activating art spaces

gail priest: sam chester, james winter queen street/fraserstudios

Alexandra Harrison, Dark, Not Too Dark, creative development at FraserStudios, Feb 9-27. Harrison will continue this development at Performance Space August 17-28

Alexandra Harrison, Dark, Not Too Dark, creative development at FraserStudios, Feb 9-27. Harrison will continue this development at Performance Space August 17-28

Alexandra Harrison, Dark, Not Too Dark, creative development at FraserStudios, Feb 9-27. Harrison will continue this development at Performance Space August 17-28


Today all those spaces are gone—closed except for Performance Space (the only ‘legal’ venue), which moved to CarriageWorks at Eveleigh. However there is another wave of artists clinging to the few vacant spaces surrounding the massive construction site that once was the old Carlton Brewery on Broadway. Amazingly one of these spaces, FraserStudios, is a direct result of the construction, as the property developers have offered up the old warehouse on Kensington Street as a temporary space for artists.

The project development of FraserStudios has fallen to Sam Chester and James Winter, the tireless duo who have been behind Queen Street Studio, a rehearsal space for hire just around the corner in Chippendale. The pair started Queen Street in 2005 in response to the news that The Fromagerie (formerly Omeo), a well-loved dance rehearsal space in the old silos in Newtown, was set to close. And it was a big and scary venture. Winter says, “when we went through the signing of the lease we had all the people in our lives, including the solicitor we got pro bono, saying ‘you’ll go bankrupt in three months.’” As it was a commercial lease the financial pressures were considerable but within 6-9 months of opening they were operating at 50-70% occupancy, with the majority of hirers being independent artists. Winter believes it succeeded “because we know how we need to be treated as performing artists. We just applied that to how we ran with the business and the fit worked.”

Besides the hard work, and support from friends and volunteers, a key to the early success for Queen Street was a very amicable relationship with the landlords. However this relationship became problematic after the landlords changed their core business and renovated the building, removing the sound insulation. Chester says: “It just goes to show that in a commercial lease situation, that relationship is crucial and when it goes sour, it’s over, get out.”

Chester and Winter decided not to renew the lease on those premises however it was around this time that the City of Sydney and Frasers approached the team to take up the FraserStudio tender. Queen Street had received some small project grants from the City of Sydney and apparently had made an impression. Winter says, “We were really wanting to activate Chippendale as well as the top floor of our little studio. And so City of Sydney were really keen for the program to be delivered by people who were already kind of established, had a connection with Chippendale, and could deliver on what they said they were going to do.”

The pair resisted the offer for a while, wary of the prospect of working with big property developers. Chester says: “Queen Street’s only got a name… We don’t have lots of money.” However once the decision was made it was all action. Chester explains, “We turned it around really quickly. Frasers spoke to us at the end of June, and there was a lot of pressure to get it up. I think we had artists moving in within a month.”

The initial plan from Frasers and City of Sydney was to offer studios for visual artists. However Chester and Winter expanded the brief to include space for performing artists. Winter says “the whole picture involves [the performing arts] community and we’re not interested unless we can make that happen.” Chester continues: “There is no ongoing funding from [Frasers or City of Sydney]. They don’t pay us, we still run it as a Queen Street Project so everything that is created is created by us and administered by us and facilitated by us. So the performing arts space was a negotiated thing. They said we want visual arts and we said okay we’ll deliver that but we want [studio] 12 and 14 to make income so we can subsidise the project.”

As neither Chester nor Winter has a visual arts backgrounds they’ve brought in artist Peter Volich to oversee the visual arts program. Volich says that the studios offer “a fantastic opportunity for artists to work on a specific idea within their practice. Whether it be to prepare and finalise a body of work for exhibition—which many artists have used the residency for—or to develop a seed idea.” Over 30 artists have benefited from the free studio space and Volich believes the calibre of artists has been very high. “There have been a multitude of outcomes for the artists who have worked here: exhibitions both locally and interstate; curators and arts workers who have come in for studio visits etc…”

The performing arts component of the project began in January 2009 and not only is the space available for hourly hire, but there is also a series of subsidised programs, supported by Arts NSW and AusDance, providing free rehearsal space. Interestingly the first round of recipients reads like a list one would have expected from a residency program at the old Performance Space with a mix of established and emerging artists: De Quincey Co, Stalker, Rosie Dennis, Sue Healy, Jane McKernan, Alexandra Harrison, Rolandi Alejandro, Eddie Sharp, Mark Haslem and The Imperial Panda Festival. This program is clearly filling the gap that has developed since the move by Performance Space to CarriageWorks, which has concentrated the programming into four six-week blocks, thus offering fewer residency possibilities. In the light of some current funding imperatives that encourage inner-city artists to work in west and south western Sydney (from whence many artists initially fled), the eligibility criteria for these grants is particularly refreshing giving “priority to local performing artists (defined as inner-city Sydney) whose practice has been disrupted by development in the local community” [Queen Street Studio website].

Other programs are also facilitated by the Queen St team including ToolKit, a series of intensive workshops with artists such as Martin del Amo, Kate Gaul and Linda Luke; and Off the Shelf, a program for writers and directors to develop text-based works. These all reflect the ongoing philosophy of both Chester and Winter, which is about embracing and celebrating the entrepreneurial spirit of artists.

Of course this spirit is reflected in not only the work happening at FraserStudios but across a range of artist run spaces in Sydney. On the other edge of the construction site, Serial Space (initiated by Tameka Carter and Louise Dibben, and now run by Alex White, Zanny Begg and Alice Williams) is ramping up having just received an Autralia Council ARI grant. A few blocks across, Bill & George Studios appears to be thriving. In Marrickville, a dynamic group of women, fed up with the tenuous status of these kinds of venues have gone so far as to buy a warehouse and set up Red Rattler, a totally legal venue for experimental performance [p27]. And there are many more spaces hidden across the city. In fact Rebecca Conroy, one of those behind Bill & George, has recently formed Space Syndicate, a network of 24 independent spaces and intitiatives across the Marrickville and City of Sydney local government areas to lobby for the importance of these spaces in the overall cultural landscape.

Given the City of Sydney’s long-term Sustainable Sydney 2030 plan, The Queen Street/FraserStudio model is being watched closely. At this stage Sam Chester and James Winter are very positive about their partnership with the big end of town. Winter concludes: “We’re talking about a small arts organisation working with a multinational Singapore-based developer. But it’s the realisation that cutting all that status shit away we both have similar objectives in regard to this project. They need to revitalise this street, they need to placate the community and also be seen as being generous in regard to giving space to artists. Those things are important to us… What we have been able to achieve is above and beyond expectation and [Frasers has] actually realised that the people in the arts work extremely hard to make anything happen. I was saying to [a representative from Frasers] today that it’s been a really fascinating relationship. ‘We’ve had to change our perception of you and you’ve had to change your perception of us. But as soon as that’s happened we are actually in partnership.’ It’s a true partnership because we both share the agenda and the agenda is honest. And the agenda is about revitalisation.”

The word at the moment is that Queen Street/FraserStudios will remain active until September 2010 at least.

Queen Street/FraserStudios, 13 Kensington St Chippendale. The fourth round of applications for visual arts studios is coming up in July, and an open day will be held on June 21.

RealTime issue #91 June-July 2009 pg. 21

© Gail Priest; for permission to reproduce apply to

1 June 2009