Pop Up Parramatta: setting up at Connection Arcade

Pop Up Parramatta logo

In June 2011 Pop Up Parramatta opened a site with a number of existing empty shopfronts at Connection Arcade, 162-172 Church Street, Parramatta. Lisa Andersen and Katrina Fox from the Empty Spaces Project interviewed artists from Moth Gallery and Parramatta Clay and Arts and Merryn Spencer, Creative Broker with Parramatta City Council, to gain some insight into the process of 'setting up'.

Pop Up Parramatta is a project of Parramatta City Council with co-funding from Arts NSW and input from other partners. It aims to transform Parramatta into a place where creative practitioners create, develop and sell their work through the temporary use of vacant properties.

Brokering Creativity in Parramatta

Two weeks after the first artist shop had opened in Connection Arcade, Creative Broker with Parramatta City Council, Merryn Spencer, described some of the challenges and learning curves.

Challenges Accepted

"Working with property, particularly retail, there's rules you have to follow and particularly with zoning," says Merryn. "Also, there's many interests and many groups of people who have a stake in this project, so that's been quite challenging managing those interests and levels of expectation. But at the end of the day it's about the art."

"It's about making the artists as comfortable as possible when they're in the spaces and when they're doing the projects, so that's been my focus."

Merryn says she's found a very high level of professionalism as well as diversity of artistic practice in Parramatta.

"It's very tapped in. And a lot of practitioners are working across installation and delving more into contemporary practice. 

"I'm also really excited about the diversity of cultural groups; for example Filipino, African, Middle Eastern, Islander. And I love being able to call up all the national institutions and say, 'Come to Parramatta and do a workshop.'  It's so great we can do that."

Finding Properties

Merryn Spencer

In order to make Pop Up Parramatta successful, the initiative needs more properties.

"My waiting list for the artist applicants is up to 15 artists who are looking for spaces.  Of them, three I know are fantastic makers, well respected in their field. They need a space straight away to start working and I haven't been able to provide one."

"so that's my challenge - making those in-roads into the property community is the next thing," says Merryn.

"Parramatta Council is one of the landlords, so that's also been a significant challenge. We are all working well together as a team now and have built up trust. But these first few artists in the shopfronts are the real test."

Getting private landlords to sign off on providing their properties at substantially discounted rent has been an issue, says Merryn.

"Some of the landlords I've approached regarding property spaces they say 'Yeah great idea.' However, actually signing off on the project - getting it by their board, getting sign-off, getting the pieces of paper for the artists ready to go is the challenge.

"Those guys are not yet quite willing to say 'Yes we'll give you this space for significantly discounted rent.' They still want their $380-$900 a week for their property and that's fair enough; they've got a business to run. But by engaging with this project they're initiating a dynamic space redevelopment, which can have ongoing ripple effects across Sydney."

Merryn believes the key in getting landlords on board is to provide them with incentives rather than penalise them for having empty properties, and to build up trust between them and the artists.

"There's a whole host of things you can say to a landlord that will make them come on board but I think the ultimate thing is the trust. Getting to know the artists who will work in the space has been the major driver for me. Building up that personal connection is critical to make the rest of it work. That's all part of the journey really."

Working with Artists

Sourcing the right artists for a pop-up space can also be a challenge.

"We're looking at attracting high achievers in Sydney and bringing them here. We need to figure out how to get those artists because we've got a huge skill range at the moment and our criteria has been quite loose. I'd like to see that tightened up. We need to have that creative skill base that's up there in order to set the bar high to keep it going."

Evaluating Impact

Evaluating the impact of an empty spaces initiative is important and Pop Up Parramatta has in place a system that examines both the qualitative and quantitative results.

"We're measuring foot traffic and products sold and then, on top of that, there's a survey evaluation," says Merryn. "My business plan talks about not only numbers but satisfaction and workshops. I'd also like to get feedback from other retailers in the Connection Arcade and Greenaway Plaza about how their experience and business has improved during the time the artists are sharing the arcade with them.

"On our website we have a testimonial section. Which is also important."

"So there's a number of methods but I think the trick is to use all of them as feedback. We need to prove the value of the work we're doing in terms of economic, tourism, community development and arts-creative enterprise, but also how this acts as a catalyst to bring in other partners."

As creative broker, part of Merryn's job during the set-up of this new project has been 'micro-liaison' between the artists and Council to iron out minor issues; for example, gaining access to loading zones while fitting out and stocking the shops - something Merryn was still working on resolving at the time of interview.  

Leonie Mulqueeney & Moth Gallery

Leonie Mulqueeney is the artist at Moth Gallery. New to Parramatta and interviewed two weeks into her tenancy of a short-term shopfront in Connection Arcade in June 2011, she has found Pop Up Parramatta an opportunity to really connect with the local arts community.

Recent arrival to Parramatta from the Gold Coast, Leonie Mulqueeney has taught building and interior design at TAFE since 1993, after working as a building designer and graphic designer early in her career.

"But I've never had time to do what I've taught," she says. "So I took 12 months leave without pay from work and moved down to Sydney and it's given me the chance to paint."

"About 150 paintings that I completed over this time were stored in my studio/garage; it was becoming a bit claustrophobic. So it was really good timing that I got this space as part of Pop Up Parramatta."

 Leonie Mulqueeny at her Moth Gallery. Rudy Bauer's low cost, pop-up gallery fit out.

Fortunately for Leonie her partner Rudi Bauer is a retired engineer who was able to fit out the gallery on a budget.

"It made setting up a bit easier. Rudi put together the lighting and also the hanging tracks; the hanging system.  They're very expensive to buy so he actually poured an aluminium extrusion which he put up. He's also used fishing line and chains and things he bought at Curtain Call," says Leonie.

Although Leonie started with enough product to sell in her space, her key challenges have been building a market and learning to run a business.

"It's been interesting because artists are not known for their business, what's the word, 'acumen' generally are they?" she says. "I've spoken to some of the others and they're just laughing at their business ability."

"It's thrown us in the deep end."

"It would be good if Pop Up Parramatta ran a business course for the artists and when they accept you provide a checklist of instructions on the things you need to do: like registering a business name and getting an ABN."

On the marketing side, Leonie recently started painting in the space, as well as exhibiting, to attract foot traffic, but is looking at specific targeted marketing too.

"I don't really think people that walk by are necessarily the people that are going to buy my stuff," she says. "For my art to sell, I need to get in touch with developers, builders, architects, building designers and interior designers, so Moth Gallery becomes my showroom for them. It's probably more appropriate to what I'm creating."

Parramatta Clay Arts

Di Turner, President of Parramatta Clay Arts Incorporated, was cleaning floors and building shelves along with her colleagues Rose Daridis and Tony Carr during this group interview in June 2011. They were finishing the set up for the opening of their first-ever shop, part of the Pop Up Parramatta site in Connection Arcade, the following day.

Making the space

Di Turner and Rose Daridis were the first applicants to fill out the application form for a short-term space with Pop Up Parramatta. Nevertheless it was not all smooth sailing to begin with.

"First of all we got chopped and changed into three different shops. We finally got this one, and I think the Gods were looking after us because this is the best space for us," says Di.

"On the day I went to pick up the keys we were so excited and we had a team of eight people here ready to paint. Then I was told we couldn't get the keys so I threw a little hissy fit in the middle of the foyer!"

The issue was resolved by Pop Up Parramatta's Creative Broker, Merryn Spencer, and the keys were handed over.

"If you don't try and you don't push you won't get anything," says Di. "But we really do appreciate the opportunity and we know we can change this arcade and Parramatta to be a better place."

Di Turner and Rose Daridis

The work of up to 30 artists - all members of Parramatta Clay and Arts - who are at various stages as artists, will be sold at the shop. Ten are 'serious, professional' artists, including painters, photographers and jewellery makers. "The range of products will be real mix from tiny beautiful handmade jewellery up to large sculptures and everything in between," says Rose.

The shop will be staffed by members of PCAI, all of whom are volunteers.

Because Di and Rose have had a lot of experience in selling their wares, they have been offering assistance to less experienced members.

"We're in Parramatta, which is a new art market, so we're just going to test and maybe price at what we need to remunerate our materials," says Di.

Space for making

In order to attract people into the shop, Di and Rose will have a pottery wheel in the window, so that passers-by can see them creating.

"People can watch the process as no one normally gets to see it and it will be good to also have a slightly educational flavour to what we are doing," says Rose. "Instead of kids sitting down behind Playstations, let them get their hands dirty and make something."

Both Di and Rose are graduate ceramicists and experienced teachers and would ideally like to be in premises where the kilns are on site with the gallery at the front. "Doing classes here will be a little bit of an issue as to fire work twice we'll have to pack it twice, taking it to the kilns and bringing it back," says Rose.

"When you're in a teaching studio you've got all that. The students just come in and pick it up from where they left off and we don't have to do two or three hours extra work packing and loading and manual handling. So that's a big challenge but we'll do it.  We've done it before."

Part of a clay making heritage

This is the first retail space for Parramatta Clay Arts. But their five-month exhibition at the Heritage Centre, which linked the history of Parramatta's clay and the early ochres, caught the attention of local geologist Tony Carr.

Tony ended up patching holes in the floor of an empty shop today through his history research tracing Parramatta's heritage as a centre for clay and brick making.

"I started by doing courses with Di at Pine Street Creative Art Centre and when this came up it really fitted with research I was doing which shows that most of the industrial arts and craft in New Zealand has its origins in Parramatta.

"Samuel Marsden, an early missionary, set up what he called the 'Maori seminary' in 1815 in what's now known as Rangihou Crescent, off New Zealand Street in North Parramatta. He trained young Maori men in agricultural arts and in brick making, So my interest in brick making expanded into other aspects of fired clay.

"From 1788 onwards bricks for buildings were being fired in Parramatta at the same time or earlier than they were in in the Sydney settlement by English brick makers who came out as convicts. So I've been following this trail which links back to Parramatta the whole time," explains Tony.

Making connections

As with many artists with pop-up shops, building a market will be the main challenge. But Rose and Di are optimistic, and have already made connections with other creatives in the Arcade, as well as other local businesses.

"The barber's been so helpful," says Di. "He came in with a blow-dryer the other day to help us get the film off the window. Hairdressers' blow-dryers are so powerful!"

PCAI's aim is to connect with the local community, establish Parramatta as a centre of excellence and develop participatory opportunities for art.

"We're a professional organisation, working to put Parramatta on the map. Previously, we always had to travel to access work opportunities in the inner city or elsewhere," says Di.

"We value the networks we have developed for example with the Australian Ceramic Association, the Ceramic Study Group and the Macquarie Potters. We would welcome other artists to place work in our new shopfront. Now we've got this retail presence, we can show people that the quality of our work is obvious. It's our opportunity to shine in western Sydney."

Pop Up Parramatta promotional film

This short promotional film about Pop Up Parramatta by Rush Production features some of the artists involved in the first 18 months of the program.