The City of Melbourne is anxious to bring artists people back to the CBD after 18 months of lockdown. Commercial vacancy rates have risen, international student numbers are down and the streets are empty. However, the council’s $A2.6million plan to provide creatives, entrepreneurs with flexible and short-term license agreements should alarm bells.
It is not enough to just create instant culture in order to stimulate an area. These types of efforts are not only exploitative; there is no evidence they work. Artists in Australia are constantly at risk of being expelled due to temporary use agreements. Justin Hanney, the CEO of the council, notes that artists will be able to use the space from month to month and that the owners can take back the landlords or owners at anytime.
Security of tenure is a key component of serious cultural producers’ ability to work. The shopfront program might hold promise, perhaps unwittingly. Economists expect that the current economic slump will continue for at least one year. This means temporary users will be looking at a longer time frame. The program was also extended by Lord Mayor Sally Capp to include performance, new retail popups, entrepreneurial activities and even community radio stations.
This program is part the A$100m joint recovery fund of the state and council, as well as the $A15 million package that supports the creative sector in the most difficult times. These are positive steps. There is always opportunity in crisis. Let’s now think about how to best use this opportunity.
What Are Artists Really Looking For?
Arts, music, and performance should not be considered indicators or saviors of a city’s economic health. They are a valuable asset in their own right and have many repercussions and flows-on effects for cities, including anti-racist, LGBTI+-welcoming and social, environmental, and political activism.
A city’s cultural success is not directly related to its economic success. One exception is that the success of a city does not necessarily mean the strength of its cultural scene.
The poorest cities in the world have some of the best cultural scenes: New Orleans and Chicago, Berlin. The cities that were rich have seen some of the most iconic scenes in history, including Paris, London, and New York. Two conditions were necessary for those scenes to flourish in these cities and others like Austin, Seattle or Brisbane. There is plenty of space, and there is cheap rent.
Cultural Activities And Arts
Today, cities that are known for their cultural activities and arts make it a point to support them. For example, New Orleans has a series of festivals that employ only local artists. They also pay them well. Or they still have land for cultural use and affordable housing like Chicago and Berlin.
Berlin is rapidly changing. Berlin, a city known for its alternative scene, is rapidly changing. Vacancy rates are shrinking and property prices as well as rents are rising. This is due more to the tax incentives that were offer to companies to move to Germany’s capital than any other cultural activity. These trends put the scene under severe pressure.
Many cultural entrepreneurs are buying their venues before they become too costly. Housing activists are creating their own co-ops and artists are promoting more social housing, rent caps, freezes, and renationalization of private housing companies.
These initiatives receive significant financial or government support. Cultural producers and entrepreneurs are recognize and respect members in civil society.
What Can Melbourne Do?
For decades, Melbourne’s vibrant cultural scene has been resisting gentrification. Fair Go for Live Music (Save Live Australia’s Music), Save Our Scene (and most recently Save Our Scene) have all shown how economic growth can threaten local culture. Government support was very limit until recently.