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.