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Marcus Westbury is an urban renewalist
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Marcus Westbury is an urban renewalist
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"I just thought, bugger it, I'll just do it. No one else is going to."
1 January 2010

Marcus Westbury is an urban renewalist

Interview by Kate Bezar
Photography by Narinda Reeders

Marcus Westbury is probably most well-known as the host of ABC TV’s ‘Not Quite Art’ which has developed something of a cult following in Australia. He also has a remarkable ability to make things happen… generally without any ‘establishment’ funding.

While currently based in Melbourne, Marcus has projects in Sydney, Queensland and, as always, in his old home town of Newcastle. His passion for the medium-sized, ex-industrial town on the New South Wales coast (and belief in its potential) seems to know no bounds. His most recent, and pretty brilliant, initiative is Renew Newcastle which helps artists, entrepreneurs and craftspeople to make use of the many abandoned and empty shopfronts in ‘Newie’s city centre.

This story originally ran in issue #22 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

KATE BEZAR: I was cleaning out my inbox and saw a very old email from you titled ‘I need work’. I take it that’s no longer relevant?

MARCUS WESTBURY: Oh God, that’s old. I found work, [laughs] I found plenty, but I do often find myself at a loose end because I always work in a very project-based way. I tend to think to the end of the next thing rather than beyond that. Yeah, so for the last two years I’d been making a TV show [Not Quite Art] and I’d just put everything else aside to fit that in. Then I sort of woke up one day and realised I was broke and bored and needed to do something else. I’ll probably do another series, but I’ll do it slower over longer so that I can fit other things in around it. During the first couple of series I was so excited about making a TV show that I didn’t really care what else I had to sacrifice to do it.

Was it your idea?

The concept of the show was my idea, but the idea of me doing the show came from Courtney Gibson at the ABC. I’d done stuff on some other shows and I’d worked on ABC radio and whatever over the years. The reason the show was called Not Quite Art is that Courtney took me out, we had a drink and a chat and she said, “We’re restructuring Arts and we thought you’d be a good person to make a short art series.” Literally, the very first thing I said was, “I’m not sure I’m the right person because what I’m interested in is not quite art.”

She went, “Great! Not quite art. We love it, we’ll make that.” I had a title, a show, and I had a year to figure out what was in it.

So what made you say, “What I’m interested in is not quite art”?

I’m interested in this very… in one way it’s very weird terrain, but in other ways it’s really obvious. My interest in culture probably started with hanging out with indie rock bands and that do-it-yourself ethos. I’m interested in where culture intersects with the world. At one end of the spectrum is the classic, high-arts approach, and at the other end there’s the commercial approach. Neither of those things particularly interest me, but I am interested in all the stuff in between. I’m not interested in the traditional hierarchy of forms and the very rigid structures that dominate in the arts. Nor am I content with the idea, or even the assumption, that culture’s left to the market, that it’s just a commercial thing. That space in between those two extremes has been pretty much where everything I’ve ever done is. To me, that space is the interesting and obvious one, but it’s often not very well fleshed out.

Why do you think that is?

Because the other two ends are so powerful. The commercial world is rapacious. I don’t know if that’s the right word, but it tends to consume and gobble up everything. At the other end, the arts world is very much, or mostly, preoccupied with a series of…‘self-referential’ is too strong a word, but a series of self-reinforcing art form communities, structures and whatever else. Both things are so powerful that all that space in between always gets talked of as though it relates to one or the other of those two, and I don’t really think that’s true.

Even though the title of the series almost does place it in reference to either one or the other…

Yeah, probably, but you know, there’s not a lot you can do about that really [laughs].

So what are some examples of the stuff in between that fascinates you?

I’ve always been interested in any sort of cultural production that’s got a DIY ethos; from small record labels, to zine-makers, to small publishers, to people making websites and blogs, through to festivals in the performing arts that are about people who are interested in exploring and playing with form, function and where pop-culture meets contemporary art forms. I’m very interested in space and architecture and the urban experience. All of those things don’t neatly fit on that art continuum, so that’s a bunch of reference points.

This story originally ran in issue #22 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #22 of Dumbo Feather

Where do you think your interest comes from? Was it from growing up in Newcastle which wasn’t quite a small town but wasn’t quite Sydney either?

Probably. The thing about Newcastle, and suburban Newcastle where I grew up, is that the high arts aren’t really there. It’s that classic thing where the way out of the frustration of your suburban upbringing is through things like indie music or making a trip to Sydney to go to a bookstore to load up on books of the type you just couldn’t find in Angus & Robertson in Newcastle. Part of it was also when I started to find a community of friends. We were media students who were interested in media but were not trying to be journalists. We were interested in the potential for popular, accessible forms outside the way that they were ordinarily used and somewhere that’s just ingrained in me.

Once you start down a path, it’s a snowball effect; you start to accumulate other people who are interested in certain things and similar experiences. I’d edited the student paper with a friend of mine, Sean Healy, and when we left uni in the early ‘90s we had nothing much to do so we rented a warehouse, got some old computers and started to organise things like festivals. It was an extension of what we’d been doing on campus except we didn’t have any money anymore. We no longer had the students association’s budget or the politics of the students association, but we had the desire to create some of those things. That lead to us starting an arts and media organisation that’s still going in Newcastle called Octopod. Then we also started this, the This is Not Art (TINA) festival in Newcastle, with the same group of people.

So it was in the ‘90s that you started TINA, 15 or so years ago?

There was the failed Newcastle fringe festival that we started in 1996 and then TINA started as a writer’s festival, the spin-off of that, in 1998. I ran it from ‘98 till 2002.

And it’s still going strong?

It is, yeah, and it’s good. It’s pretty impressive to see something that is a genuine legacy, something that you worked on that’s got a life of its own. I helped out a couple of years ago when there was a crisis, but mostly I haven’t had that much to do with it for quite a few years. I do still go every year and it’s still my favourite weekend of the year.

Had you seen fringe festivals in other parts of the world and thought, why can’t we do one?

Yeah. That was the 1996 attempt, which was flawed because, well there’s a whole series of learning experiences in that … I’d been to the Adelaide Fringe and the Melbourne Fringe and had some friends who were doing things at both of those. I came back to Newcastle and was like, let’s have a fringe festival and do the same thing here. It sort of worked for what it was at the time, but then I left and went off and did some other stuff and it slowly died. The thing about TINA that made it interesting is that the model we ended up with wasn’t trying to copy anything else that anyone was doing anywhere else. It was really just a bunch of people getting together and saying, “This is the stuff that we find interesting.” The National Young Writer’s Festival, which was the flagship event of TINA, had a very highfalutin name, but the idea was just to get all the zine-makers, small publishers and people who were culturally relevant to us who wrote stuff, all in the one place at the one time. Anything beyond that was just a fortuitous coincidence. Usually, particularly in regional centres, but also more generally, when people start festivals, they try to do a smaller version of something else. Ultimately what works about TINA is that it’s very authentic to the culture it’s trying to represent. It’s not trying to fit it into some other framework or model.

You obviously don’t mind starting things from scratch?

Mm, I love starting things. I’ve got a very short attention-span and I get bored very quickly so I’m much better at starting things than hanging around and administering them. I tend to have multiple things on the go at any time and I’m always interested in what’s possible. The only way you can find out what’s possible is to run an experiment and actually do it. It doesn’t always work, but when it does it’s very satisfying.

Do you tend to bring in the same resources to make projects happen each time? Do you have great relationships with some of the arts councils or do you…?

Not really. You’ll find, in a lot of my writings, there’s a sense of perpetual frustration with arts councils and funding agencies. That’s because they’re structurally the exact opposite of the way I work. Their DNA is about perpetuating what’s already there and when you’re banging on the door it’s really, really hard to get in. Most of the projects I’ve done have started off unfunded, or barely funded, or with my own money, or ‘in kind’ time. Actually this is a true story. The first fringe festival we started, we did the whole thing in about three months. It was a simple idea really; we got just about every artist we knew in Newcastle to do something at the same time and called it a festival. It wasn’t that complicated or ambitious, but someone came up to us at the end and said, “Where’d you get the funding from?” I went, “Funding? What do you mean?” and they went, “You know, the grants and stuff the government give out,” and I went, “Really? The government gives out grants for this stuff? God, this would have been so much easier if someone had told me that they did that!” By the time TINA came around I had a bit more knowledge. You know, when you try to do anything new, the only way to get money for it is to pretend you’re doing something similar to something that’s already happening. We almost outright lied to get the grant that got the writer’s festival up and started. We didn’t lie, we just emphasised a very small aspect of it and then went off and did the much larger thing. With the Renew Newcastle project I’ve been involved in more recently, I decided not to wait for funding. I just went and knocked on every single door and got turned away. Then I made a calculated assumption, I’ve sort of done this in the past, that once something’s up and running and successful, then people will want to be involved in it, and it’s true.

Absolutely. So let’s just go back to how that all started.

Well, Newcastle has, I counted them at the beginning of the project, about a 150 empty buildings in the two main streets. It’s depressing and I see it very acutely because I’ve lived away and gone back there a lot. I’ve also brought a lot of people to Newcastle. Through TINA and whatever, every year a couple of thousand people come to Newcastle and they all tend to stand on the streets and go, “What the hell happened here?” … just looking at street after street of boarded up buildings and smashed up facades. I also always knew people who wanted to do things in empty buildings. There’s always a small but strong DIY arts crew in Newcastle who are trying to get things up and happening and I was one of them from old times. I’d knocked on a lot of doors and seen a lot of real-estate agents trying to find people who had buildings saying,

“Look, you’re not using it, can we just do something with it? We’ll bring a bit of life back”,

but that always failed. It always failed for a whole bunch of reasons. Part of it was approaching the wrong people and part of it was that while I knew what I wanted to do with the building I didn’t really know how to manage the process of doing it. Somewhere in the back of my mind that idea has always been there and every time I went back to Newcastle I had this stronger sense that the problem was getting worse not better.

Do you think it was exacerbated by the current recession?

The problems up there are quite structural. Basically it’s a beautiful old city, the second oldest in the country, and it’s got this old city centre on a peninsula which isn’t really in the middle of where everyone lives. It was built for another era when there were tram lines to bring everyone into the city to shop. Nowadays, everyone shops in suburban shopping centres and that old city centre is not in the middle where the population is, it’s up in this weird little corner. The other thing about the city centre is that it’s one of the largest cities in the country that’s not a capital so there’s no government. If you have a capital city at least you get all the political stuff, the government stuff, and all the rest of the hangers-on that need to be there that at least keep the city vibrant. But in Newcastle there were all these empty buildings, and recognising that the problem was probably structural, the idea was to try to set up something that would borrow these spaces and take them available to artists. I went around, I knocked on every door, saw every arts agency, council, state government, state members you know, federal members, and they were all, “Yeah well that sounds like a good idea, but it’s not really our area.” In the end, a couple of things happened mid-last year where I just thought, bugger it, I’ll just do it. No one else is going to.

What were they?

One was meeting a guy called Craig Allchin, who’s now on the board of the project. He’s an architect and urban planner based in Sydney. He’d been to Newcastle for TINA and saw the same obvious potential there. He was very supportive of the idea and offered to help. Then Rod Smith, our pro-bono lawyer, got on board. It’s the legal stuff that actually makes it all work, so once they were on board, things started to kinda move. In the first series of Not Quite Art I was trying to explore this idea of where culture comes from. My argument is that culture comes from the bottom up and not the top down. We go and look in art centres and find all the stuff that ends up there, but it’s the net that catches culture when it falls, it’s not the place it comes from. So, in the first episode of the show I did a comparison between Newcastle and Glasgow. Glasgow is another industrial city with a very similar dynamic, but it’s also got a lot of great schemes, both formal and informal, for letting artists use their spaces and make things happen there. It’s a really good comparison for what Newcastle could be. Within the wider community there was a receptiveness to the argument and having shown it on television made a big difference.

So you finally got the permission from some landlords and you’d sorted out the legals to say, “Yeah, look, you can lease these on a temporary basis”?

The scheme that we’ve set up is designed to borrow buildings while they’re empty and make them available to artists, creative people or community groups who have ideas for things they might do with them. One of the things we’ve had to take out of the process was the property owners’ fear that if they let us in there, they’d never get the buildings back. We set up this not-for-profit company which borrows buildings on a rolling 30-day basis while they’re sitting vacant. We find people who are custodians and they agree to take care of the buildings. The custodians clean them out, do something interesting with them and, if and when the owner gets a better offer, they give them back.

Does any money change hands?

There’s a peppercorn rent. We’ve got 20 buildings for a dollar [laughs] on this ongoing basis. The custodians or projects pay the company we’ve set up, Renew Newcastle, a participation fee which just goes into the kitty to pay for maintenance and other things; it’s $20 dollars a week, so it’s very nominal. One of the things I recognised pretty early on in the piece was that people who have creativity are very rarely the same people who have a lot of capital, so if you make the barrier of entry to doing any creative thing ‘having a lot of money’ or expecting that you’re gonna get a lot of money back, or trying to make money, you narrow the door so much that you lose a lot of the people who can do really interesting things. One of the things that really interests me is how to make that a wide door. How do you let as many people as possible get an opportunity to get through to that first stage? What happens from there is up to them. Whether they grab the opportunity or whether it fails, is a different thing.

And plenty of people have grabbed the opportunity?

Yeah, we’ve got about 36 projects in 24 formerly empty buildings.

Brilliant. What sort of projects?

There’s everything from a dedicated sound and digital media gallery, to an artist-run gallery space and studio complex, to a shop that’s full of local women who do fashion design and make art installations and various other things, to jewellers, photographers, a crafty shop, an up-cycled furniture place, graphic designers too, small publishers and a whole range of others who have all set up in their own studio complex. The criteria are very broad. Again, I’m not trying to get into that what is or isn’t art argument. I’m looking for things that are well done and that are viable on their own terms. Like, if they need to make money, that they’re capable of doing it. If they’re not trying to make money, then they’re people who’ve got the energy to spend to keep them going and that are creative and original. It was a very conscious decision to not try to curate it like I curate an arts festival or whatever.

It’s almost like channelling energy. I’m trying to find people who are passionate and have got energy and are creating interesting things.

How long has it been since the first project moved in?

It was February so it’s moved very quickly. I mean I spent about ten years trying to convince someone that it was a good idea to do something like this, but when I finally made the decision and worked out how, it actually moved really quickly. We registered the company in November 2008, signed our first agreements to get properties in December, moved into a little office in January, the first projects got their keys in February and then, five months later, we’ve got 20-something projects and we’re expanding from there.

What has the response from Newcastle been?

Mostly really good. The big problem is to show that it’s possible. Basically the city empties out block after block and people get very defeated about what’s possible. The great thing about this is that it’s a bit of a circuit breaker. Suddenly there’s a sense of, wow there’s new energy and something interesting happening here. People do debate the merits of individual projects, and so do I frankly; I like some more than others, but the sense of the positive … There’s about three or four city blocks that most of the first projects are clustered on and no one can stand there and think that it isn’t better than the ‘For Lease’ signs and the boarded up buildings and the broken windows that were there before. There are big problems with vandalism in the city, as is inevitable when you’ve got a city that’s hollowed out, empty and full of drunks late at night, but it’s interesting, we’ve only had one incident with anyone vandalising any of the project buildings and it was while it was still empty. That says something about the sense of activity that it brings back. There’s a greater sense that the city is interesting.

So, is there evidence of this bringing people into the city yet?

Yeah, it’s funny. I was there with the Sunday Arts people yesterday from the ABC and we’re standing there about to do an interview when this group of four or five older ladies just came up and said, “Excuse me, is this place open? We came to see all the spaces.” There’s a lot of that. People come into town to see all the spaces. Events that we’ve done there are also quite successful. We’ve done a couple of walking tours to the spaces and got a couple of hundred people to each of them. There’s also just a lot of people who live or work in the city who just feel better about going to the city again, which makes a big difference.

And do you still feel engaged with it or are you ready to let it walk on its own?

I still feel engaged with it. I’m pleased. I’d like to feel like I’m over the hump.

It took an enormous amount of energy and effort to get this thing up and going, but it’s now at a point where it’s got momentum of its own.

It’s got a little bit of funding and there’s now someone, Marni Jackson, in Newcastle paid to work on the project so I don’t need to go back and forth paying for it myself every three weeks. I worked out at some point I’d been up to Newcastle every three weeks for about a year to get it up and running and it’s both expensive and time-consuming to do that. Hopefully I’ll be able to concentrate more on some of the strategic stuff rather than the day-to-day stuff. We’ll see how long it goes before my short attention span kicks in and I get bored.

Any plans to do it anywhere else?

I don’t have any plans to do it anywhere else although I’ve had lots of discussions about taking the model to other places because we’ve broken the back of a lot of issues that make this stuff really hard. We’ve worked out a lot of these things that can then be applied in other places. I’ve spoken to the state government of NSW, I’ve spoken to the government of Queensland … What I would like to do is take this and turn it into a strategy that can be used in lots of different places. Newcastle’s got an acute problem with a lot of empty buildings, but the idea of transitional spaces as art and cultural incubators for things that are trying to start up is one that can be applied pretty much anywhere. There’d be parts of Sydney where there are sites that are half consolidated, a lot of empty shops sitting there, an office building that’s going to be redeveloped in two years time, or a shopping centre that’s been closed down … You know, get the craziest artist in the world in there, but make sure that the management of them is okay. It liberates so much space and so many opportunities for artists to do things. Space is at such a premium for artists; it’s usually such a difficult thing to get, but these strategies can work anywhere.

I can see this really excites you, but at some point do you go, “God, I just need to get paid decent money”?

Well I’m juggling this with several paid jobs, so I’m actually earning more than I have in a while, but I’m just on the road constantly and working 17 hours a day. I’m juggling about 17 jobs and I’m always just catching up on the one that I’ve fallen behind on, but I’m hoping that will mellow out a bit later in the year. At some point I’ll probably need to strike some balance and start working out exactly what I’m doing, but I’m not motivated by money. I’m motivated by doing interesting things and the ‘career’ that I’ve kind of put together is basically one of just following the next interesting thing that’s come along. It’s never really been that any great plans were made, things just attract my curiosity and I realise I can do something interesting, or I’m intrigued by what’s been proposed, or the potential of it, so I throw myself at it for a while.

Yet there are so many strong themes that run through what you do?

I’ve got a pretty good sense of what I’m not good at. I actually get offered lots of things because, on some surface or superficial level, it looks like it might tick my boxes, but I’ve got a pretty good sense of what I’m not good at. I’m good at inventing and reinventing things. I’m not a great administrator, I’m not a great bureaucrat, I’m not great at those skills which are actually where about 95 per cent of the arts jobs are. I may not necessarily want to be quoted on that should I find myself in desperate need of a job doing something like that, but you know, it’s just not my strong point.

So what are some of the other 16 things that you’re doing?

Ah, I’ve got a column in The Age newspaper in Melbourne, which is interesting. It’s in the arts section every Monday. They like it when I’m provocative which I am sometimes in the mood to be, but sometimes I’m not.

I guess being provocative often implies a sense of angst, but you might not want to always be the guy who’s whineging about stuff.

Yeah. I like to question things. I like to ask why, but I tend to prefer to do that in a fairly dry rather than confrontational way. I’m also working a little for the Centre of Creative Industries, at QUT (Queensland University of Technology). We’re looking at trying to get a research project up off the back of this Renew Newcastle stuff to turn it into a larger strategy. I’m working again in Queensland, for The Edge which is a redevelopment to build a new digital cultural centre attached to their state library. It’s interesting because it crosses over into a lot of the bureaucratic stuff that I’m not good at, but it’s also a chance to conceptualise and start something from scratch, which I do find really interesting. Until recently I’ve also been working on Creative Sydney (a two-week long festival ‘celebrating the wealth and diversity of the city’s talents’) so I’m geographically spread fairly thinly, as well as mentally.

How did Creative Sydney go?

It seemed to be a good forum to bring together a lot of people on a lot of different issues. Where it goes from here…

What was your involvement?

I was recruited fairly early on to be an advisor to the programme. I came up with a lot of the architecture rather than building it: this is the terrain, this is the approach and these are the sorts of people we should target. I was a little bit involved in the programming and a little bit involved in the marketing but, relative to other festivals and events I’ve been involved in, it was quite a hands-off role. I went to everything and enjoyed it. After being a cultural refugee from New South Wales for a long time, I’m falling in love with it again. It’s interesting to see how that might play out. Everything’s already been done in Melbourne, but there’s a sense of frustrated potential in Sydney, which is something I really love. Trying to tap into a bit of that might be interesting. There’s no lack of people who are enthusiastic and keen and trying to get things happening. In Sydney there’s a dam wall that’s burst, but in Melbourne the stream’s been flowing the whole time so there’s no real sense that it’s urgent and necessary.

An interesting time to watch how it all unfolds in the next couple of years. How do you keep going? Have you got good support to pull you through?

Yeah, well I’m getting married later in the year which is lovely. Narinda, my partner, is awesome. She seems to put up with all my rather strange obsessions. We joke at times because it does feel that there are three of us in the relationship; me, her and Newcastle. It does get in the way a bit. I had a very troubled and disruptive first half of my life. I didn’t think I’d ever find stability, or even particularly want stability, but I found it and I’m enjoying it you know. There’s that really nice sense of being grounded somewhere, which is really good. A lot of my motivation had always come from being restless and up against things and it’s nice to discover I can be stable and still motivated. I wasn’t quite sure those two things were possible. I thought I might slip into this comfortable blanket of contentment from which the old me would never emerge, but it doesn’t appear to work like that. I found the contentment and I’m still motivated, which is good.

So that old restlessness, was it due to geographically shifting around?

No, I had a really difficult family life. Newcastle in the ‘90s was pretty harsh. When I left school, there was 40-something percent youth unemployment in Newcastle and a really powerful sense of injustice which was motivated by how wrong things were – I think it’s still there. You either let that swamp you or you get motivated in response to it. It’s funny to reflect on how hard some of those times actually were, but that also created a self-reliance, you know; you make your own fun and you do what you can and all that.

Did you have people you went to school with who went the other way?

Yeah, I went to a pretty tough school. A lot of people from my school have spent time in jail and close friends were lost to drug overdoses and other things in those years. They were difficult times.

Before you found your niche at uni, was it hard at school being the … geeky, wordy kid?

Yeah, I was the nerdy misfit type. I went to a western suburbs Newcastle school and am not exactly the poster boy demographic for that; so, yeah, it was. It seems like so long ago, but there was always a sense of wanting to escape from it. Just wanting to get to something, somewhere. Out there was a world I should go and find at the first opportunity.

But you didn’t leave Newcastle, you stayed?

I stayed and it’s funny. Part of my love affair with Newcastle is that I never really wanted to leave it. I went to uni there, then stayed for a couple of years and started a bunch of things. I found the cultural experience I was looking for there, with a group of people there. That’s why I have this confidence that you can do things in Newcastle. It’s a place where there always was an interesting cultural community. The cultural community that inspired and amazed me was in Newcastle. A lot of those people have left, moved on, or drifted away, but I never bought into the idea that the interesting stuff happens somewhere else. Once you’ve got the confidence of that, then the terrain of what’s possible changes really dramatically. It’s easy to start with the assumption that culture’s something you’ve got to import, that it’s something you’ve got to get from somewhere else, you know. In my experience it’s always been something you create, not something you consume. There are plenty of things and ideas and themes that I’m interested in, but there’s no person or place that’s on a pedestal. I’m curious. I’m curious about all things, but I’m not really the type to have something out there … I’ve never been yearning for something that was over the horizon. I’ve never thought you had to go out there and find it.

I’ve always been of the opinion that the most interesting place in the world is the place where you are.

Kate Bezar

Kate Bezar started Dumbo Feather—and is a living legend, simple as that. Read all about her and the kernel of an idea that became a magazine.

Photography by Narinda Reeders

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