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Strategic summary

The objective of this report is to identify some of the key factors that make Fremantle a creative and cultural Hotspot.  

Fremantle is a small port city of only 29,000 people (36,000 if East Fremantle is included) that has vibrant and diversified creative industries and is geographically close to WA’s capital city Perth. Fremantle has a kind of New Orleans cultural DNA, where live music is cheap and affordable. Fremantle has a unique socio-cultural fabric that has contributed to the city’s large arts community and its reputation as an energetic creative city. Originally, Fremantle was a lower socio-economic locality just outside Perth that offered affordable living and attracted a large number of migrants and artists in the 1960s and 1970s. Fremantle developed a strong multicultural cohort and became a hotspot for live music and visual artists’ studios.  

The DNA of Fremantle arts also features a strong work ethic, a creative workforce that embraces fluid boundaries. Staff exchanges between projects and entities are an accepted part of most activities and ventures, with low levels of turf warfare. The wharfies and Italians in the 1900s form the basis for the cultural DNA of all of Fremantle. It was originally a separate poor working-class town that rose on the back of values such as support for environmentalism, heritage artists, the gay community (Doyle 2019).  

Importantly, the city has a high density of heritage-listed buildings that must be maintained, and many of these buildings have become cultural amenities for artists and creatives. Heritage buildings function as productive spaces for cultural producers serving as studios, galleries, and venues for live performance. They also provide valuable low-cost spaces for creative start-up companies and community-based arts practices. Therefore, heritage buildings and the space they provide for rehearsals, exhibitions and business premises serve as vital infrastructure for the creative industries and cultural production in Fremantle.  Indeed public funding is a key factor in Fremantle’s cultural ecosystem. The immense geography in Western Australia (WA) makes arts and cultural provision challenging, and the small state population brings with it the potential for market failure. Funding flows to the arts and screen production through unique state programs such as the Western Australian Regional Film Fund (WARFF), supported by Royalties for Regions, Screenwest and Lotterywest. This public funding regime is paralleled by councils in WA hotspots that tend to own and deliver cultural services rather than outsource. However, public funding provides only base funding, so commercial income and successful fund-raising features in many city-run organisations in WA. This model could be described as public funding plus arts entrepreneurship and there are many examples of long-standing Fremantle arts organisations successfully using this approach.  

As a result, Fremantle has a strong creative DNA. There is a relatively high density of visual and performing artists who live in Fremantle (0.62% of total fulltime workforce), compared with Perth (0.29%), and the whole of WA outside Perth (0.16%) (see Appendix B.1). There are internationally successful musicians and film production companies, and high numbers of creative services workers in Fremantle, both residents and those who commute to Fremantle. For example, there are 171 architects, 166 advertising and marketing workers, 107 creative digital workers, and around 230 other designers employed in Fremantle. Fremantle punches above its weight in creative services (Appendix A Table 3).  

This creative intensity is very obvious at the street level in the central business district (CBD). There are art galleries, working studios, museums, music venues, and bars in abundance. The streets have a palpable creative buzz, from a large volume of public art, to live busking, to numerous venues for creative performances and art displays. Everyday street-level cultural life in Fremantle also provides a very strong personal support network that encourages emerging artists to show their work and pursue music, writing, and visual arts. Local bars welcome book launches and often design cocktails for such events. Live music venues still exist, catering for neophytes to international acts. Factors that attract creatives to the city are: lifestyle, being an arts and culture hub, and being a city that provides a supportive creative milieu.     

The city’s key creative and cultural sectors include: music, film and television, museums, and various individual arts disciplines including painting and sculpture. Fremantle has a high density of nationally successful musicians, and a large portion of WA’s film and television production companies are concentrated in the city.  

Respondents reported that ‘being different’ is a cultural norm. A number of respondents proposed that isolation and the tyranny of distance meant longer fermenting of product, differentiation of ideas, weirdness, and more self-sufficiency. If you go to Hollywood from Perth, you must be serious (Ogilvie 2019). Current global superstars Tame Impala are a classic example of weird difference fermented and polished to a very high degree on the streets of Fremantle. They are globally seen as exotic and different.  

Fremantle has a diverse economy with a number of important sectors, ranging from knowledge services (education and training, healthcare, and social assistance), to port services, warehousing, construction, and manufacturing. Fremantle’s economy grew by 9.4% per annum between 2011 and 2016 and in 2017-18 Gross Regional Product was $4.5 billion (Appendix Table 1). There is a large number of resident creative services workers (employed in advertising and marketing, design, and software and digital content) in Fremantle, around 600 working in creative services firms, and another 600 working in other industries.  

Tourism is important to Fremantle and arts and culture features significantly in tourism. The City of Fremantle (CoF) Destination Marketing Strategic Plan 2018-2022 is forward-looking and seeks to improve integration of local tourism related businesses into marketing campaigns and digital marketing, and focus more strongly on promoting popular local events to visitors as well as locals. The plan envisages a vibrant walkable Fremantle, with unique events and festivals, and leisure and entertainment, which the combination of ‘port and ocean’, heritage assets, and arts and culture offers. 

One challenge for Fremantle is that the revenue base of the city derived from the ratepayer is hard to expand due to the lack of greenfield sites, and yet it needs to service the needs of large numbers of day visitors. There is a tension evident in the interviews between the need for investment attraction and an expansion of residential space on one hand, and a desire to preserve the past and limit development on the other. Compared with other hotspots in Australia that we have studied, it is fair to say that we encountered more valorisation of the past in Fremantle than imagination for the future. To some degree, change is viewed suspiciously and that perhaps makes innovation more difficult.  

Notably however, some organisations praise the CoF for its flexibility and willingness to allow creatives to experiment and access space. One such organisation is Spacemarket, an innovative initiative that transforms heritage and abandoned buildings into temporary co-working spaces and enterprise development incubators for both creative industries and creative services. Spacemarket is one example of the strong community-based and community-led mobilisation of heritage-listed space for enterprise development.  

There are many other innovative initiatives that are useful to arts and culture. These include Sustainable Housing for Artists and Creatives (SHAC), which has redeveloped the former Kim Beazley School site in White Gum Valley and features studios and affordable accommodation stock. Stackwood warehouse project is another development, which has encouraged micro-businesses. The Fibonacci Centre is an innovative art centre based on a collective model. Even the clinicians have start-up culture as exemplified by Paper Bird (Jackson 2019). The Sunshine Harvester Works (formerly the Mantle) is a food oriented start-up space.  A major new CoF building (King Square Development) undergirds a central city renaissance. Start-up culture is real.  

Taken as a whole, such initiatives represent a notably different community-led innovation paradigm that is diverse and inclusive. 

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Page reviewed 11 September 2023