bloody good idea. Renew Australia is in my not-so-humble-opinion simply a kick arse concept of the first order. But looking more deeply in many respects much easier to sell than a theatre show or a subscription season or the some nebulous idea that you might become a fan of a company or a building. Which is not to say that they are bad things but the idea of becoming a fan of an idea is perhaps an easier thing to sell than the complex dynamics of a company with history, politics. Even ardent fans approach things that they love with some detachment any issue from the recent changes to the seats, not liking what they’ve done with the place or the general sense that it was better back in the day.

The second huge advantage is that Renew Australia is participatory and plural. It is a project that has moved well beyond the elite artist/ passive audience dynamic that has dominated much of the last few centuries. It asks people not merely register their support but also to register their involvement. It is based on the notion of providing opportunities and not of cultivating audiences. In becoming “Fans” people aren’t simply registering their support but they also register their desire to actually engage in doing or creating something.

On Facebook Renew Australia, like Renew Newcastle before it is engaged in the notion of providing opportunities and not of cultivating audiences. But then again, so are a lot of funding programs and agencies that have failed to attract anything like the same level of support online. Last time I looked Renew Newcastle for example has more Facebook fans than the Australia Council.

The other obvious advantage is me. This time i’m not really boasting – just pointing out that I’m a real person not a marketing department. It helps that I’m a geek. That I spend a fair chunk of my life online, that I have a lot of followers on twitter and quite a few facebook friends. I have spent a decade or more working with artists in a variety of contexts, places, festivals and events and I remain in touch with them via social media. Unlike a building or a company all my projects are networks and they endure as networks long after the show is over and the lights are turned off.

I – and any of you in the age of social media – unlike all the buildings, marketing departments, advertising campaigns and whatever else people traditionally associate with marketing am actually a totally mobile piece of infrastructure. Wherever I go, that social network goes with me. Plenty of them think I’m talking shit a lot of the time but at the very least there’s a high correlation between something I find interesting enough to do and something that people who connect with me on social media find interesting too.

Also, I, unlike a lot of you, am not bogged down by process. Renew Australia has the extraordinary advantage of not actually existing yet.  I didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission. I speak as myself and in my own voice. I didn’t have to call a committee meeting or ask my supervisor to promote what I’m up to. I can and do stay stupid things, I tweet when I’m drunk, I trip up and cross the line occasionally, do things that might actually embarrass my employer (if I had one) but I can also act opportunistically, outside of work ours, as say slightly tongue in cheek things at the expense of myself and the project if it helps gets attention and shows that as a real person i am actually thinking about its limitations.

The final point is demographics. I assume is the one that people would have assumed to be the main one but it’s not really that big a deal. It may surprise you to learn that the average age of a Facebook user is actually 38 and that 61% of Facebook users are actually older than that. The median age of the Australian population is actually only 36.9. Yes to some extent we have a demographic advantage over the major performing arts companies and centres that i was comparing us to online but that’s not because we are disproportionately young. Renew and Facebook skew middle while most major performing arts companies skew very old.

Our demographic advantage is not age but understanding. We know we are working with a generation or generations that have their own culture already. We connect with, channel and challenge that and they in turn carry on our ideas for us. This isn’t about marketing it’s about building communities around projects and ideas – if you can’t do that then don’t bother trying.

For all the dollars that have been ploughed into marketing, audience development, youth initiatives and education programs in much of the traditional arts sector there is only so much you can do. There’s only so much you can do to market to younger online audiences not because they are vacuous blank slates that are impossibly thick to get through to but because, well, they’re busy doing other the stuff. A lot of what they are doing is actually richer, more diverse and sophisticated than what people are trying to sell them. The key question is whether you can or want to be part of that not how to use some fancy new technology to sell them stuff.

What this means for Performing Arts Centres

What does this have to do with running a performing arts centre — particularly a regional one? Well, everything and nothing. Fortunately the nothing informs the everything side of the equation.

Really we aren’t talking about marketing here. One of my great and recurring criticisms of the whole arts funding and policy system is that it starts from the wrong assumptions most of the time. In this case, the assumption is that the culture or the “programming” is fixed and that what we are talking about with social media and the Internet is that the marketing needs to change.

The idea that we are still talking about “marketing” where the preeminent issue is that we somehow need to funky up the same old stuff that we’ve always been doing and put it onto the internet and the kids will come is frankly both confusing and infuriating to me. It’s also just a little insulting to the community out there.

Nothing could be more wrong. The point of social media is that the culture itself is changing. It’s a participatory culture out there. They aren’t consuming they are making it – from crafts to photography. They make it every day, in every word they write, every thought or image that they share. They create ad hoc reviews and short-lived publications. They make their own films. They select their own playlists, and make their own radio stations. They make crafts and bags, and jewellery and comics and they share skills with, swap them and sell them to folks around the word.

Engaging via social media is not about selling those people something its about joining that dynamic. It’s about supporting and nurturing that culture. Of course, Renew Newcastle and now Renew Australia are designed from the ground up with that in mind. Renew Newcastle is an experiment fast becoming a case study in applying that ethos to both a new arts framework but also a new regional development approach. If you’re running an arts centre it may not be what your designers and forebears intended but it ha to be something that more formal arts centres and infrastructures can think about and work towards.

You need to think of yourself less as a venue and more as a part of an evolving creative dynamic – as a hub of participation, of creation, conversation and not merely as a place of consumption.

How can you become that place in a community? In your community? In my experience that has been very difficult – as director of Festvials like Next Wave in Melbourne and This Is Not Art in Newcastle I found that the costs and complexities of using much of the city’s formal performing arts infrastructures significantly outweighed the advantages. This is particularly the case where the project is part of a transferable network – be it a festival or a community that has its own online communities and marketing capacities. In that context venues with grand resources but large cost burdens, administrative requirements and that are expensive to access and difficult to use become a liability not an asset.

Can you make your space behave like that audience and those communities need it to?

The whole point of Renew Newcastle was about making space behave like artists do. Much of the model we have embraced with Renew Newcastle has been one of building nothing and spending very little but redesigning the rules and processes that govern space so it can behave cheaply and so it can respond quickly to the needs of a fluid dynamic creative community that is constantly experimenting and reinventing itself. In practice we create a physical space where evolving virtual communities converge and can put down roots.

Conceptually, it’s a different space and a different role to that of the performing arts centre and yet I think it’s something they will need to grow into. Certainly it’s one i’m seeing the museum and gallery sector embrace – as they have begun to host everything from zine fairs to designers markets to nightclub nights but whether and how a performing arts centre can become that is a difficult challenge.

The question is not whether you can market via social media but whether you too can be responsive to a community of initiative?

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4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Suzi Poland Oct 23, 2010 at 3:38 pm

    Wow, great article. Creating groups on facebook for every creative idea certainly works if only to create an audience with whom to be accountable rather than ideas remaining in the ramblings of the mind. Facebook is fantastic, not only for it’s complexity of dimensional opportunities from photos to discussions to video and now group chat, but most importantly for creating individuals, for its effectiveness and efficiency in both time and cost.

    Renew Australia has captured the will of people. Such immediate and enormous endorsement gives great energy and creative freedom and artistic licence to get out there and do what creatives do best …. create. Oooh how exicting, I can’t wait to watch what evolves. Well done!:)

  • [...] cheap enough that we were able to start it on a credit card and the plan was deceptively simple. We made extensive use of Facebook and social media because that’s all we could afford. We created a not for profit company that effectively borrows as many of those empty buildings from [...]

  • 3 john walker Oct 24, 2010 at 12:21 pm

    Marcus, having following your blog posts for some time I’d sort of put it to you that what is really needed is not the OzCo model of trying to pick winners etc, rather its chief role should be removing obstacles to spontaneous self-organising group activities. Australians are famous for being good at organising themselves and bad at following orders. The country is littered with crumbling cultural white elephants that consume vast amounts of moolah and often seem to do little more than make things NOT happen.

  • 4 sarahj Oct 27, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    awesome articulation of… well, a lot of things. Just so you know, I might be using it to try to make some bureaucrats see the light about a certain project they’re busy cocking up.