Sydney’s suburban town halls to get second life as arts hubs

Seven town halls on Sydney’s CBD fringe – former civic seats of 20th-century local government – are to be opened up to live performance and rehearsals to address the city’s chronic arts accommodation crisis.

We’ve got seven town halls and most of them are sitting empty 90 per cent of the time, Inner West Council mayor Darcy Byrne said. Magnificent civic institutions we have a responsibility to maintain, regardless of how well they are used because they are heritage items, but they are being grossly underutilised.

An acute lack of surfaced at last week’s council-sponsored Inner West Arts Recovery Summit as one of the most pressing issues affecting the sector’s post-pandemic recovery.

Organisers of the Sydney Fringe Festival have taken up residence in Marrickville Town Hall, which turned 100 in February, with the basement slated to serve as a festival venue for live music.

When it opened in 1922, the Marrickville Town Hall was used regularly for concerts, meetings, dances and balls, and, until the merger of Ashfield, Marrickville and Leichhardt councils in 2016, was where councillors met. Newtown Town Hall, home of the Newtown Neighbourhood Centre, will become the Newtown Pride Centre next year.

Audits of usage have been undertaken for other town halls including Leichhardt, Annandale, Petersham, St Peters and Balmain, all of which are used by community organisations on an ongoing basis.

The move to maximise use of council-owned assets for the benefit of Sydney’s creatives is a priority of council’s four-year cultural strategy presented to summit attendees.

In the aftermath of last week’s conference, Inner West Council also criticised state planning officials for the rejection of their proposal, lodged 17 months ago, to fast-track the opening of new spaces for live music gigs, rehearsal rooms, and artist studios late at night and on weekends.

Byrne expressed frustration with the convoluted bureaucratic response and called for the intervention of NSW Planning Minister Anthony Roberts.

The Inner West styles itself as Sydney’s cultural production capital with surveys showing one in 10 residents are employed in the arts.

The NSW Department of Planning said public consultation was already underway to allow small live music and arts venues to be treated in the same way as shops, cafes and restaurants and council’s proposal could not be finalised in the way council proposes.

The Inner West was the beating heart of Sydney’s arts and music scene prior to COVID, Byrne said. If we don’t get the Inner West creative businesses and performance venues back up and running and pumping then the rest of the creative sector will not recover.

The idea is that there’s a whole lot of spaces, shops, factories, warehouses that are sitting dormant and unused after dark and on weekends.

Under our proposal you could have an audience of up to 150 attend a gig with no need for an application to council. You could have a performance company who needed to rehearse intensively for several weeks in the lead up to a performance, and they could come to an agreement with a factory owner to make use of an industrial space several nights a week.

All that could happen with no application and no need for the council to get involved. We are not asking for money, we are asking them to get out of the way. We could literally have 50 to 200 arts venues open within weeks.

A spokesperson for the Department of Planning and Environment said Inner West businesses can already host small arts and live music events within business and industrial zones without a development application under statewide reforms made last year.

We are also helping council to set up a Special Entertainment Precinct trial that could see Enmore Road come alive with music, performances, food and arts later this year.

We will continue to work with the council to find the best way to finalise its request to make it easier for businesses to operate until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, they said.

A cultural guide to going out and loving your city. .

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