Sydney's famed cultural vibrancy is at risk as soaring costs push artists and creative spaces out of Australia's largest city. In response, the City of Sydney has unveiled an ambitious $20 million, 10-year cultural strategy to retain talent, create affordable spaces, and stem the tide of decline in the creative economy.

At a Town Hall discussion on the future of Sydney's cultural life, Lord Mayor Clover Moore laid out the stark reality - the city's creative workforce is being priced out. Census data shows the number of artists living in Sydney declined 11% from 2011 to 2021, the only Australian capital to see a drop. Residential rental costs, now consuming 62% of the average artist's income, are the primary driver.

"While Sydney is a powerhouse of culture for the nation, what makes that possible is at risk. Our creative workforce increasingly can't afford to live or work here," the Lord Mayor said. "Unless we support their work and provide affordable and secure creative space, we risk losing our cultural vibrancy."

The City's draft cultural strategy aims to tackle this crisis through a multi-pronged approach:

  • Seed funding to establish a creative land trust to acquire properties for cultural use
  • Artist fellowships to retain a diverse creative community
  • Grants to retain and upgrade existing creative spaces and foster new ones
  • Planning aid to help artists navigate approval processes
  • Installing writers' rooms, studios, and performance spaces in public buildings
  • Exploring underused commercial property for creative reuse

NSW Arts Minister John Graham joined the Lord Mayor in committing to the land trust model, which has proven successful in cities like London and New York in preserving affordable spaces long-term.

"We cannot deal with the scale of the crisis without new tools and a new approach," the Minister stated. "We are going to shift from...building a small number of amazing public spaces to using a range of levers to deliver space and crucially activating space that already exists."

The land trust would operate as an independent non-profit taking property off the private market through philanthropy, investment, and government contributions of space and seed funding. "It can build a portfolio...and it can manage properties...placing them in the hands of the cultural sector for good," the Lord Mayor explained.

Sydney is not alone in this struggle. Cities worldwide are grappling with similar threats to their creative communities from gentrification and rising costs. London recently launched its own £4.1 billion public-private creative land trust. In New York, non-profits like the Brooklyn Arts Exchange acquire neglected spaces and manage them as affordable studios, galleries and rehearsal rooms.

Beyond housing costs, the City's research also identified lack of mid-sized cultural venues, increasing compliance burdens, and workforce diversity challenges impacting Sydney's creative economy. Commercial spaces used by artists and creatives have contracted by 172,000 square meters since 2012.

The draft strategy, backed by over $20 million in new cultural investment over 10 years, aims to not just retain but rebuild what Sydney has lost. "Culture gives Sydney its character and a voice to our ideas and stories," Lord Mayor Clover Moore stated. "There are no simple solutions but our new approach will help retain what we have, rebuild what we've lost and reimagine an inspiring, diverse and thriving cultural life."

The strategy will be open for community consultation before being considered for approval in June. As global cities innovate new models to keep culture alive, Sydney's multi-million dollar plan marks a major counter-offensive against the existential pressures facing its famed creative economy.

(Images: Town Hall announcement, Lord Mayor Clover Moore, NSW Arts Minister Hon John Graham, Panel Discussion. Pics: Katherine Griffiths/City of Sydney)