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Why did Smith’s Alternative really close?

By Steven Bailey - 25 March 2015 19

One of Canberra’s most loved performance venues announced last week that it would cease its operations indefinitely. This week, Smith’s Alternative is in receivership.

The cosy venue in the Melbourne Building has undergone many machinations throughout the past three decades. From its slow transformation from a bookshop to an arts hub, it has always catered for the creative Canberran and a common theme has prevailed.

Whether it be the books on the shelves, the singers in the night, or the general public revelry, Smith’s has been a cultural vanguard of progressive and open-minded thought. On the cultural fringe of politics, feminism, sex, lesbian and gay issues, and human rights, Smith’s has been a Canberran institution.

dom

In 2013 Executive Director of the Council of Small Business of Australia Peter Strong sold Smith’s Alternative Bookshop to well-known arts figures Domenic Mico and Jorian Garnder, and so Smith’s Alternative was born. The opening night was a fantastic festive evening. Former chief minister Katy Gallagher delivered an opening speech and was cheekily awarded a pair of nipple tassels which she graciously accepted. Gallagher remarked, “I can’t think of a better partnership that Domenic and Jorian. I wish you all the best.”

After makeover that opened up the space to for a stage and audience, Smith’s Alternative quickly became an artistic centre that attracted local and touring performers, and Canberra’s arts community began to find a new home. Smith’s purchased a grand piano, served good wine, and audience numbers were growing.

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Much of Canberra’s media has claimed that Smith’s financial failure is due to the Abbott government’s cuts, but the problem is obviously more complex than that.

Unfortunately, the business was unable to capitalise on the morning coffee market, and as with most new small businesses cash flow was slow. It also never convinced its clientele that that it was a good place to eat. This meant long hours for little gain. Smith’s went from opening from 7:30am then 11am, and then to 4pm.

Jorian and Domenic both shared a great deal of artistic acumen. Yet due to irreconcilable differences, Jorian was forced out of the business within a year.

In response to Smith’s closure Gardener had this to say:

‘I am of course very disappointed to see Smiths Alternative close. I put in a great deal of effort to help turn it into the hub of activity that it became – musically, theatrically, socially. It is also something that Canberra needs more of. The reality of course is that venue’s, especially in the middle of the CBD have high operating costs and being the sort of place it was, if people didn’t eat and drink, then the business could not stay viable. The community needs to understand that. They need to know that if they want these sort of hubs to stay successful they need to offer them the most support they can. It’s not the government’s job to help support business in such a way. However, unlike other cities like Melbourne or Sydney where there is the population and hunger for such venues to stay alive, perhaps there is a small way for government to play [its] part. I congratulate all those prior and post my departure at Smith’s who help make it the wonderful place it was…and you just never know when another one might rise from the ground again.”

Smith’s was an exciting new venture for Jorian, and it was a loss for all of us that the partnership did not survive.

dom and meryl

In place of Jorian, Mico partnered with Meryl Hinge who has worked tirelessly to manage the venue to the best of her ability. Hinge endeavoured to foster good relationships with local artists and noted that she is particularly proud that Smith’s became a venue that supported local female artists.

“I’m pretty exhausted and drained by the entire venture, but it has really been inspiring to see the public support that we have received over the past week.”

Both Domenic and Meryl have received in excess of $3,000 worth of parking tickets over the past year. Meryl says that it became impossible to find a park, and the nature of a performance venue required them to load and unload equipment. By the time they had unloaded a car they would return to a parking inspector writing them a ticket.

Hinge also contends that people simply didn’t come to the venue because there was no place to park, and whether people like it or not, Canberrans drive cars.

Hinge is now unemployed.

One constant in the story of Smith’s is sound engineer Bevan Noble. Canberran singer/songwriter Tom Woodward remarked for this article, “Along with the always enthusiastic Smith’s audience, Bevan, the house sound-dude, made performing at Smiths a unique pleasure in the world of live gigging.” These sentiments are unanimously echoed by Canberra musicians.

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The last word obviously has to go to Domenic. His frustration and sadness is palpable.

“You can plan for anything but you can’t plan for government stupidity. I’ve been involved in art all my life, and the only truly vibrant time for the arts in Canberra was the 80s. We had freedom then. Since then, everything has become regulated to the point where people who try and make their own way simply can’t.”

Domenic argues that Canberra is addicted to the public purse and that businesses like his own fail because he is forced to compete with initiatives that are subsidised by the government. Although he has asked to speak with government ministers, no minister has returned his calls.

Two weeks ago, ACT public servants arrived at Smith’s to measure the sound due to a noise complaint being made by a member of the public. Smith’s was four decibels over the legal limit (with the door open). They were cautioned that if another complaint was made it would result in Smith’s being issued with a $1,000 fine – such are the ‘fun police’ of the ACT.

Insult was added to injury when Greens minister Shane Rattenbury inadvertently made reference to the ‘fun police’ in a political forum in which I participated at Smith’s last week – Domenic was not very happy.

There are too many examples of government regulations stifling small business for me to mention here. For those artists in Canberra who move away from the public purse, it becomes profoundly clear that a professional future in the arts almost impossible.

As an artist myself, the majority of my income has been created outside of the ACT, indeed I have left the ACT on a number of occasions just to find work.

While public money is being wasted on thought bubbles and pointless regulatory bodies, people are losing their livelihoods, and according to one of the most respected artists of Canberra, Domenic Mico, Canberra is losing its art and creativity at an alarming rate.

What’s Your opinion?


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19 Responses to
Why did Smith’s Alternative really close?
Ian 6:49 pm 27 Mar 15

Looks like a combination of wrong location, too small a target market and a somewhat muddled concept.

Hard to blame the parking. That should have been patently obvious to the owners before they opened.

dungfungus 9:57 pm 26 Mar 15

Matt Watts said :

neanderthalsis said :

Domenic argues that Canberra is addicted to the public purse and that businesses like his own fail because he is forced to compete with initiatives that are subsidised by the government.

So an advocate for the culture and the arts is complaining that government supports culture and the arts? Just wait until George Brandis hears about this!

Most cities have a range of subsidised or wholly funded arts and cultural events, yet good venues still manage to survive and thrive.

There is nothing new in this situation. I remember attending public meetings hosted by Arts ACT years ago and they were bemused at the fact local artists were angry that arts funding went to something like a travelling Romanian folk musician rather than a local (the exact details of the act escape me, but you get the point).

I have always thought the ACT government’s support for local arts should be in the form of a) supporting large events that create opportunities for multiple artists and b) structural support (such as reducing red tape, such as the paperwork to perform a concert in a park, etc) to ensure the opportunities exist for all local artists; currently, the ACT Government framework sometimes picks “winners”, and there will naturally be losers.

(Paying for an interstate artist’s penis sculpture, or the Skywhale, are not what I would support.)

Andrew Barr regularly hand out $500K to Ron Radford at the NGA to assist with their “blockbuster” events. The big end of town always commented that this was a winner (for them).

GoodInfo8 8:42 pm 26 Mar 15

As I said on Facebook, closing the Smith’s Bookshop is a Canberra disaster. What a missed opportunity: it would have been so much better for Tony Abbott to have given the knighthood to Domenic Mico!

canberralyf 8:18 pm 26 Mar 15

Masquara said :

Um The Front is thriving. Very similar business.

Exactly, I work close to Smiths and for the life of me cannot figure out why they were never open in the morning pumping out takeaway coffees at the least. They were never open before 12 which meant they missed out on the biggest coffee market time of the day.

I liked what smiths stood for but clearly it wasn’t a money maker (which is okay) running the events they wanted to run but it could of been supplemented by opening early and selling mass coffees to a huge market of people around that area in the morning. This is exactly what the front does and it’s not even in the city.

I somewhat agree with Dominic’s comments however I think it was a combination of the issues he has highlighted as well as poor business decisions.

HiddenDragon 7:24 pm 26 Mar 15

On the broader point about business conditions, it was interesting to hear newly installed Senator Gallagher observe that Canberra could not handle another (federal) Budget like the last two – a reference, I assume, to the fact that the cutting started under Gillard and Swan.

Given the slim chance that there will be any real reprieve for Canberra, it’s all the more sad that we have very high cost structures and a strongly regulatory culture – not exactly what we need if we truly are serious about diversifying the economy and becoming less of a government town.

Masquara 7:08 pm 26 Mar 15

Um The Front is thriving. Very similar business.

Matt Watts 4:29 pm 26 Mar 15

neanderthalsis said :

Domenic argues that Canberra is addicted to the public purse and that businesses like his own fail because he is forced to compete with initiatives that are subsidised by the government.

So an advocate for the culture and the arts is complaining that government supports culture and the arts? Just wait until George Brandis hears about this!

Most cities have a range of subsidised or wholly funded arts and cultural events, yet good venues still manage to survive and thrive.

There is nothing new in this situation. I remember attending public meetings hosted by Arts ACT years ago and they were bemused at the fact local artists were angry that arts funding went to something like a travelling Romanian folk musician rather than a local (the exact details of the act escape me, but you get the point).

I have always thought the ACT government’s support for local arts should be in the form of a) supporting large events that create opportunities for multiple artists and b) structural support (such as reducing red tape, such as the paperwork to perform a concert in a park, etc) to ensure the opportunities exist for all local artists; currently, the ACT Government framework sometimes picks “winners”, and there will naturally be losers.

(Paying for an interstate artist’s penis sculpture, or the Skywhale, are not what I would support.)

neanderthalsis 3:33 pm 26 Mar 15

Domenic argues that Canberra is addicted to the public purse and that businesses like his own fail because he is forced to compete with initiatives that are subsidised by the government.

So an advocate for the culture and the arts is complaining that government supports culture and the arts? Just wait until George Brandis hears about this!

Most cities have a range of subsidised or wholly funded arts and cultural events, yet good venues still manage to survive and thrive.

Matt Watts 2:17 pm 26 Mar 15

Subsidised events will compete against non-subsidised events. Clearly, unintended consequences.

It’s little different to the unintended consequences of a certain musicians’ group which would, in an attempt to bolster their own events, prevented members from playing at commercial venues (such as pubs) within a time-frame either side of a performance. Sure, it propped up that group’s events, yet such behaviour hurt musos and the limited number of venues willing to host them.

Competition exists. Any intervention in a marketplace will have a consequence. The decision for society is to determine what we want/ are willing to put up with.

Bayliss 2:02 pm 26 Mar 15

Business in Canberra is tough. Business in the Music industry is tough.

A venue that is drawing from a relatively small active population, with high costs as indicated in the article, combined with a low capacity of 70 odd. Not knowing direct costs and overheads but having had a look at similar rental in the city that is somewhere between $70-100k per annum, add insurances, staffing costs, etc and it ain’t hard to see how it could be a small margin venture that would be hit hard by anything from one bad show to broader economic downturn. VERY sad for Dominic as a long-term advocate for the arts in the ACT and the ACT community but highlighting the difference between principals of artistic and cultural merit versus commercial realities. We need MORE of these venues and need to support them as communities – ie go out, attend, drink, and eat. We can’t t though protect businesses built on unsustainable models or poor management (not saying that is, or isn’t the case her – simply have no idea) but we can mourn that they contribute

Bassman1977 10:56 am 26 Mar 15

jett18 said :

Hey, anyone know what’s going to happen to that Impro show that used to perform there? Schnitz and Giggles?
I saw it a couple of times late last year and it was great– anyone know if that’s still going or whether it’s fizzed?

We’re still going!

A new venue has just been secured at Digress Cocktail Bar 11 Akuna Street in the City. And the show is moving to 1st and 3rd Thursday nights of the month starting on the 16th April.

Official announcement to come but find Schnitz and Giggles on facebook.

jett18 7:53 am 26 Mar 15

Hey, anyone know what’s going to happen to that Impro show that used to perform there? Schnitz and Giggles?
I saw it a couple of times late last year and it was great– anyone know if that’s still going or whether it’s fizzed?

Masquara 7:58 pm 25 Mar 15

It’s just extraordinary that Domenic Mico is complaining about competition from subsidised entities and venues!

dungfungus 5:58 pm 25 Mar 15

Re the parking fines incurred while loading/unloading, why didn’t they get a loading zone permit for non-goods carrying vehicles?
They are not cheap but certainly a lot cheaper than the total fines they paid.
As usual, Tony Abbott was reported as probably the cause of this business failure.
I never went there – it appeared more for the bohemian types which from my business experience are always short of money.

Mysteryman 10:56 am 25 Mar 15

Oh.. so it had nothing to do with the Abbott government, despite what Domenic said in the news? What a surprise.

I shook my head when I saw him make a point of blaming it on Coalition cuts to the public service. What a load of total garbage and a pathetic little snipe. Jorian said it himself: “The reality of course is that venues, especially in the middle of the CBD, have high operating costs. If people didn’t eat and drink, then the business could not stay viable. The community needs to understand that. They need to know that if they want these sort of hubs to stay successful they need to offer them the most support they can. It’s not the government’s job to help support business in such a way.”

Obviously the community at large isn’t interested enough to keep them going.

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