Art’s Centre Cannot Hold The death of Birmingham Street Studios

Text: Steve Dow

Adam Norton works in a large blue brick industrial building along a road near a trendy bakery heralding gentrification’s arrival in Alexandria. He has been painting and making installations here most days, watched over by a shop dummy’s head and a wall photo of the father of modern computing, British mathematician Alan Turing.

Crunching numbers and creating art can be a difficult double act, however, when money dominates the bricks and mortar of an overpriced city.

Norton, 53, moved to Sydney 15 years ago from the UK and has had to rent 10 successive studios in that time; half of them ended with having to leave as the owner sold the building to a developer. He has paid $120 rent a week here at Birmingham Street, about half the going rate for an artist work space in inner-Sydney. “This has been a particularly good one,” he says, ruefully.

Until recently, this first floor space here in Sydney’s industrial inner-west has included two dozen fellow painters and sculptors who also made it their working base.

Operating for about eight years, the Birmingham Street Studios have had no hot water, tough for washing brushes and dishes, although plenty of rainwater could pour through a gaping roof hole, sometimes ruining artworks. But always, there was community, and artistic cross-pollination.

Gentrification this spring has blown the 25 artists far and wide, however. Birmingham Street Studios has died in its present, freewheeling form. The building, owned by Sydney entrepreneur Michael Dalah, who also runs a nearby catering company, had long been leased to artists, who in turn subdivided and sub-leased areas to more artists. Art Month Sydney touted it as “home to over 20 of Sydney’s most exciting artists” on an open day in March.

Dwindling space means subsidised studios are rare and low rents have all but evaporated in most Australian cities, according to an Australia Council research report. Only 17 percent of artists can afford to work full-time on their creative practice. Sydney extracts the toughest toll on artists, who if they can’t find inner-city space are anecdotally heading for the Blue Mountains, the Southern Highlands, coastal regions or interstate.

Norton is putting his art tools into storage to head to a California artist residency. He’s unsure where he’ll find space in Sydney when he returns, but in unconvinced by city council-backed, project-based artist residencies. “To develop as an artist, you need an ongoing stretch in a studio,” he says. “A ten-year stretch wouldn’t be abnormal in the rest of the world.”

Birmingham Street Studios: a warehouse space stretches from the foreground of the photo into the distance, with exposed beams visible near the ceiling.

The cavernous foyer of the former Birmingham Street Studios. Image credit: Lara Merrett.

By Christmas, the last of the artists here will have moved out to make way for Hub Furniture, a Melbourne-based company founded by Jaci Foti-Lowe, who has signed a 10-year lease and says about six artists will eventually be allowed to occupy a much smaller space on the ground level.

“It really distressed me knowing artists were going to be displaced,” says Foti-Lowe. “We were competing with other very commercial enterprises for the site … so while I felt really bad on the one hand, the best chance of any artists being supported on the site was with me.” She will give the handful of returning artists a 10-year lease, she says.

Owner Michael Dalah says part of Foti’s project is artistic and she will make the area “better than Danks Street [Waterloo], you watch”. He had a “good association” with the Birmingham Street Studios’ artists: “It’s the artists that made most of the money out of it rather than myself. I’m not an envious person. We just had to move on and make it more commercial.” Dalah says he had been “let down badly” by one person illegally living on site, setting off alarms at night.

Artist Alan Jones confirms a person had been living on site, but not, he says, an artist, nor invited in by the artists. Jones, 40, has taken up Foti-Lowe’s offer to move his studio back in, on a date to be determined: “It will be smaller and a different dynamic, but I think it will be really exciting.”

But many Birmingham Street artists have already jumped. Former leaseholder, Melbourne-born Lara Merrett, 46, for example, moved in October to an artist studio share warehouse in Parramatta Road, Stanmore, with former Birmingham Street artist colleagues Jonny Niesche, 45, John Nicholson, 47, and Lucas Davidson, 46. Matthew Bromhead, 33, has moved on his own to a shop front in Kensington. All are now paying more in rent.

Abdul Abdullah, 31, currently in Paris, emails that he is looking for Sydney space to accommodate himself and other artists from Birmingham Street, “the best working environment I ever had a set-up in”. It’s getting tougher for artists in Sydney, he says: “The rezoning around light industrial areas around the city means warehouse spaces ideal for art studios are becoming high-rent luxury apartments or furniture stores.” Abdullah declines to comment on talk he has lucked onto a possible art space in a building awaiting refurbishment in a year’s time.

Clara Adolphs, 31, retreated from Birmingham Street to her home in Bundanoon, in the Southern Highlands, and wonders if she will be able to afford studio space in Sydney again. Photographer artist Charles Dennington, 35, cleaning up at Birmingham Street on a recent Saturday, says he has a friend paying $250 a week to rent a very small apartment studio in William Street, Darlinghurst with a City of Sydney subsidy. “From the outside, it appears the council is doing a meaningful thing, but it falls short,” he says.

Dennington recalls he had a “fantastic” free, short-term residency in the Fraser Street Studios, Chippendale, a few years ago, in an area now called Spice Alley, next to the renovated and expensive Old Clare Hotel. “Once the artists have made the area a bit more chic they throw the artists out,” he says.

Perth-born Sarah Contos, 39, lives in Kings Cross but had to move from Birmingham Street in August to a more expensive studio space on her own at Ingleburn, 44 kilometres south-west of Sydney. She thinks as a “sprawler” artist whose work is “a bit sexy” she wouldn’t be a good fit with the coming commercial furniture outlet.

“All I know is I had to leave my community, and I’m an hour away from my studio,” she says of the daily drive. “It’s a massive loss. At Birmingham Street, coming in contact with artists you probably wouldn’t have otherwise come in contact with, I loved that.”


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