The Red Rattler creative run space established in Marrickville in 2009 is Sydney’s first legally licensed not-for-profit creative organisation. Now a successful arts hub and performance venue, the collective went through a long journey fraught with conflict and politics to get this far. Penelope Benton, one of the founders and directors of Red Rattler, gives us an insight into this journey and the politics involved in dealing with local council.

Interview by Georgina Sandercock

Could you explain Red Rattlers journey from a funding point of view?

There are five of us that have been friends and colleagues on various projects for over a decade working in different spaces, mostly warehouse venues that were illegal and constantly shut down. Over the years, many people have said we should open our own space to eliminate the threat of being taken over by developers or losing the venue to a landlord.

We knew we had to inject the kind of money and work into a space in order to avoid the risk of losing it after we had invested time and energy in setting it up. The only way for us to achieve this was to buy a building and own it. We set about working out if we could afford to do that by talking to mortgage brokers figuring out what kind of building we could afford to buy and how this would be done. Once an affordable building was found we went ahead and invested. We all had savings for personal projects, but for whatever reason, we convinced each other that this was a really good project that we could see value in. We felt good about setting our personal stuff aside and setting this up for the community.

During that time we started to research the legal requirements of setting up our building. We had a set budget that included everything we needed to start such as the bar, liquor license, fire regulations and etc. However, the fire regulations alone exceeded the budget for the entire space, which has made it really difficult to fund as it was on top of the mortgage. To deal with this we all had to scrape our piggy banks and ask our friends and family for extra money.

The Red Rattler has been running legally since May 2009. Although, we are still paying off our debt, we have done better than has been expected. We have started talking about what can be done with the money we generate and set up a fund for a grant scheme that will be established after our debt is paid off. Also, we have been discussing how this might work and bringing in more support so the Rattler can expand from more than just a space.

What hurdles have you overcome?

We had to explain to the council that we are a non-profit and community organisation, and that this is not a business that is going to generate money out of artists. We were also hit with many fees that other businesses get when they set up a building. For example, there is a parking contribution, unless you have a car park you have to pay approximately $1,000 per car and they allow people to park in the street as per your venue’s capacity. In addition to this, we were hit with a fee of $15,000 just to allow access to the street.

Eventually, before we could open (as this could not be done until the $15,000 was paid) the council allowed us to have a two-year delay to pay, which has just expired. We had several meetings to negotiate getting out of this payment, but the council were still closed to it. So last year we went to the papers, barrister Tim Robinson saw the article about our cause and has been working with us for several months now. Tim has found a clause that proved it was illegal to make us pay. His 26-page document went to the council last week and we won!

What was your experience navigating this big picture politics?

I have learned quite a lot, but far too late, about how to negotiate with the council. There are ways that you can get through the development and planning people faster if you play the game. Our first DA was rejected, well it was accepted but with a ridiculous amount of conditions that we rejected. Then we figured out we needed to go and talk to councillors and explain what we were trying to do.

There are so many people that can offer good advice, but you need to talk to them before you get into trouble. We did it all backwards. We would apply for things and then get stuck and then people would offer us support. There is the benefit of a huge amount of other people’s research. That is probably the biggest advice I have.

How do you stay motivated?

For me the biggest motivation is when I am in the space and I see something that I admire or respect. Even when people that have just come to watch something and you can see that they are really excited. Seeing that kind of thing being created makes me feel proud about what we have done.

Politics and art is a broad topic, and here are some interesting links: