“What a great day for Parramatta – and for the arts in western Sydney – A very important piece of cultural infrastructure has been secured and I congratulate all of the artists that made this happen.” Director of Carriageworks, Lisa Havilah, was speaking at the launch of Tom Polo’s exhibition, at Parramatta Artists Studios, March 4, 2011. The day before, NSW Premier Kristina Keneally announced the long-awaited arts hub for the Old King’s School site in Parramatta. It was her last pitch to western Sydney before the state government went into caretaker mode before the March election. Above, Parramatta Advertiser‘s photo and caption as the Premier announces the $24 million arts precinct.
It was the climax of at least 30 years of intense lobbying for arts facilities and a culmination of Parramatta Council’s Arts and Cultural Plan (2000) and Arts Facilities and Cultural Places Framework (2005). Among the Framework’s objectives was – “to consolidate and build on partnerships with the State Government in the current investments in Parramatta by investing in new arts facilities to keep pace with the anticipated growth of Greater Metropolitan Sydney.” The framework outlined three cluster venues for arts facilities – first, in the city centre, second, at the adjacent Old King’s School site where education, visual arts and dance would be pursued, and third, for the longer term, the North Parramatta Cumberland Hospital site.
As the first step in this process, Parramatta Artists Studios officially opened in the heart of the city in April 2007. Non-residential and residential studio spaces were offered to emerging and established professional contemporary arts and crafts practitioners. The response was sustained and enthusiastic. Almost immediately, many began to campaign for the Old King’s School. They knew that sitting and waiting was not an option. The announcement by Premier Keneally was a triumph after years of preparation.
In the photos, banners announce the Western Sydney Arts and Education Precinct on the walls of the Old Kings School.
Then the 2011 election was held, the Labor government was swept from power and replaced by the Liberal/National Party government under the leadership of Premier Barry O’Farrell. In June 2011, the new Coalition Government said that “funding was not there” and in July the premier, who was also the minister for western Sydney, was saying the whole project was “under review”. On August 11, 2011, under the headline Funding furore dogs arts issue, Parramatta Advertiser editorialised “There cannot be a more vexed issue in Parramatta at the moment than the mooted arts precinct on the Old King’s School site. The arts precinct. seemingly promised by the previous state government, has become a political football, with both sides accusing each other of lack of action.”
In the same issue, Di Bartok reported that despite claims by the O’Farrell Government that an arts precinct for the Old King’s School site was a “five minutes to midnight” announcement, the previous government had commissioned a Business Case and Economic Appraisal report. The 2010 report was a blueprint for an education and creative industry precinct – “a landmark development for western Sydney, involving the establishment of a gallery outside of the Sydney CBD and multi-media facilities and programs to support creative industry growth in the region.” It was claimed that more than $10 million of the $24.6 million project was already available.
Uncertainty hovered. Artists and supporters pounded the new state member for Parramatta, Dr Geoff Lee, with demands for the Old King’s School. Some set up a Facebook site Urgent – Save The Old King’s School. More than a year went by. For those who had fought for years in the centre of the campaign, energy waned. Their commitment remained but they needed to continue with their own creative production rather than waste time banging their heads against a brick wall. Parramatta Artists Studios continued with a busy schedule which included providing resources and facilities for artists, supporting city events and festivals, presenting forums and offering workshops for children and adults.
Then in November 2013, members of the arts and heritage protection communities were invited to state government organised workshops about what had now become a Parramatta North Framework Masterplan. Financial viability was the fundamental consideration for a 146 hectare site that included some of Parramatta’s most sensitive heritage sites including the Old King’s School, the Parramatta Female Factory and Parramatta Girls Training School. The response from participants was cautious optimism that recognised the need for private development to fund the adaptive re-use of historic buildings for arts and commemorative purposes. More consultations were promised.
“The concentrated consultation approach was designed to deliver a fast-paced saturation-style of communication and engagement activities. The approach was prepared to trigger constructive stakeholder conversations about urban renewal on the unique Parramatta North site, as well as inviting new community voices to be part of the consultation, ahead of rezoning application lodgement with the Department of Planning and Environment in September 2014.” wrote the communication consultants, page 5 of their report.
Such a rapid consultation process with only short notice of each stage is fine if you are a developer, whose business is to identify opportunity, but if you are an artist or community member with many other professional commitments, participation is a daunting challenge. A check of the sites for UrbanGrowth NSW and Department of Planning and Environment reveals little evidence of arts centre planning. National Trust NSW and Parramatta Female Factory Precinct Memory Project & Parragirls have already registered strong protests about the heritage outcomes of proposals to date and asked for an extension of time to February 27 for submissions – see previous blog posts.
Another election looms, so what happens now about an arts precinct for North Parramatta?