By Laura Neill
‘Out-of-date and ludicrous’ red tape is strangling Sydney’s creative sectors, according to a new report authored by Sydney Fringe Festival (SFF) director and chief executive Kerri Glasscock.
Titled ‘An Anthology of Space’, the report proposes solutions to overcome the financial and regulatory restrictions hindering artists from utilizing industrial and retail spaces.
“If artists were able to legally and affordably use available empty spaces, the current venue crisis would literally cease to exist,” said Ms Glasscock.
Funded by the Department of Industry, Liquor and Gaming’s cultural infrastructure and grant program, the report names costs associated with Development Applications and lengthy timeframes for regulatory approval as causing the ‘demise of the venue for hire’.
Several case studies were highlighted from over four years of experience delivering the annual independent arts festival, with more than 2000 artists requiring temporary space.
One case study was SFF’s application last year to use a disused warehouse space in Alexandria as its Festival Hub. Local police reacted by insisting the Festival employ up to 5 security guards – a number normally reserved for nightclubs and high-risk venues. This meant that a morning yoga class would have required the presence of 2 guards.
“Because it’s a warehouse, a festival context, there’s an assumption that this was going to be a super high-risk activation, that this would turn into a rave party. The conditions were no dancing, no DJs and extra security,” said Ms Glasscock.
Under these conditions, ballet or jazz performances would have been illegal.
“That’s almost insulting to the biggest independent arts festival in the state,” said Ms Glasscock. “It’s quite mad.”
While approval was eventually granted without dance restrictions, Glasscock’s report notes other examples of Planning and Development regulations extinguishing attempts to activate even smaller venues.
Artist troupe Ru De La Rocket were forced to abandon their ten-show performance at a hairdressing salon when a Change of Use DA was required, triggering additional requirements for noise attenuation, fire exits and amenities.
“It was one artist playing a hairdresser, speaking to twelve people. The only difference was that (the audience) were paying for a ticket at the start, not for a haircut at the end. That one thing would have triggered a full change of use of the building, to upgrade to the same category used for an airport, or an opera house,” Ms Glasscock said.
“It sums up how out-of-date and ludicrously performance is treated in the regulatory world. It’s a one-size-fits-all assumption of super-high risk.”
If existing retail space was opened to the performance sector, the high streets could be peppered with 30-60 seat performance spaces that would diversify the nightlife economy and re-invigorate the struggling high streets. Renting a retail space is also cheaper than renting a theatre.
“But as soon as performance is involved, it triggers a huge number of regulatory hurdles that are prohibitively expensive.” Ms Glasscock said.
Most artist-led organisations and medium-sized projects seek nimbler and more affordable spaces, much different to the theatres of old. The report requests a change to the National Construction Code, whereby such ‘bare bones’ spaces would fall under the same regulations as restaurants with the same capacity, as modelled by South Australia. The code is set to be updated next year but until then, small spaces remain unaffordable.
Playwright Sophie Roberts, whose award-winning stage play ‘The Colour Orange’ sold out during the 2018 season, attests to the scarcity and unaffordability of appropriate, fit-for-purpose spaces.
“You end up pulling in favours and rehearsing in people’s kitchens. There’s something inherently fun in that at the beginning; towards the end of the process it’s draining,” Roberts said.
Said actress Isabella Broccolini, “the challenge we face in Sydney is where to obtain artistic access to spaces, in a city with a lot of space, but – sadly – not willing to lend it for art.”
Deputy Mayor Linda Scott, who last year moved to set up the City of Sydney’s Nightlife and Creative Sector Advisory Panel, welcomed Ms Glasscock’s report.
“These rules are like trying to kill a snail with a sledgehammer,” said Ms Scott, “the live music and creative joy of Sydney needs to come back, and that means we need changes to ensure they can thrive.”
Ms Scott said that conditions of consent provided by state approvals such as Liquor Licensing and Development Applications need to be addressed.
“There’s a lot that needs to be done, so that we don’t see things like conditions of consent to ban mirror balls or rock music,” Ms Scott said. “The creative sector has shown just how resilient it can be in continuing to produce all the wonderful things that we love but as governments, we can do better.”
Ms Glasscock, a co-chair of the advisory panel, said that change requires a ‘full sweep’ of local, state and federal governments to change the regulation at each level.
“I’d love to see performance treated as any other type of business, not being hit with a stick from the top down. I’d love to see all of our young voices have a place to be able to develop their careers from, because that is vitally important.”