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Renew Newcastle - Occupying a great place

Fiona Mackrell

AUSTRALIAN BUSINESS ARTS FOUNDATION: How often do you hear a good news story about emerging artists and property developers? The relationship between Renew Newcastle and The GPT Group is such a story and last week they were recognised with the Partnership of the Year Award and the Toyota Community Award at the AbaF National Awards.
Renew Newcastle - Occupying a great place
How often do you hear a good news story about emerging artists and property developers? The relationship between Renew Newcastle and The GPT Group is such a story and last week they were recognised with the Partnership of the Year Award and the Toyota Community Award at the Australia Business Arts Foundation National Awards. ‘Yes, that’s right the overall National Partnership Award,’ says Renew Newcastle Founder and Creative Director, Marcus Westbury, caught mid-way through yet another of his hectic weeks. ‘I was quite, quite surprised.’ And proud. For GPT the AbaF award shows that a partnership thrives not on how much money either party is putting in but how well they work together and what is actually delivered on the ground. ‘It also shows that there is a desire for community responsibility within corporate business and that’s something GPT is focussed on itself,’ says GPT’s Newcastle Development Manager, David Sleet ‘It’s a recognition that we’re on the right track.’ Renew Newcastle grew out of a simple but tricky idea – to find a way to give artists use of spaces that were lying empty in such a way that they could simultaneously act as a catalyst for urban renewal. Just two year’s ago the once vibrant Hunter Street Mall was a pretty shabby place, vandalised, empty boarded-up shopfronts, dying. It was depressing and leaving idle what was once valuable property. The turn around since however, thanks to the opportunities given to entrepreneurial artists by Renew Newcastle and GPT Group has been described as nothing short of a ‘miraculous’. ‘If you go to that same strip now, it’s buzzing with people. It’s alive. It’s engaged. It’s got lots of little creative projects taking place in and around it,’ says Westbury. ‘But it’s also got new conventional retailers who have moved back in because suddenly there are people there again…And largely it’s been to due to the passion … the energy and the creativity we’ve brought to that part of town.’ At first it was hard to get it off the ground. ‘I took this project around to everyone, from the Australia Council down to the local council…and I didn’t have very much luck,’ says Westbury. It just didn’t tick the boxes that most funding bodies have to work under. Around the same time, GPT was looking to do the same thing. GPT is the third largest listed property group in Australia with a market capitalisation of around $6 billion in shopping centres, commercial office buildings and industrial and business park properties. They had purchased around 30 properties in the area with the intension of developing a larger project; however there was to be a considerable period while other properties were assembled and development plans finalised that would mean the buildings were lying empty. ‘We really felt we needed to do something other than close them down or put hoardings up, says GPT’s David Sleet. ‘I think it didn’t take either of us long to work out we could work together well, it was just a case of executing that in a way that was successful.’ Although GPT knew through their research and also through GPT’s ownership of Charlestown Square that there was an active creative community in Newcastle they didn’t have the connections or the resources to bring that all together in a coordinated fashion. ‘I think that’s something Marcus brought to the table, says Sleet. What GPT brought, aside from the property was a mind set open to the possibilities and a desire to understand a new side of retailing and entrepreneurship that could come through their development. Through their partnership over 60 artist-initiated projects have been housed in various GPT owned properties. Among them have been artist-run galleries, design houses, film-makers, animation production houses, zine publishers, record labels and photography studios. Having so many projects in close proximity creates its own critical mass too, stimulating and inspiriting the creative community as well as making it a hub of interest for the public. *** The Renew Newcastle model provides a ‘permanent structure for temporary things’. Operating as a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee it works as an intermediary between property owners and artists, creative businesses and community groups that want to access otherwise empty space. The model has two key characteristics explains Westbury. First is the use of a licence agreement instead of a lease. ‘We don’t actually take possession of the building, we just ask for a right to access it.' The second is that all projects are on rolling 30 day agreements. ‘We’re not trying to permanently occupy it or make any on-going claim to it. And that means that if the owner gets a better offer at any point they can take it,’ he says. It also helps that Renew Newcastle has worked out all the tax, insurance and liability minutiae and have collected a reputable board of management all of which assuages landlord concerns. While landlords are not gaining rent by having the artists in their buildings, what they do gain is an immediate drop off in vandalism and an increase in foot-traffic as the artists work to make the space interesting to passers by. The artists effectively market the building for the landlords improving the chances of securing commercial leaseholders. It’s also an interesting experiment for GPT. ‘GPT is all about creating environments that enrich people’s lives and sustaining those environments,’ says Sleet. ‘And from a customer perspective it does provide… surprise, an element of discovery...There’s always something changing in those spaces that gives people the idea of ‘Oh, I’ll just go down and see what’s happening there’. It actually brings people in on impulse. It’s something GPT has recognised through its ownership and redevelopment of Melbourne Central over many years. ‘It can’t be about the same names in the same spots all the time, we’re always looking for ways to introduce a point of difference for retailers and a point of difference to our properties as well.’ *** It might seem with all this success that Renew Newcastle is going to do themselves out of job, bringing paying retailers and tenants back to fill all the spaces that artists have tried so hard to revitalise. Well, that’s always been part of the purpose, says Westbury. And the idea of temporariness is a feature. It’s about providing space for people to try things out, experiment and see if they work. Some projects have refined their business models and moved on to become viable rent-paying tenants elsewhere. Others have experimented, created and then decided not to continue, and that’s a natural outcome of the process. At first artists were being placed in shops on the main street. As they’ve filled with paying tenants, the artists have moved upstairs and round the back, in to the side streets. Even so Renew Newcastle has only accessed around 40 spaces although there are around 150 empty buildings in the two main streets of town owned by a variety of landlords. It’s going to be a long time before Newcastle runs out of empty space. Yet, finding more empty space has become something of an obsession for Westbury who has mentored similar projects in Adelaide, Townsville and Cairns. Moves are afoot to created a national organization, Renew Australia and requests for information and interest from towns, outlining suburbs and inner city areas around Australia continue to flood in. Growing a scheme like Renew Newcastle into a national one however, needs to be approached from both ends, says Westbury. You’ve got to talk with local artists, councils and groups on the ground but you’ve also (ideally) got to get national property owners to make these schemes the norm. Whether there will be other opportunities for GPT and Renew Australia is something they will talk about. Generally GPT properties are well occupied but areas may arise that could benefit from similar schemes. For now though, it seems fair to say that Newcastle itself, has been the real winner. For more information about: Renew Newcastle visit The GPT Group visit Australian Business Arts Foundation visit You can also follow Renew Australia on Twitter

About the author

Fiona Mackrell is a Melbourne based freelancer. You can follow her at @McFifi or check out