It was quite unexpected. After completing my groceries at Minto Marketplace one October afternoon (2015), an exhibition of photo media students from the local high school, Sarah Redfern was on display. Time Won’t Stand Still was a pop up exhibition of year 9 student’s photography in a vacant shop from 22 October – 8 November. You’d think after setting up Stepping Up I would have expected something like this to occur, especially with the national trend of using disused commercial spaces for temporary cultural activations. But this exhibition, although ticking a number of social outcome boxes, did not sit well with me.
Firstly, on the days I walked past viewers were forbidden from really looking at the works on display. Propped up on display boards around the back of the space, photographs were too far away to view in detail. I, as a resident of the local community and an “activist” for the visibility of the local arts community, was expected to be content that the student’s work was on display at all. Unfortunately, there was one document that passers-by could easily review – a development application for a bottle shop to open in the space.
Over the past year in particular I have been intrigued by the relationship between cultural activation and gentrification, a conversation of which Minto and Minto Marketplace has heavily featured in. Occupying only a chapter of my honours thesis, it had the potential to be the whole document unto itself. Through the examples of Site Lab (Minto, 2010), Minto: Live (2011) and Temporary Democracies (Airds 2013-2014) I explored how cultural programing is managed in an unashamedly temporary manner in communities that are otherwise removed from creative practice. Engaging with these conditions is undoubtedly difficult. As these aforementioned projects proved, cultural intervention is not only difficult for artists but also for curators. However, the issue here is independent of any arts discourse, rather it is about spatial dimensions, community building and cultural development.
There is no denying that through a series of gentrification projects, Minto has experienced a significant revival over the past five years. Minto Mall, rebranded as Minto Marketplace, has exceeded its previous form which saw a decline in the variety of stores on offer and an increase in vacant spaces. Today it is a hive of commercial activity as many of the disused spaces have been brought back to life. That is, with the exception of the post office where this exhibition popped up (interestingly enough, it was also a pop up office space for Rosie Dennis during Site:Lab).
So why am I discomforted by all of this? Why aren’t I, the initiator of a similar exhibition not rejoicing that schools are now taking the initiative to do this themselves? Because cultural engagement is too often treated as secondary in renewal strategies rather than integrated. What has the potential to be a contracted, subsidised community art space in the local shopping mall (potentially the only centralised infrastructure in Minto capable of supporting such activity) goes begging. The need has been identified and the solution sidelined to make way for a bottle shop.
The Macarthur region is dog-eared as a major development region. However planning for social and cultural infrastructure is minimal. In order to properly develop coherent, diverse communities, we need spaces that promote the visibility of cultural and social difference. Commercial spaces rarely offer this and bottle shops, certainly don’t. Herein lies my grievance – the greater social impact of the arts remains undervalued when we use it in such a flippant, unashamedly temporary way. Student’s work should not be keeping a shop warm while approval for a bottle shop is underway.