For someone who doesn’t consider himself a creative person, Marcus Westbury’s career has certainly been focussed on creating interesting things.
The Newcastle-raised broadcaster, writer and festival director has been responsible for some of Australia’s more unconventional and successful cultural projects and events. He was the founder of the renowned This is Not Art Festival, which returns to Newcastle this month, is a former artistic director of Melbourne’s Next Wave Festival and was a director of the cultural program for the 2006 Commonwealth Games.
But more recently it has been his innovative work in urban renewal as the founder of Renew Newcastle (and later Renew Australia) that is taking the spotlight. This initiative has brokered access to more than 80 empty buildings for in excess of 200 creative enterprises, artists and cultural projects and in doing so transformed not only the city’s CBD, but the way in which Newcastle is seen by its residents as well as those from further abroad.
Following the launch of Marcus’ book Creating Cities last month, the newly published author took time out to chat with Intouch Magazine about crowd funding, creativity and change.
Creating Cities was brought to life with the assistance of your fans via crowd funding. You certainly had an amazing response to your funding campaign. Did you expect that level of response? It was much more than I expected. I was originally trying to raise $10,000 and in the end I more than quadrupled that. I guess I thought that it was plausible to do a book, I thought there was a community out there that would support it. I wasn’t surprised that we hit the target. I don’t think I would have done it if I didn’t think we could do that, but we hit the target within 24 hours and it’s still got the record I think for the most number of supporters for a book ever in Australia and the most money raised for a book ever in Australia.
The book’s narrative is woven around your journey with Renew Newcastle – but it goes far beyond simply recounting the stories of the successes and failures you encountered along the way. Can you tell me what you hope to achieve with Creating Cities? I think the idea was to try and get to a deeper set of observations about cities and about ideas, but to do so through anecdote and observation. So rather than try and write a kind of abstract ‘the planning rules were blah and I did this,’ it was to try to go ‘here’s an example of a problem I discovered and how we went about trying to solve it’ and tell some interesting stories along the way to keep the narrative going.
To me it’s a chance to reflect also on a ery unlikely chain of events – and it is an unlikely chain of events - at so many points this could have not have happened really easily. So telling some of those stories as well, the end result is, I hope, a book that you can either pick up and read and think ‘that’s a really good story and I enjoyed the story’ and hopefully it was a bit inspiring or engaging or whatever; or it’s a book that you can pick up and read and hopefully walk away seeing the problems of your own city or community in a different light and how you might do something about them.
Do you see it as an important extension or addition to the work that is being done in Newcastle and now across the country with Renew Australia? I do, I think one of the reasons I decided to do a book is that I spent a lot of time talking about Renew… half my life these days is talking about and explaining it to other communities that are interested in doing it.
There’s a lot of interest in what we did and how we did it – there’s not necessarily a lot of time or a lot of context to explain why. I’ve described it in the crowd funding campaign as a ‘why-to book’. What it’s trying to do is explain why we set up the processes we set up and why they worked the way they worked and why I think they succeeded at what they were trying to do.
It would be impossible to summarise all that the Renew program has achieved in Newcastle, but if you had to select one thing that has come out of it you’re most proud of, what would it be? There are 80 less empty buildings since we reopened them – that number just blows my mind. I think if you told me in 2008 there would be eight I would have thought that was just awesome. There are 200 projects that have started – there’s all of those quantifiable numbes and there’s the real businesses that have signed leases, they’ve bought buildings some of them and that’s amazing.
The thing that I still get the most out of is watching people do the things they’re passionate about. There’s a big picture story, there’s a narrative change about how people see Newcastle, how they talk about it, what they think it is, I think that has changed a lot and I’m really proud of that.
But actually the thing that gives me the most satisfaction is when you have a conversation with someone, like the person who came up to me the other day and said ‘I have always wanted to start my own business or my own project and you gave me the opportunity to do it by setting this up’. You just realise how much there is to be gained from helping those people and how personally satisfying it is to see them achieve what they’re trying to do.
Your success with Renew Newcastle and before that, with a host of innovative events and festivals is well documented. Your own personal story is probably not as well known. An essay you wrote for the Griffith eview (republished by the Newcastle Herald last year) laid the highs and lows of it bare.From the effects of health issues experienced by yourself and your mother to your father’s mental health battles; from your family’s financial and emotional ups and dwns to your fist forays into founding festivals; and then in your mid 20s the effect of your parents’ deaths, one year apart. How much did the experiences of your childhood and youth inform who you are today and the career that you have forged? Hugely so. I don’t know what I’d be doing if I hadn’t had the formative experiences that I’d had and they include the highs and the lows.
I’m very much the product of a very specific st of circumstances at a very specific time. I think if I had been bornsomeone else in another place, in another time I’d probably end up on a very different path. I think one of the reasons I can’t really let go of Newcastle is that I’m really very personally aware of how the fate of a city is intertwined with the fates of lots of people in it because I saw that in my own family.
And I think on a deeper level there’s a certain sense of anger and injustice about how the world works. Anger’s a funny term to use as motivation but I do get quite angry with the injustices in the world and I think trying to find ays of ameliorating that in whatever way I can is something that actually drives me more than I probably want to acknowledge sometimes.
Transformations certainly seem to be a key motif in your life – both negative and positive. Do you think your role in creating festivals and initiating change within the community was about taking control of those transformations? I think it’s an interesting question actually, no-one’s ever asked me that before. I really like change; I have a really short attention span, I jump from one thing to another, I do lots of projects and things –I’m not someone who’s afraid of change.
But the question is not about whether you have change or not … the question is who gets to decide what changes and how.
"I think the idea of change as something that you can control or shape or influence though your actions - not something you just protest against or that you demand someone else do - but the idea of change as something that you own and culture as something that you own through your actions to me has always been really important."
You have a background as a writer, broadcaster and festival director – what is your earliest memory of being creative or wanting to create something? I tend to not describe myself as an artist or a creative person, I joke that I just hang around them and leech off their talents!
I wrote lots of bad poetry as a teenager, I’ve made TV series now and I guess I probably always wanted to do that, make media in general. But primarily I don’t think of myself as an artist, I think of myself as someone who has a particular series of skill sets. It’s actually quite boring in some way, it’s about breaking down systems so they work differently. I’m just interested in that really basic stuff of what happens to people that make things and how they do it.
Is that why you created your latest project – the Bespoke TV series that recently aired on the ABC – to explore the stories of these artisans? I think so. I had made a couple of TV series before for the ABC before Renew took over my life and I had wanted to make another one.
I went in and saw the ABC Arts team about two years ago now and said here’s three ideas I’ve got for a show and that was the one they really liked. And there was a producer who was working on a similar concept that didn’t have a writer or presenter and I was a writer and presenter who didn’t have a producer or a director so they teamed us up and we went off and made a show.
I actually quite enjoy TV as a medium, I think a lot of people kind of dismiss it, but the sort of TV I make I think is a good way of taking what are actually quite complicated concepts of what’s going on in the world and breaking them down into chunks that are a) good stories and b) actually are quite illuminating as well as being entertaining.
You’ve lived in Brunswick for 13 years now – do you miss Newcastle? I think I’ve got the perfect relationship with Newcastle. I’m there a lot, I’m involved in a lot of things but I don’t have to get involved in a lot of things.
I’ve got an excuse to spend a huge amount of time in Newcastle, which is great. My young kids have been to Newcastle more times than I can count. My eldest son is five and his favourite place to go in the world is Newcastle, he loves it so much and he’s got a whole bunch of friends there.
I’m there on average every two months for a few days, I’m going to be there four times in the next six weeks, so I don’t really feel I’m that much removed from it.
Intrinsically you’ll always be linked with the projects you’ve created, almost the legacy you and your team of collaborators have created for this city, not only with Renew but with things like the This is Not Art Festival. How does this make you feel? It’s really interesting, I can go back to Newcastle, pick up the paper on a random day and half a dozen of the things that people will be talking about would be things that I was involved in starting and I find that prtty cool. It’s kind of nice that there’s a whole bunch of things in Newcastle that in different ways are really wound into the fabric of the city and I can tell you where they started because I was there.
Now the book is out and the show has gone to air, what comes next for you? I don’t know is the short answer. We’re trying to get some proper government funding for Renew Australia because I think we’ve had 140 communities around Australia that have contacted us and I can’t afford to go to them. It would be nice to be able to do more with that.
But I’m basically unemployed once all this finishes, so I need o work out what I’m actually going to be when I grow up again but that’s alright, I usually end up there!
Creating Cities was number one in its category on Amazon in America yesterday… I think I’d like to be part of an international dialogue and process with communities that are doing similar sorts of things. Personally I don’t want to do Renew “insert place name here” over and over again but I want to take those ideas about how cities function at the small scale and find ther newer, more interesting and hopefully better paid contexts in which I can apply them and hopefully the book will set in train things that will make that more possible.
I’ve got a long holiday booked in for the end of the year to South America with my family, which is good, and then once that’s out of the way I’ll probably come back early next year and - I was going to say make a plan, but I never make a plan - I’ll come back and find somthing and just be where I end up.
Finally, if you could sum yourself up in three words, what would they be? Persistent, curious and lucky.
You can buy Marcus Westbury's book Creating Cities online via www.creatingcities.net in both print ($27.50) and ebook ($12.50) versions.
The book is also available from local bookstores MacLean's Booksellers Hamilton and Alie Jane Travel Accessories & Designs (Hunter Street Mall).
"Creating Cities is a call for action... Marcus makes the time for urban renewal now, driven by an obsession more than mere passion. This book is hopeful and optimistic, and a perfect case study of how systemic and emergent thinking (that is foresight), can create shifts beyond what seems possible." - Kristin Alford, Futurist & Founding Director Bridge 8 (via Goodreads)