The Brag

Creative Sydney Day 2: The Elephant in the Room

In Arts, Creative Sydney on May 29, 2009 at 8:03 am

The Space Race
Thursday May 28, 6pm

With: moderator Bec Conroy (Performance Space, Bill+George), Justin Levy (Dead Spaces, Living Artists), Penelope Benton (Red Rattler Collective), James Winter (Queen St, Fraser Studios), Mark Gerber (Oxford Art Factory), Pete Manwering (Medium Rare), Jeff Stein (Gravity Feed), Kiersten Fishburn (City Of Sydney), Lawrence Wallen (UTS), Mary Nguyen (Vibewire Enterprise Hub), Dave Gravina (Raise The Bar)

MCA - all lit up!

All technical glitches resolved for the second night of the festival – and a nicely plump audience turn-out, to hear about Sydney’s serious space problems.

The strength of this panel was not only the wide spread of panellists from different angles, but also Bec Conroy’s ability to keep the ideas in an orderly flow, that always felt fairly intuitive. She segued from audience questions to introducing the panellists planted in the audience, making sure that all perspectives were aired. It must have worked, because even the nervous ventured their opinions and questions: two girls rose their hand to ask the City of Sydney council rep why their event was slapped with a $100K fine on its opening night – and where they fit in Sydney’s creative scene, when they can’t afford to be commercial, but they don’t know how to run a successful non-profit.

This was a key issue of the night: you can have all the regulations you like, and can talk about supporting Sydney’s creatives until the cows come home BUT if you don’t connect your information with the people who need it, by helping them to understand legislation, procedures and progams in place to assist them…?
Penelope Benton of Red Rattler closed her spiel by decrying the lack of a support network to assist artists through the red tape and regulations and building codes.

To her credit, Kiersten Fishburn (City Of Sydney) seemed open to communication – genuinely. Kath Melbourne of Marrickville Council brought an open attitude, and her arts cred as a former producer at the Melbourne Fringe. She expressed concern that, at the opening of the session, she had felt a “bash the authorities” vibe in the discussion; she left feeling more positive about the communication that had occurred. Arts NSW reps appeared to be absent.


Penelope Benton (Red Rattler), James Winter (Fraser Studios Project) and Bec Conroy (moderator).

Penelope Benton (Red Rattler), James Winter (Fraser Studios Project) and Bec Conroy (moderator).

James Winter (Queen St Studio, Fraser Studios Project) talked about how his independent theatre company ran funding-free for three years, raising their own cash. After Bec Conroy from Performance Space recommended his non-profit for the Frasers initiative (by property developers Frasers), James and his crew had a space to work out of, and a heightened sense of “legitimacy” (in the eyes of government allies and funders) that association with a commercial venture can bring. James’ best quote? “Government funding is a liability: it’s not money in the bank, it’s an expectation to deliver.” This is great advice for a start-up non profit, and often applies to funding and sponsorship generally.

One of the best things to come out of the session was the sharing of personal stories of disastrous personal debt and perseverance in the face of Goliath council regulations.

Penelope Benton (Red Rattler) spoke about the process of setting up Sydney’s first artist-owned, licensed venue. Of the five founding members of Red Rattler, some brought personal cash to the venture – and some, like Benton, brought credit cards, and the goodwill and deep pockets of friends and family. The collective is non-proft, and the profits from theatre are reinvested into the community through accessible events and eco-friendly equipment etc.

Benton spoke of almost impossible task of getting a PoPE (place of public entertainment) permit required for Sydney venues – requirements stretched into the tens of thousands of dollars worth of building modifications. To their immense shagrin, Red Rattler got their permit, after a long struggle, just before the oppressive legislation was repealed, late last year. Red Rattler’s fire safety license cost a whopping $100K, all borrowed and still being repaid.

Pete Manwering from Medium Rare spoke in the same vein, about exorbitant costs out of pocket, for their commercial lease. Medium Rare has been running since 2003. Manwering flagged Community Land Trusts and newly accessible (read: cheaper) liquor licenses for artist-owned venues, as beacons on the horizon. He was not the only one to acknowledge the work of the Raise the Bar lobbying group.

Are artists doing enough to reach out to kids stuck living at home with their parents, coz they can’t afford city rents?  Should Events NSW be funding festivals in Wollongong instead of Sydney, which has an overflowing arts scene, by comparison?

The Head of the UTS Design School, Lawrence Wallen, spoke of 5% of his 900 students having any experience of theatre, Opera House or the MCA. His students are living at home because they can’t afford anything else, and although they have the desire to be involved, they lack the means. He used the analogy of supple-demand laws for a green grocer, to the current – artificial –  stranglehold on Sydney’s space supply by developers. The cost of space is strangling the creative life of Sydney.

Jeff Stein, Penelope Benton.

Jeff Stein, Penelope Benton.

Jeff Stein (Gravity Feed) had a different villain: the government. Courtesy of Jeff and the people at Gloom (an anti-Vivid group), a plywood elephant appeared at the back of the room, and tiny elephant noises trumpeted his speech. Do we need five screens in this room right now, when we can’t even pay participating artists for their work at Creative Sydney? – asked Jeff. Should we allow government funding bodies and consultants to push us into using certain spaces, in certain ways, to present our art? No, said Jeff. Just do what you want. Where you want. When you want. His most interesting point, however, was towards the appropriate payment of artists at future Creative Sydney events.

Street artist Jumbo ( says "no thanks" to legitimacy.

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