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.