A seminar by Marcus Westbury, “serial starter of new things”

The man who inspired so many of Newcastle’s creative projects and has helped drive Newcastle’s living culture, Marcus Westbury, is someone I’ve always looked up to.

A self-confessed “serial starter of new things”, Marcus is responsible for two of the projects that have helped me find my feet within my niche: This is Not Art Festival (TiNA) and Renew Newcastle. I identify with his career as he what he does is so integral to the arts scene but in itself “Not Quite Art” (also, fittingly, the title of a three-part ABC series written and hosted by Westbury in ’07 & ’08).

The first of these projects, TiNA, began 18 years ago as the largest festival of DIY media/creativity in Australia and has since played a significant role in catalysing creative and cultural dialogue both locally and nationally. As the Marketing Manager for this year’s festival, I was honoured to hear him sing the praises of our present-day festival and how it has consistently reinvented itself to remain relevant, rather than replicating nostalgic memories from the past.

Another project, Renew Newcastle, was spurred by an experience Marcus faced in 2008, seeking to open a small bar in the wake of local liquor licensing reforms. In that time he came across over 150 vacant spaces in the Newcastle CBD but found it nearly impossible to rent one of them. He explains more of his frustrations in detail here. The result was Renew Newcastle: a framework of property licensing and lending that allowed makers and creators a space to either get their ideas off the ground or fail cheaply. What the Renew initiative has done quite simply transformed the CBD from a place that was desolate and attracted crime, to a community that was thriving and proved that it wasn’t just interesting to be in Newcastle, but that it was possible to do things here too.

What is inspiring about Marcus and his creative journey is that both of these projects were at once revolutionary yet intuitive. They started as unconventional but have now become the norm. They’ve challenged the culture and they’ve changed it.

In his talk, Marcus reflected that he was interested in spaces that weren’t ‘large’. By that, he meant both localised and also the murky space between high art and the creative industries where new things were happening. He explained that his interest in culture is that it comes from the bottom up.

“Culture is something that you make, not consume.”

Culture is a collaborative, evolving space. It is not authoritative and its outcome can’t be imitated. And those of us who champion this space are investing effort into something other than a financial reward. Westbury differentiates us from “traditional” business people saying that the “question is not how much money I’m going to get, but what have I got to lose?”

The talk finished with a rather personal question that I’m glad a fellow audience member asked.

“What keeps you motivated?”

Westbury was stumped. Yes, what was the secret trigger that kept him going? Pen poised above notepad, I waited with anticipation. Slowly, he explained how his motivation comes in waves and I felt a deep moment of relief. He shared that at times, he didn’t feel particularly confident. That instead of tackling the big picture it helped to just focus on what had to happen the next day.

So this is how our talk on Culture and Creativity in the 21st Century ended. This pioneer admitted that his basic processes were really quite ordinary… and I just wanted to go give him a big hug and say thanks.

Thanks, Marcus, for what you’ve done for Newcastle and the other cities you’ve touched. Thanks for inspiring my journey, but most of all, thanks for keeping it real.