• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Letting Space interview

Letting Space is part of a global movement bringing vacant shops and offices back to life.

The shop filled with tempting but empty packages had Wellington shoppers flummoxed; the free grocery store had them queuing around the block; the beneficiaries’ office promoting unemployment got them talking – and arguing.

Welcome to Letting Space, a series of inner-city public art installations that make a virtue of these recessionary times, turning vacant commercial spaces into creative spaces. For curators Mark Amery and Sophie Jerram, it’s about artists breathing new life into empty shops and offices – and into the way Wellingtonians see themselves and their city.

The project is part of a global movement, born of the recession, where artists are encouraged to move into declining inner-city areas and set up studios and galleries to revive them and generate a sense of community. In 2009, the British Government invested £3 million to encourage creative uses for empty high-street shops; in the New South Wales city of Newcastle, a not-for profit company has been set up to match artists and cultural projects with vacant CBD buildings.

Artists who were pushed out of inner-city areas by rising rents are now being invited back in with free or heavily subsidised buildings. But Wellington’s Letting Space takes this concept several steps further. The contemporary artists, including Tao Wells, Kim Paton and Bronwyn Holloway-Smith, were selected to exhibit. They all relish working away from conventional gallery spaces and interacting with the public. And their installations, popping up in temporarily vacant spaces around the city, explore what we want our cities to be.

“We want to encourage the public, not just the artists, to feel they have some ownership of the future of their city and a sense of power about what that future might be,” says Jerram.

Letting Space has also worked to bring property developers and artists together to share creative ideas. “We wanted to play an active part with the council and property owners in thinking about what we want in terms of the future of the city.

We think artists have a part to play in terms of creative ideas,” says Amery. It’s also good timing, as Wellington City Council is currently developing Wellington 2040, a 30-year vision for the city.

Letting Space even set up a Dragon’s Den-style event, with panels of artists and developers pitching their ideas for the city. “We didn’t want to present this tired cliché of the artists as leftie good guys and the property developers as evil ogres,” says Amery. “The idea was to recognise that these people have a benevolent interest in being proud of what they build and develop.”

The project works both ways. Developers who offer artists spaces see virtue in bringing vacant premises back to life, rather than their being plastered with “for lease” stickers, says Jerram. Amery sees it as a “new kind of patronage, one that is more constructive in the long run; working together to build a different city”.

Several of the seven installations so far, one of which was for this year’s Auckland Arts Festival, have generated nationwide publicity, particularly Tao Wells’s Beneficiary’s Office, where the artist set up a PR office to promote the benefits of unemployment. Although Amery and Jerram were naturally gratified to see art on the front page, they were disappointed that Wells become a target for what they call a knee-jerk reaction.

Letting Space received $44,790 from Creative New Zealand to curate and commission all the projects, with Wells earning an artist’s fee of $2000 for his work. However, some media misquoted the amount of funding Wells got and focused on the fact he was receiving an unemployment benefit. The curators feel the opportunity to discuss the serious issues Wells’s installation explored – such as alternative ways of distributing labour – was lost.

Jerram hopes the public might consider why artists dedicate their lives “to making small amounts of money occasionally; what it is that is driving these people to make a public contribution and put themselves out there”.

The last in the first series of Letting Space is Bronwyn Holloway-Smith’s ­Pioneer City, which takes real estate spruiking to its logical endpoint – selling plots on Mars. Nasa’s exploratory missions mean future settlement of the red planet is possible, she says. “And with global warming, food shortages and overpopulation, it might be a good idea.”

Pioneer City invites the public to share ideas and skills for building the new self-sustaining city, including notions for methods of governance, energy generation and waste disposal. “We’re taking the idea very seriously and asking the public to think about the future of our cities and what they might look like,” says Holloway-Smith. Her installation is set up like a real estate showroom. There’s a scale model of the city made with architect Rachel Logie, a website and even an on-site estate agent.

Meanwhile, the quiet inner-city revolution continues, with a book on Letting Space in the pipeline and more installations planned for next year.

PIONEER CITY, Soho Apartments, 80 Taranaki St, Wellington, until July 10. See also www.pioneer-city.com.