The duo behind new arts hub The Mill overcame the odds to open the Angas St warehouse designed to develop and support local artistic talent.
Amber Cronin and Erin Fowler sit at a table in their recently leased warehouse talking excitedly about The Mill. Co-founded by the two friends, this arts hub is designed to stimulate the arts community and provide artists, dancers, and those in creative industry with a place to hone their skills. It also aims to foster creative engagement with the city, providing a program of events, workshops and classes.
All of these goals hint at a broader design — to keep and nurture artistic talent within Adelaide. The space is set to open in April. Behind where Cronin and Fowler sit is a monolithic pile of old carpet, freshly torn from the concrete floors. The floor is still daubed with industrial glue and strewn with dust. There is a lot of work to do, but for the duo behind The Mill, this is nothing.
The fit out of the Angas Street space is the culmination of nearly 18 months of ceaseless struggle. The duo visited every abandoned building in the city, ran the bureaucratic gauntlet, submitted untold proposals and suffered through countless rejections. In comparison, this last stage will be easy.
In December last year, things were not looking so bright. The two women sat in Magazine Gallery, slumped over the communal table, untouched glasses of water in front of them. Having just seen another potential site for The Mill disintegrate under development regulations, they were almost ready to rethink their project.
The inability to navigate through inscrutable legislation, to secure government funding and to find a useable space was taking its toll. “That was a definite low point,” says Cronin. “We weren’t sure if we’d ever make it happen.” From the beginning Cronin and Fowler had to slog uphill, convincing sceptics about the viability of a non-for-profit arts space and arguing with government departments about the need for artists to run arts communities. But the biggest issue for The Mill was always the Building Code.
As the former head of Renew Adelaide, Ianto Ware assisted Cronin and Fowler throughout their efforts. As he explains, the Code makes it extremely hard to use old buildings for new ventures. “Unlike the UK and most European or US codes, it doesn’t have specific systems for existing buildings. In essence, you have to adapt all buildings up to modern standards if you trigger certain things – like changing its permissible use from, say, a warehouse to a community space.” Particularly problematic is the requirement for all ‘triggered’ buildings to conform to the Disability Discrimination Act, ensuring disability access.
Though laudable in aim, the Act has a stifling impact on fledgling industry, with the cost of installing disability access often prohibitive for community-minded, low-profit operations. “The disability clause needs to be there, and buildings should be accessible for everyone,” says Fowler. “But for situations where the building would not be used otherwise, there needs to be a way around that in some instances.” The buildings Cronin and Fowler were interested in were just that — abandoned warehouses and aging office blocks. Because The Mill had always been designed to double as a performance space, it would qualify as a ‘public space’ under the Code, requiring new classification and concomitant disability access, something the two women could not afford. Sitting in Magazine Gallery, Cronin and Fowler had just seen their seventh prospective site condemned to collect cobwebs.
Thankfully, they shook off their despondency. Rather than give up, they used the struggle as motivation. Having seen the ease with which shared arts spaces operate in places like Berlin, Cronin says she was determined to contribute to change in Adelaide. “It’s so easy over there and it’s so hard over here but we’ve got the same amount of talent and incredible artists. We want to help keep that here.”
In order to do so, the partners adapted their model. Putting on hold the idea of a performance space within their warehouse, they decided to focus on incubating talent. For performances, and some workshops, Cronin and Fowler built relationships with existing arts businesses, including the esteemed Leigh Warren & Dancers, enabling The Mill to conduct public events in compliant buildings. The Mill’s central space, however, is still the core of the enterprise.
With the consistent help of Renew Adelaide, and the pro bono expertise of lawyers and marketers from Creative Partnerships Australia, Cronin and Fowler have secured their property. They also managed to find support from the Adelaide City Council, who granted setup funding as part of the City Activation Project, a broader Council funding initiative. As Cronin and Fowler sit in their stripped down offices, the cavernous warehouse behind them, they are clearly ready to get The Mill running.
Though their venture is just beginning, perhaps their success has already enriched the city. By overcoming the odds, by adapting to the strictures of the Building Code, and by showing that community-minded endeavour can exist within the CBD, The Mill has shown a way for Adelaide to progress and nurture talent.
As Fowler says, “Our whole philosophy with this is to bring people together, but it’s also about Adelaide more broadly.”