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Arts and the city, revitalising Newcastle (Sydney Morning Herald)

2 June 2009 | Posted in: Media

By Harvey Grennan.

WHEN Marcus Westbury was a boy growing up in Newcastle, his grandmother would take him shopping in Hunter Street, then the thriving retail spine of the city.

Today Novocastrians do their shopping at mega-shopping malls sprinkled through the suburbs. There are more than 100 empty shops in the CBD and even the grand Victorian sandstone post office, once the proud centrepiece of NSW’s second city, is empty, vandalised and boarded up.

Westbury – a writer, festival director and presenter of the ABC TV series Not Quite Art – now lives in Melbourne but retains a passion for his home town. After doing a program on another fading industrial city, Glasgow, which found new life through the arts, he set about fulfilling a similar vision for the renewal of Newcastle’s soul.

He is “borrowing” vacant buildings from their owners and “lending” them temporarily to artists, craftspeople, designers, cultural projects and community groups rent-free.

The scheme is called Renew Newcastle and is run by a board of six artists, business people and professionals who serve on a pro-bono basis. Last year they set up a non-profit company to negotiate with owners of derelict buildings or those awaiting redevelopment for the free use of their premises.

The company takes responsibility for the building and calls for proposals from artists, designers, craftspeople and community groups who need a space but can’t afford to pay rent.

By bringing more people and activity back to Hunter Street the scheme is helping to revive the heart of the city and also helps the building owners by giving them a real chance of eventually achieving a commercial return.

Since the beginning of this year 28 galleries, studios and other cultural activities and start-up businesses have found a home in 18 previously deserted buildings.

“It is starting to look pretty impressive compared to the drab and declining CBD we started with,” Westbury said .

One building will soon be returned to its owner, who has found a paying tenant. “We will be happy to hand it back,” Westbury said.

All this has been achieved with mostly volunteer labour. A few weeks ago some funding was obtained from the Newcastle City Centre Committee and Arts NSW for building maintenance and a part-time manager, a position now filled by arts administrator Marni Jackson.

Westbury said local government can help to make schemes like Renew Newcastle happen, particularly by developing a less stringent development application process for temporary uses.

This has been done in Britain, he said. “[Government ministers there] are offering grants, changing planning laws, and have put together what appears to be a great package of incentives to get this kind of activity happening to save dying main streets and regional centres.”

Read the original story here.