WHOSE PLACE IS IT ANYWAY? CURATORS, NOT DICTATORS

The great urbanist Jane Jacobs knew that a healthy dose of common sense, coupled with a playful and adventurous spirit, were as important to making good places as sensitive design and spatial harmony. The indispensable x-factor, however, came from the people who actually lived in these places. “People ought to pay more attention to their instincts” - she argued. “There is an intuitive sense of what is right and comfortable and pleasant” (Jacobs, 2016, 8).  

There may well be a ‘theory of place-making’ which accommodates ideas of community, audience, strategy, and metrics. But ultimately, it’s people―not “user groups” ―who shape and enjoy our shared spaces. As Jacobs noted: “when a lot of experts say one thing, then people stop trusting themselves. This is a mistake. After all, everybody who lives in the city can be an expert about cities” (Jacobs, 2016, 8).

The making of anything is always a work in progress; and leadership may often be way more successful when it’s hands off rather than hands on. Any efforts at economic, social and cultural development must ultimately be rooted in the place’s people—its own ‘experts’—as it is they who will drive these efforts and build on them.

Independent Western Australian cultural organisation FORM has been endeavouring to lean into the practice―rather than the theory―of curating space into place. The organisation focuses on the benefits that creativity and design can bring to every aspect of life, be it individual artistic excellence, creative learning, or community wellbeing. 

For FORM, place-making is less about ‘leadership’ and more about ‘curatorship’: setting the conditions for a framework that encourages people to partner in the activation. FORM ultimately assumes a less obtrusive yet still intensively engaged role, stepping in to guide or refine the evolving process.

 

CORE VALUES OF QUALITY AND CREATIVITY

 

For the past decade, FORM has worked with communities all over Western Australia, from Pilbara mining towns to remote Aboriginal settlements; from historical port cities to regional farming towns; and from Perth’s social housing projects and industrial heartland to the city’s white-collar western suburbs. The organisation has aimed to respond to distinctive local conditions in each environment, while committing to a key aim:  putting quality and creativity at the core of any collaboration with community.  

As Executive Director Lynda Dorrington explains, FORM has a broad definition of creativity:

“We are not thinking in silos about ‘arts’ or ‘culture’. Those indeed do belong within the breadth of what we understand to be creativity, and artistic and cultural outcomes are an important part of our remit; however, we are also thinking about problem-solving and ideas, inside and outside of boardrooms, galleries, schools, street corners, offices, parks, homes, neighbourhoods, democracies, societies, studios, labs, universities, cafés, bars, backyards”

Humans are social creatures, we need places where we can ‘stumble on the fun’ as well as make meaningful connections. When different people come together, ideas spark. Plenty of research all over the world has indicated that places that feel good to all kinds of people tend to attract diversity and talent, which in turn attracts more of the same, and these factors contribute to a place’s economic and social success. These places belong to everyone, or at least they should feel as if they do.”

 

COMMUNITY CURATORSHIP IN THE PILBARA AND IN PERTH

 

The Pilbara town of Port Hedland―in annual tonnage terms―is the largest port in the world, with the region accounting for 35% of the planet’s entire iron ore output. Although the Pilbara is nicknamed the nation’s economic powerhouse, its communities have arguably suffered from mining as much as they have prospered from it. The dominance of upstream and downstream resources production, serviced largely by fly-in, fly-out workers, has put pressure on sometimes fragile social infrastructure, and the remoteness of these towns has also affected people’s quality of life in negative as well as positive ways. Scarce amenities, transient populations, and an imbalance in earning power between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people have all taken their toll. These are complex issues that cannot be turned around overnight; and which, when contextualised by the recent downturn in the resources industry, are not always within a community’s control; which is not to say that a little creative intervention cannot manifest a real step-change.

FORM’s Port Hedland involvement started in 2006. The organisation was invited by the local authority to partner with Hedland’s residents and local businesses in building a more cohesive sense of community, centred on the rejuvenation of an important but neglected cultural amenity, the Courthouse Gallery. FORM’s work started with the landscaping and ‘greening’ of the main streets, and the essential upgrade of the gallery building. Improving the physical appearance of the neighbourhood was however only the start. In a way, this was a proxy for the real challenge:  how Hedland’s people would claim the space; how something like a gallery might create a context for social and cultural interaction in an environment where culture came low in the list of community priorities.

For FORM, the way forward lay in programming the gallery to the highest possible standards, starting with quality exhibitions, a thoughtfully stocked retail space, workshops with respected artists and photographers, and creative learning programs which ostensibly offered professional development but were actually designed to get people to engage with each other while exploring their creative talents. In time, seasonal markets in the Courthouse grounds were added to the mix, and an historic old train carriage was converted into a café.  Meanwhile, a nascent local Aboriginal art collective, initiated by FORM through a series of informal workshops back in 2008, was consolidated by the opening of purpose-built studios in South Hedland in 2014.  

Today, the Spinifex Hill Studios, the Courthouse Gallery, and the Port Hedland Visitor Centre (now also managed by FORM) are essential pieces of Hedland’s community infrastructure.

But it’s not only places that experience hardship that may benefit from culture and creativity as a place-making catalyst. Sometimes, quite affluent neighbourhoods can appear stagnant and lacking in community cohesion as people retreat into comfortable homes, or travel elsewhere to socialise or for entertainment. FORM recently relocated from its Perth city-centre offices to the white-collar suburb of Claremont. The reason was a rare opportunity to repurpose a unique building―The Goods Shed―into Western Australia’s newest creative project space. 

This old freight storage facility is a rare heritage building in a great location blessed with excellent public transport access. This is unusual enough in inner city areas anywhere in the world, let alone in Perth where so many heritage buildings have been lost. FORM has set it up as a centre dedicated to welcoming local neighbourhoods; a hub for the wider metropolitan area; and a place that actively fosters global connections. The Goods Shed is a cultural facility which aims to open up new ways of thinking about place and communities, and to give rise to delight and discovery through new forms of artistic practice and ideas. It also happens to serve excellent coffee and snacks, via a ‘coffee pod’ on the premises; and offers an attractive space to hang out alfresco.  The year-round program involves local and international artist and speaker residencies, which focus on the power of creativity to enrich the experience of place and people.

The Goods Shed opened in August 2016. In its first two months alone it staged exhibitions, performances, workshops, and talks; and hosted book launches and private functions. Around 5000 people came through its doors.

 

MEASUREMENTS OR DISCOVERIES?

 

Are these successes? If they are, how does FORM judge success?

By trying not to think in terms of ‘success’ at all.

That is not to say that measurement does not matter, it certainly does. FORM is rigorous in collecting data and feedback, with comprehensive surveying and documentation of all programs and events. This research informs future programming as well as providing critical intelligence (and evidence of outcomes) to funding partners. It is also crucial in helping FORM to fine-tune the nuances of the curatorial approach to place making.

As scientist Enrico Fermi once observed, with research “there are two possible outcomes: if the result confirms the hypothesis, then you've made a measurement. If the result is contrary to the hypothesis, then you've made a discovery” (Fermi in Jevrevmovic, 2005, 397).

The downside of thinking of things only in terms of success (or otherwise) is that it implies place-making can be reduced to a fixed goal, a box that can be ticked. This is at odds with FORM’s curatorial approach to activation, which treats it as a dynamic, ongoing practice, responsive to the changing needs of the place and its people. In partnering with people and place, the only constant is unpredictability, so FORM relies on people—viewed as collaborators, not ‘audience’—to share what feels “right and comfortable and pleasant”(Jacobs, 2016, 8).

Research and on-the-ground experience powers FORM’s approach, plus the continual monitoring and evaluation of impact and quality. What is needed at the outset of a community engagement may not be appropriate later on; so, FORM values measurement as a tool to support ongoing adjustment, rather than as an end in itself. Research and observation give FORM the crucial information to determine what works in different settings and which strategies yield the best value.  

The curatorial approach therefore requires a light touch. Shared wisdom. Asking questions. Taking risks. It asks people to take part in reimagining how things can be done, and having a vision or sense of direction that can be adapted, and which looks to a blueprint or a plan for support, not constraint. Curatorship is about sharing the responsibility―and the joy and excitement―of community-building and innovation with whomever lives, plays and works in that space: the people who ultimately make it a place.

REFERENCES

2016. Jane Jacobs: The Last Interview and Other Conversations. Brooklyn, NY: Melville Press

Jevremovic, Tatjana. 2005. Nuclear Principles in Engineering. 1st edition. Springer Science & Business Media.

 

issue 2. summer 2016

HOW A WESTERN AUSTRALIAN CULTURAL ORGANISATION APPROACHES PLACE-MAKING

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