Too large to really be a country town (as someone born in Mudgee, NSW, I can say this) but too small to be a metropolitan city (Yes, I tried Sydney but it wasn’t my cup of tea), Newcastle is that strange mix between the two.
It was 2004 when I was living in Mudgee and a friend of mine suggested moving to Newcastle with her, as she had been accepted into The University of Newcastle to follow her music passions.
I didn’t really know what to expect, but it was a perfectly timed escape from the country town which was providing career options of very basic office administration work. I certainly didn’t expect to end up with a Bachelor of Fine Art (Hons) from UoN five years later. Originally I hoped to pursue a career in Communications, but it was during Open Foundation studies that my art began to take the spotlight. Inspired by the Newcastle landscape and urban environment – so different to the rural setting I grew up next to – my photographic and printmaking work explored the ocean, the passenger rail line (we didn’t have that in Mudgee!) and the working harbour, which all became paramount to my arts practice.
I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be an ‘artist’ but grades, encouraging teachers and supportive fellow students spoke otherwise. Very rational doubts about income stability, career paths and actual talent where plaguing my mind. Luckily Newcastle has a very strong support network of people who are willing to share and support each other. I found this network whilst studying at the uni, particularly, when I became involved in the Watt Space Student Committee. Volunteering in the role of 2008 President would turn out to be the most invaluable arts experience, inspiring my interest in pursuing a career in arts administration.
The point of this story is to highlight the value of volunteering and influence this had had on my career to date. I became thirsty for all experiences, a serial volunteer, so to speak. I tried it all, for nearly every local arts organisation, until I found an interest in artist-run initiatives (ARIs). I founded Arthive ARI with support from Renew Newcastle which catapulted my working career here in Newcastle moving onto This Is Not Art (TiNA), which then led to founding my own business, Street Art Walking (SAW). SAW helps turn empty spaces into creative places, focusing on graffitied walls, employing artists to create murals to cover blank (or grey) areas).
Alongside the SAW business, I also work as a community arts broker linking people, businesses, organisations and government agencies to creative individuals and organisations. My self-employed career would not exist without the local Newcastle community. I made a clear decision to continue to stay in the town, committed to harnessing the networks that I have established in my nine years here.
This career path certainly is not a clear one, more like playing hopping stones not knowing where and if the next stone will appear in time. After working as Festival Coordinator for TiNA in 2010, numerous people gave me the advice ‘Get out of Newcastle, this is your chance’. They were right, to some degree. I had just gained a feather in the cap as far as my resume was concerned. My next step easily could have been a Sydney or Melbourne DIY festival. Yet there was a louder voice within me saying: you’ve only just fused these connections. Abandoning them wasn’t worth it.
Volunteering might not be for everyone, but there are many diverse roles on offer in Newcastle through this type of work. One could ponder the notion that perhaps it is less competitive to be involved with and connected directly to arts organisations in Newcastle, versus somewhere like Sydney. Where else can you trial your skills coordinating an emerging arts and media festival (TiNA), teaching workshops at regional art galleries (Maitland Regional Art Gallery and Newcastle Art Gallery), running your own arts collective and ARI (ARThive with Renew Newcastle) or working in a converted police station turned cultural centre with art gallery (The Lock-Up featuring John Paynter Gallery)? Newcastle is a nurturing place for someone like me, who didn’t exactly know my place in the art world.
Perhaps the culmination of all these experiences helped me to discover that my place was within the arts community of Newcastle. Staying here to pursue a career has required much flexibility. There have certainly been moments of hardship. At one stage, the best work I could secure was getting $15 per hour selling fruit in Hunter Street mall. Luckily, I found part-time work in Sydney with UTS Empty Spaces Project which kept me afloat. Early starts to catch the train from Newcastle to Central were not easy, so if I told you working in Newcastle arts was a piece of cake that wouldn’t always be true. Yet I would not have gained the experience for the UTS role if it weren’t for my time working with Renew Newcastle.
It took years of blind faith, part-time jobs and volunteering to gain credentials that now see me as an independent self-employed Community Arts Broker. My latest career curve has been working in the field of ‘placemaking’, after working with local council, businesses and property owners to transform public spaces into attractive, healthier places. Again, this is a direct side-effect of being in Newcastle for so long, responding to the city’s needs. Our big town, with city desires, is a city in-between something. A change has begun, noted by the success of Renew Newcastle which has just celebrated 100 projects, and is seen by other cities on an international scale.
I have recently been invited to be part of a Placemaking Leadership Council, led by a New York organisation Project for Public Spaces, which includes highly valued and respected members of the global placemaking community who are well positioned to expand the impact of our combined placemaking efforts.
Yet, financial support has been a difficult hoop to jump through. But that is a whole other story. In Newcastle, the best way to make it happen is to do it yourself.
Please visit my Pozible campaign to see how you can help get Newcastle on a global placemaking map.
Simone Sheridan graduated from Fine Art at the University of Newcastle only a few years ago, but has been instrumental in organising a number of effective artistic interventions in Newcastle. Simone is a committed member of the Newcastle community and has established herself as an independent community arts organiser, creating a professional bridge between businesses and the creative industry, offering a unique service to assist on brokering a variety of creative projects.
The Engage Newcastle blog is designed to help our local and global communities to engage, connect, share and work with The University of Newcastle.