Art in the Heart Lismore

Art in the Heart logo

In March 2010 Stephen Nelson - then City Centre Manager for Lismore - organised a forum to introduce the community to the idea of an empty spaces initiative to foster local creativity. By the end of 2011, the Lismore Art in the Heart Project had become an Arts NSW Creative Enterprise Hub hatching 13 pop-up projects and a flagship model of an empty space program for rural Australia.

Empty Spaces asked Stephen about setting-up the project and their challenges and successes to date and talked to Revolutionary Ceramicos' artists, Clare Urquhart, Cassandra Purdon and Deborah Gower, about the benefits of using pop up exhibition spaces.

Starting-up & funding

Like many similar cities in regional Australia, Lismore has seen state and federal service agencies contracting in size or being relocated elsewhere - with a negative impact on the local economy. In addition, fluctuations in the health of the retail and service sectors had contributed to a public perception that Lismore's CBD was full of empty shops.

In fact, only around 7% of the commercial properties in the Lismore CBD are empty at any given time - 'normal turnover' according to local real estate agents. But this still translates to 20 to 30 empty premises around the city centre. When he was appointed inaugural City Centre Manager by Lismore City Council in 2009 and tasked with revitalising the area, Stephen Nelson realised the potential to activate the thriving creative and cultural community through an empty space initiative.

"Council agreed to appoint a City Centre Manager as a result of the Lismore Alive Report they'd commissioned in response to near-universal acceptance that Lismore was 'dead' at the weekends and there was not lot of activity after closing times during the week," says Stephen, who is now the Art in the Heart Lismore Coordinator. "Council wanted this situation to change, as did the local business community.

"The Lismore local government area is home to around 44,000 people, but they weren't coming back to the city centre after hours because there was no activity to draw them back. I realised that our vibrant cultural sector could be the key to enlivening Lismore."

After holding a forum that featured Renew Newcastle founder Marcus Westbury and Kim Spinks from Arts NSW, which was attended by around 230 people including artists, business people, council staff and property owners to discuss the concept of 'Art in the Heart', Stephen received co-funding from Arts NSW through its Creative Enterprise Hubs program and Lismore City Council.

Stephen has a fully resourced office in Council's CBD building. "Rental, computer, phones, internet and so on are taken care of by Council, which also provides me with admin and accounting assistance, and I work closely with City Centre Manager Katie O'Rourke who also sits on the Art in the Heart Taskforce I report to," he says.

Working with landlords

When Empty Spaces first interviewed Stephen a year ago, he was just starting to seek out landlords to come on board with Art in the Heart.

"A lot of spaces are given to me for a short 'loan', say three weeks. So we put an exhibition in them, they open, then close," says Stephen. "I've been given two shops at different times in the only large, city centre shopping centre located where the Centre Manager has been supportive of Art in the Heart from day one."

When an Art in the Heart activity takes place in a space, signage can be arranged to let business people know the space is still available for commercial letting.

Stephen also documents when new commercial tenants have asked for spaces utilised by artists, as a result of greater foot traffic and increased activity generated by the Art in the Heart project.

"The city centre shopping centre is one example where a group of artists were replaced by a commercial tenant at the end of their agreed time. That tenancy occurred because of the increased foot traffic generated by the arts activity," he says.

While he has had success in enlisting support - around 13 pop-up projects have happened to December 2011 - getting landlords on board with the scheme remains a constant challenge.

"It's a source of some frustration for me that some CBD properties have been empty for six to 10 months and the owners are still loath to give Art in the Heart a try," Stephen says. "And it's not for want of trying. I have good relationships with key real estate agents and they have gone into bat for Art in the Heart, with their clients, the owners."

Stephen's experience has been that many landlords baulk at being paid only a token rental by artists, despite not receiving any rental at all for long periods while their premises stand empty.

"They often say to me, 'I can get $800 a week for this place', even if I diplomatically point out they haven't for six or 10 months," says Stephen.

"With many of the owners you can't expect them to be pillars of the arts; it's not their world. So there's a degree of not understanding what we are trying to do. Quite often they will defer to their real estate agent, who may or may not see the virtue of the 'art in empty spaces' concept.

Stephen's latest approach is to talk to people in the property owners' communities.

"A high percentage of property owners in Lismore were migrant Australians who worked incredibly hard when they first arrived after the Second World War and bought property as a measure of their success and for security. It's challenging for them to agree to minimal rents, even though utilities and insurances are taken care of. Another factor in the mix is the extremely high rates levied on businesses in Lismore, which are on par with many well-to-do suburbs in Sydney. But there are signs of change: I'm being approached by owners of late, rather than the other way around."

And enough property owners have 'got it' and supported 13 successful arts projects so far.

A feature of the project since its inception has been the sustained and positive support by local media. Nearly 50 stories have been filed on Art in the Heart to date in the local press, as well as mentions in electronic media.

"The landlords who have come on board so far are very happy with the activity taking place in their shops," says Stephen.

Agreements & insurance

Key to the success of Art in the Heart was gaining the support of the business community in Lismore, especially shopping centre managers. This has required using different leasing agreements for temporary tenants depending on the space.

Generally, Art in the Heart uses a 30-day rolling licence agreement - the 'Art in the Heart Agreement' - for temporary tenants.

"The Art in the Heart agreement clearly states the roles and obligations of the lessee and lessor. The property owner has to show me current building insurance and I have to show the owner I've got public liability insurance and a date that triggers a notice to quit," says Stephen.

But shopping centres have their own community leasing forms that include a one to seven-day notice to quit.

"With shopping centres the roles are reversed," says Stephen, "and they tell me what I can do. It's very straightforward, amenable and legally watertight."

With insurances, Art in the Heart sources low-cost, individual premiums for artists, many of whom are on low incomes. Some of their pop-up projects come with their own insurance, for example two recent exhibitions by a mental health agency involved art therapy which had its own public liability insurance. 

Successful projects & outcomes

Art in the Heart has so far worked on solo and group art exhibitions, workshops, forums, installations, film and poetry nights and community and street art projects.

For artists involved, there is the potential for exposure for their work as well as networking opportunities. One artist was able to run a series of workshops, poetry slams and film nights that she would have otherwise been unable to do. And the September 2011 collaboration with The Rocks Pop Up Project in Sydney shops saw two Lismore artists win top-dollar commissions for their work, as well as the opportunity to meet with gallery owners, future clients, academics and museum staff.

As of December 2011, the list of successful Art in the Heart projects includes:

With all these projects completed in the first year and a half, Art in the Heart has already increased vibrancy in the CBD and also developed the profile (and sales!) of local artists. And there's more in the pipeline.

Future challenges

The main challenges for the future of Art in the Heart are:

"Negative reaction from local business owners has been slight to date," Stephen reports. "Some retailers question why the artists should be allowed to go into an empty shop for 'a pittance', since the temporary tenants don't pay rates or insurance or face the costs of a very high commercial lease.

"Sometimes in a country or regional centre there can be resistance to change, unlike a big city, which is a dynamic organism that changes constantly and enjoys a greater critical mass in terms of population and economics."

He hopes Art in the Heart will grow and garner even more support from the local community as it becomes even better known through the excellent coverage it continues to receive in the local media. 

"Art in the Heart is a moveable feast with unlimited potential and that's exactly how it should be," says Stephen Nelson.

Revolutionary Ceramicos at NEXT Gallery

Hot off the success of their 3in1 Exhibition at Bigtime Gallery in the village of Drake in the far West of the Northern Rivers region, Clare Urquhart, Cassandra Purdon and Deborah Gower of Revolutionary Ceramicos, a successful Art in the Heart project, brought an updated version of their show to a wider audience via NEXT Gallery in Lismore in November 2011.

Ceramics Crowd

The three women are in the final year of their Advanced Diploma of Ceramics at Lismore TAFE. With an Australian theme running through all three artists' work, this exhibition showcased their individual translations into ceramics of 'reef, range and red dust.'

After being given the space, the artists added some fittings to hold artwork, with the consent of the gallery director.

"The space was long but we adjusted plinths and fixtures to accommodate our artwork. The space was a long way from where we lived but Art in the Heart graciously provided volunteers for three days each week and we rewarded them with tea, coffee, biscuits and thank you's," said Clare, when asked what challenges they faced.

"Temporary parking permits for unloading and loading artwork would have been useful to make the process smoother for us, but we managed" added Cassandra.

Having access to a temporary space to exhibit their work offered the artists the opportunity to promote their work to a wider audience as well as gaining valuable experience in staging an exhibition.

"The shop front was in a central location in the heart of the Lismore CBD. It was great to get more experience in utilising another gallery space," said Deborah. "Plus we were approached by the gallery owner in regards to submitting our work. We received offers for further exhibitions and engagement with other art workers and art educators. It was a really good experience of feedback from the public in relation to where our artwork stands.

"People dropped in on the way from work, after work and specifically to see the exhibition. They either gave us their opinion or we listened to them talking among themselves and watched their reactions. We could gauge where they looked, what they did and didn't engage with, where they were from and how they found out about the exhibition."

Local businesses in the area were supportive of the temporary exhibition, with many putting up posters in their windows.

The exhibition ended on 2 December 2011.

Gallery opening Deborah Gower, Cassandra Purdon, Clare Urquhart
Gallery opening night Left to right: Deborah Gower, Cassandra Purdon and
Clare Urquhart