By Rita Bratovich.
Since the NSW government introduced Lockout Laws in February 2014, dozens of businesses in the CBD, Darlinghurst and Kings Cross have experienced significant revenue loss, and venues that had been fixtures in Sydney’s nocturnal landscape for decades have boarded up their doors.
Oxford Art Factory (OAF) is one of the few venues in the lockout zone that has thrived, celebrating its 10th Anniversary this year and showing no signs of weakness. It’s been able to adapt and survive thanks to a dynamic range of offerings, broad appeal and an open door, open floor policy.
“I’ve always had a desire to develop and to create new atmospheres for people to walk into” says Mark Gerber, founder and chief of OAF. The perennial entrepreneur – responsible for Q-Bar, Spectrum, 34B Burlesque and Vegas Lounge – had long envisioned a Parisian influenced creative gathering place in Sydney – something like Andy Warhol’s The Factory with a Bohemian influence.
Born in Holland to liberal-minded parents, Gerber was exposed to a variety of art and culture at an early age and developed an eclectic taste. His first job – in a bakery before he was even 10 years old – teed off a career with many iterations: model, actor, musician, DJ, producer, re-inventor. All these experiences – acting and modelling in particular – prepared him for his later forays into nightclub concept development.
“You get taught about rejection; you get taught about cold calling; you get taught about presenting the best foot forward always; and being able to change yourself into what you think [it is they’re looking for]”, Gerber explains.
OAF quickly established itself as a hub, helping to launch many careers and hosting an impressive list of names.
“We’ve seen the likes of The Jezebels, The Preachers, The Rubens, King Gizzards, Glitoris – and Tame Impala at one of the earliest shows at the venue,” says Gerber. OAF has also hosted book launches by Brett Easton Ellis and Paul Kelly. Lady Gaga performed her first show there and recently Dave Grohl played with Chevy Metal.
While OAF has managed to maintain a presence in the after hours scene, Gerber says it is an ongoing challenge:
“It is more difficult with the lockouts. They are changing the face of – not just the nightlife of Sydney, but I think the entire culture and mentality of Sydney.” What’s more galling is that the laws have only been imposed in certain districts.
“The problem with this lockout is that it’s not fair. It’s not fair to the people, it’s not fair to the culture of the city…”
The half hour concessions selectively granted by the government may indicate their intent – or at least desire – to roll back the laws. The City of Sydney is offering a grant encouraging diverse culture and entertainment between 6pm and 6am in the precinct, so there is a light of hope.
Whether or not the laws do change, Gerber is resolute.
“It feels fantastic to still be here after 10 years and I certainly intend to be here for another 10 years.”
One of OAF’s proteges is musician Cody Munro Moore. He moved to Sydney from the country seven years ago as a budding artist looking for a stage. OAF was one of the first venues he stumbled into and within a week of making contact he played his first gig.
As well as playing shows, Moore got a job working on the door and became part of the team at OAF. He attributes its success to a willingness to be malleable and stay current:
“A lot of venues get pigeon holed into an era…they always seem to get stuck in nostalgia a bit whereas, for me OAF – well so far – has kind of stayed outside of nostalgia and been able to be kind of present the whole time.”
In spite of its appeal to more discerning tastes, Moore believes OAF has managed to avoid pretence and cliques and “does a good job of making people feel like they’re welcome.”
He chose to launch his debut album, Perfume Nightmare at OAF because he knew people outside his friendship and fan base would come along. That’s the kind of “open to anything” crowd OAF attracts.
Moore has experienced much of his performing career within the confines of the lockout laws, but has managed to remain pragmatic:
“As an artist, I can always flourish in any environment.”
He believes Sydney has produced some great music in recent years and feels the lockout laws force people to be more creative and find a work around.
He also sees the laws as symptomatic of something deeply entrenched in our culture:
“Sydney has a real long history of the governments and the ruling class being able to pull the wool over people’s eyes, and in doing so, get a lot of capital and a lot of gain in lots of areas.”
Moore will be playing with his band, Big White at OAFs 10th Anniversary party.
James Spink is a promoter and the creator of Volumes, a multi-venue festival that takes place on Oxford St. He began working at OAF as a bar and operations manager, keen to learn about the industry so that he could create his own festival.
When he shared his aspiration with Gerber and booker Tom Byrnes, they were both encouraging and helped him with organising and logistics. Volumes is influenced by what Spink experienced at OAF, and includes live music, installations and art.
Like others, Spink believes the lockout laws require an inventive response:
“You have to create something innovative and do something new that sparks attention. It’s made it difficult but it’s definitely pushed for more quality events, rather than just quantity…”
Part of that inventiveness is changing the conventional programming of events. Volumes schedules its main headliner at 7pm and has a second headliner at 11 or 12pm. Although the festival has just ticked off another successful year, Spink does feel lifting the laws would make a difference:
“Just the general vibe around the event would be quite different … You’d have a bit more freedom to do things.”
Like the rest of Sydney, Spink would like to see the “dickheads that are out there starting fights and causing problems” gone so that people can go out into the night to “enrich and enliven their lives as only art and music can.”
The Volumes DJ will be playing at OAF’s Anniversary party.
10 Years of Oxford Art Factory
Oct 14, 7pm, FREE, RSVP essential (NB: Entry is on first come basis)
38-46 Oxford St, Darlinghurst; http://oxfordartfactory.com