FREMANTLE’S arts precinct at Arthur Head has had its first casualty, with Mutima Art House pulling out just eight months after opening its doors.
Freddy Poncin and partner Wajipha Chongwe mostly blame Fremantle council, saying promised support has been slow or non-existent. The pair believes the council wasn’t upfront about their tenure during negotiations before they move in mid-September.
Their suspicions were raised as far back as November when they say a drunk council employee dropped in after a function and complimented them on how they’d livened up the old cottage on Captain’s Lane.
They say the sting in the tail was when he told them they wouldn’t be there long enough to benefit from it.
“We went back and checked our licence and found it had been changed,” Ms Chongwe told the Herald.
She said the council had given them a draft licence for three years with an option for two more. They’d run the paperwork past their lawyer who picked up a minor unrelated issue so they sent it back to the council to be changed.
But Mr Poncin says without their knowledge the council also changed the tenure to two years, and they didn’t notice the change—nor were they made aware of it—before signing.
Council community development director Marisa Spaziani has a different take, saying the pair signed an agreement prior to the licence being drafted which clearly offered just two years.
“They also signed the licence documents that state two years with no further options, before stating they thought they were receiving a further term of three years approximately five months after signing the licence document,” Ms Spaziani says. The council agreed to the extra three years.
Ms Spaziani also says it’s not true there has been no council support. The council renovated the cottages, provided furniture and seating to encourage people to stay in the area, completed an art project in the toilets, installed wifi, programmed festival events at the adjacent Round House and convened a meeting of tenants to discuss security and marketing.
Mutima says it didn’t generate enough people through the doors so it asked the council for rent relief, which was rejected.
On Thursday morning Mr Poncin rang the Herald saying he’d just seen Artsource advertise its space for $400 a week—$50 less than what he and Ms Chongwe are paying.
“That’s a slap in the face, isn’t it,” he says.
Neighbouring photographer Glen Cowans is sitting tight on a long lease locked in before the council turned its focus to the precinct. He says he feels for the Mutima crew.
“It’s a difficult area: I get people because of the Round House [he’s next door] but it’s just a fraction and as you go further down the lane it’s even less. People come with their blinkers on—they say I’m coming to see heritage—and it’s very hard to distract them.”
He’s hopeful the precinct will work but says the council should stop trying to micro-manage it and let the market decide what art is going to work there.
Ms Spaziani says patience will be needed before the council’s vision is fully realised.
“It’s a fact of life that arts business, just like other businesses, do come and go and while the city will support these businesses as much as we can, we can’t be held ultimately responsible for their success or failure.”
by STEVE GRANT