Art in the Heart of Lismore

Getting landlords on board is City Centre Manager Stephen Nelson's priority for Lismore's Art in the Heart initiative. 

Lismore arcade    Lismore arcade

Lismore's iconic Lantern Parade is an 'Art in the Heart' partner. Photo: Trevor Worden

One of the eclectic small spaces in a Lismore City Centre arcade. Photo: Trevor Worden

When he was hired by Lismore Council to revitalise the City Centre, Stephen Nelson immediately saw an opportunity to foster creativity. 

"I identified the creative and cultural community as a point of difference for my City Centre branding," says Stephen. "Outside metropolitan Sydney there isn't a larger concentration of creative arts industries than in the Northern Rivers region and a significant number of creative arts workers are to be found in the Lismore area." 

So Stephen formed the 'Art in the Heart' Taskforce comprising artists, representatives of cultural organisations, a councillor and several NGOs to look at ways in which Lismore could be transformed and revitalised. 

One of the key strategies employed by Stephen was a public information forum held on 17 March, 2010 in the heritage Star Court Theatre. The event was publicised through local media and attracted 230 people, including artists, senior council staff, councillors, the mayor, NGO staff and a representative from the Lismore Chamber of Commerce. Renew Newcastle founder and CEO Marcus Westbury and Kim Spinks, Manager, Capacity & Development at Arts NSW, spoke at the forum. 

"The idea was to bring all these interested parties together, discuss what had taken place with the architect of the successful Renew Newcastle model and see if we could apply it  -but with a character to match our different circumstances in Lismore," says Stephen.

"There are distinct differences between the situation in Lismore and that of Newcastle. In Newcastle there were up to 200 empty shops and the stretch of CBD where Marcus ignited Renew Newcastle was definitely an example of inner-city urban decay.

"We don't have 200 empty shops here. Last December, when I did a walkaround, I counted 23 vacant premises out of 234 shops that make up what we call The Block - a rectangular quadrant dissected by laneways and arcades. This is the real heart of the Lismore City Centre. It has loads of history attached to it, lots of good buildings intact and has a pretty unique 'feel' to it. It's my core turf.  

So while Lismore may not be in dire straits, it still has to counter the negative impression that empty shopfronts convey. The business community and Council definitely want to see as much of the commercial space fully utilized as is possible. 

Like many similar cities in regional Australia, Lismore has been subjected to the impact of state and federal agencies (collectively of great economic benefit to the local economy) either contracting in size or being relocated elsewhere. 

The reason for his appointment was to help revitalise the Lismore City, says Stephen. "The Art in the Heart project is one element in a suite of  programs and activities which aim to achieve our vision, which is 'Lismore's City Centre will be a vibrant meeting place for locals and visitors seven days a week and the most desirable location for business and pleasure.'" 

Lismore - come to the heart

The 'point of difference' Stephen and his team identified when creating a new brand for the City Centre - 'Lismore - come to the heart' - is its wonderful creative community. 

A report on creative industries in the Lismore LGA: companion document to major regional Creative Industries Strategy commissioned by Arts Northern Rivers in 2008 noted: 

Between the 2001 and 2006 census, employment in the creative industries in the Northern Rivers grew 25% faster year on year than the rest of the regional economy. This is very unusual for an area outside a capital city or major conurbation, is a distinctive characteristic of the region, and represents an area of real opportunity - especially in view of the State Government's growing interest.  The Northern Rivers is recognised as the key 'hot-spot' for the State's creative industries beyond Sydney.

The forum was an excellent strategy for moving Art in the Heart forward. "It was a consciousness raiser, brought people together under in one (superb) room and helped summarise things," Stephen says. 


The most critical challenge for Stephen now is finding landlords who will allow their properties to be temporarily used for creative activities. 

"As I understand it, the thing that worked in Marcus Wesbury's favour at Renew Newcastle was that there was a very clever, inspiring, property group, GPT, which owned great numbers of empty shops and had plans in the long term for a very adventurous inner-city shopping centre based on best practice," says Stephen. 

"So Renew Newcastle had one 'group' landlord from the start, but I'm having to deal with individual landlords, and this makes the task a little more complex. 

"The key challenge for me is to get two or three pivotal property owners to commit," Stephen continues. "Hopefully, others will see the advantages of having life and creativity in vacant premises and eventually follow suit. I'm already in discussions with two new property owners who have offered their premises for an 'Art in the Heart' demonstration project. This could involve an exhibition by Southern Cross University digital design students, with others to follow." 

Stephen is optimistic that he will succeed in being able to demonstrate the benefits of the 'Art in the Heart' scheme to both property owners and business folk. 

The councillors who attended the forum are supportive  the philosophy behind the temporary use of empty spaces. And while there were only a small number of property owners at the information forum, a representative from the local Chamber of Commerce was on hand to ask questions on behalf of other owners. 

"They wanted to know about issues such as insurance, power, the legal aspect of temporary license agreements as opposed to more customary leases and the 30-day  notice to quit mechanism," says Stephen. "Both Kim Spinks from Arts NSW and Marcus Westbury from Renew Newcastle were able to answer these queries." 

Where to next? 

Stephen plans to organise one-on-one meetings between property owners and Lismore's Mayor Cr Jenny Dowell has offered to attend these where appropriate. "We only need a handful of empty shops to kick-start the project," he says.  "It's a very exciting prospect." 

The next step is to see if the Lismore scheme can qualify as one of Arts NSW's 'Creative Enterprise Hubs' and hopefully receive the resources required to employ a project manager to make Art in the Heart a reality. 

Contact: Stephen Nelson:


Lismore City Council
43 Oliver Avenue
Goonellabah, NSW 2480