Empty Spaces Project Update, April 2013

When the Empty Spaces Project began in late 2009 there were two 'empty space' initiatives in NSW - both hugely influential and still going strong - Renew Newcastle and Queen Street Studios. As of April 2013 there are now 17 initiatives in the state and another 13 in other states (that we're aware of). That's, at least, 30 projects around Australia.

For the past three and a half years Empty Spaces has helped new projects to pop up. Running out of the University of Technology, Sydney's Shopfront Community Program, funding for the project came from the NSW Government through Arts NSW, who provided funding support for the development of the first wave of empty space projects in NSW, including Renew Newcastle, Art in the Heart Lismore, Pop Up Parramatta, Create, Innovate Gosford City and The Rocks Pops Up, and ongoing statewide leadership for this sector. 

The collective Empty Spaces knowledge published on this website is an outcome from the CAMRA (cultural asset mapping in regional Australia) research project funded by the Australian Research Council and major industry partners the Australia Council for the ArtsRegional Arts NSW and Local Government NSW.

Knowledge and Networks

User feedback tells that knowledge and advice from the Empty Spaces Project has been important for many initiatives during their planning and start-up phase. The project has also helped develop an international reputation for NSW as world leading for creative regeneration and cultural development activity through 'meanwhile' uses of 'slack space'.

In the past 12 months this website was visited by 32,276 people - that's 2,690 visitors per month who stay on the site for 6.35 minutes, on average. 18% are returning visitors and 74% are Australian. But our site also welcomes people from the United States (6%), the UK (5%), Canada, New Zealand, India and from 33 other countries.

There are 599 registered members of the 'culturemap' online community, who receive a fortnightly copy of the site digest, and the Empty Spaces Facebook page now has 760 friends.  A closed online group of Empty Space Coordinators in Australia has 28 members.

User evaluation told us the information we publish on this website is extensively referenced and highly valued by those starting up an empty space project in their community. Then they use it to stay in contact with, and get ideas from, what's happening elsewhere.  We respond, on average, to five email or telephone requests for advice and information every week.

Empty Space Coordinators - the creative space brokers in their local communities - would like professional development opportunities to better understand the property management sector and the legal issues around property, as most coordinators have an arts organising and cultural development, not property management, background. (if it happens, we're happy to provide the room, equipment - including recording/broadcasting equipment - and cups of tea here at UTS!)

Public Policy Impact

A major outcome from all the knowledge development and sharing from the past three and a half years has been success in embedding the concept in public policy and planning across the three tiers of government.

The recent Australian cultural policy, 'Creative Australia' includes the regional development initiative 'Animating Spaces' to support 'the revitalisation and renewal of disused and non-traditional arts spaces'. What's more, there'll be funding for it attached to the Regional Arts Fund over four years.

The NSW Government's Creative Industries Action Plan includes the key empty space recommendations:

  • NSW Government to improve access to vacant space for creative entrepreneurs by considering ways to open up Government spaces.
  • Local Government to promote the use of existing vacant buildings and street art opportunities as creative arts spaces.

And the NSW Cultural Policy, currently in planning stage, is also expected to include a major focus on adaptive uses of space for cultural development, including empty space activity.

Local government's peak body in NSW, Local Government NSW, passed a resolution in 2011 to support empty space activation as good practice and then strongly featured empty and adaptive space use at their 2013 Cultural Summit, where the successful local and state government partnership funding initiative, Pop Up Parramatta, won a major cultural award category.

Promoting to Landlords

Another outcome from the project was promoting the concept to property managers around Australia to get them thinking about providing empty properties for this activity.  Empty Spaces has been in contact with a large number of landlords and passed those opportunities on to local projects, and there was coverage from Property Council of Australia and Elders Real Estate, and trade publications such as Retail News.

Sustainable Models for Regional Australia

Finally, beyond the projects popping up in metropolitan and urban Australian centres, there's now more and more interest coming from rural-regional Australia. Modelling empty space activity for rural-regional centres, towns and villages is a priority. What does a sustainable, different-from-cities-scale program of small business incubation, community and cultural development, and main street regeneration through empty spaces activity look like for rural Australia?  NSW's Northern Rivers and Great Lakes regions are 'taking point' on this and we've supported their work.

While activity on the Empty Spaces Project and this website will be scaled back, but not completely, as we reach the end of this productive partnership between Arts NSW, UTS Shopfront and the CAMRA project, we hope to be part of answering that important question for rural Australia into the future. Keep watching this space.

Lisa Andersen

Manager, Empty Spaces Project

Community Engagement Coordinator, UTS Shopfront Community Program

University of Technology, Sydney