How was the idea for the Olive Tree Market born?
The initial idea for Olive Tree was formed with co-founders Ally Buchan and Bec Thomson. We met by chance and were struck by the number of creative people in Newcastle, the lack of real opportunity for this community, and also by the lack of regular community-based events.
Olive Tree was really born from a desire to provide a platform for local creative industry practitioners to showcase their work and earn an income at a time when there was very little opportunity in Newcastle for this community. We were also real market lovers. I had travelled to markets throughout the world, and also had numerous family members who had operated creative based business as stalls at the Paddington Market in Sydney from the 1970-1990s, so I had experienced how important markets could be, as both an income stream, and as a real community support base amongst creative people. I also had many friends at the time who were travelling to Sydney on a weekly basis to markets to sell their art without the same opportunity in Newcastle.
So, when I met Bec and Ally, and we all had the same interest and desire to make something happen in Newcastle, the concept, and determination to kick start it, all came together in a matter of weeks. But that was just the beginning. We didn’t have a proper understanding of the work it would take to successfully operate an event, that’s been a learning process over time.
When did you know it was going to be a success?
Fairly quickly. We initially put a lot of time into making sure we started the market with quality stallholders and that launching the right way was really important. We spent four months reaching out to creative networks in Newcastle, advertising that we would be starting Olive Tree. We met with each applicant, and viewed their work, and discussed their practice. The wider community really embrace Olive Tree very quickly, there was a real need for regular community-based events at the time. There were no regular markets focused on art and design, or places where you could visit with your family and friends, explore and experience the creative community, listen to music and people watch. The community also quickly embraced the concepts we were trying to establish, supporting the creative community, and making an informed decision to buy small batch, ethically produced work- we wanted the community to know who and what they were supporting with their purchases.
Now, there are several markets. What is your competitive advantage? Is there room for all the players?
I think the quality of the work that our stallholders exhibit has been hugely important, there is a big curatorial role to running a successful market, it requires putting time and effort seeking out artists and designers, into building relationships, into promoting the people that take part in the event and mentoring emerging artists if they need the support.
Olive Tree has become known in the stallholder community as market that values handmade, and the maker community, and word travels amongst this community. We also put a lot of effort into the experience people have at the market, the quality of the live music, the vibrancy of the event itself, running free workshops when we are able to access grants to provide these opportunities, and also having a great food stall line-up. So that all the elements put together lead to success.
And having such a high number of handmade stalls makes us one of a handful of markets with this focus Australia-wide. For example, of the 182 stalls this Saturdays, 93% are handmade by the actual stallholder, and the over 7% are designed by the stallholder and made in small ethically produced settings with known makers or family members.
As far as room for all, it is a tough retail climate across the board, and markets are a huge investment on many fronts.
Having a cultural landscape with choice is healthy, but I think difference is vital, and as a result - producing events with a unique focus. If markets are set up in close proximity, and aimed at the same stallholder customer base, and the same visitor audience, it floods the market. So, finding a niche, I think is vitally important to success and longevity.
Have local councils been helpful or a hindrance? Is there more they could do to support markets (or your market)?
I’d love the City of Newcastle to develop and promote the cultural ‘capital’ of the city as a driver of tourism in a bigger way.
The impact of creative industries is now really being recognised as a driver of innovation, tourism and the new economies. I think cultural tourism is a missed opportunity in Newcastle, A lot of our customers travel from outside of Newcastle specifically to visit Olive Tree. There is so much to promote within Newcastle that makes us culturally unique as a destination. This includes events like the Olive Tree Market, Catapult Dance, The Creator Incubator, The Lock-up, all the small galleries and workshop spaces, and Renew Newcastle.
Also, businesses Like Olive Tree fall in a tricky space. We are a major incubator and supporter of the creative economy, of tourism and economic development for a large number of people. However, operating as a small business, means we receive no support, which in reality is needed. Olive Tree is the largest regular cultural event in Newcastle, but we run with a staff consisting of myself, one part-timer staff member, and part-time staff on market day. We essentially operate as not for profit, without the benefits that come with being one. So, developing partnership opportunities, and sponsorship from government and business, needs to become part of the equation if events like Olive Tree are to have longevity.
Has the quality of craft and food and music available changed much since you started?
The market community, and market landscape, has changed hugely over the last decade. The number of creative and innovative small businesses, who are seeing that a career in the creative industries is an option has really grown. Markets are part of this equation, and of course
e-commerce is now huge, so this community have multi-pronged business models if they are going to be successful. There are so many great national markets now, that many artists and designers have somewhat of a market circuit that sustains their businesses such as Finders Keepers and Canberra Handmade, Big Design Market, Bower Design Market in Adelaide, The Makers and Shakers, and Olive Tree in Newcastle. And of course the number and quality of food stalls has grown immensely. It's been interesting to watch the way certain arts practices are ‘on trend’ as far as the number of stallholders who apply, at the moment contemporary ceramics are huge. And stallholders like Clay Canoe are having great success.
Food trucks are now booming, as is the variety of cultural offerings by food stall providers. It's fantastic.
We are currently encouraging the next generation of artists to join Olive Tree. We have started an emerging artists initiative, where we offer one creative small business a free stall and mentoring each month, we are featuring the third recipients this Saturday, Tuna Fish Feet and Capella. At the last market, we partnered with the Business Centre where we featured a collective of third year visual art and natural history illustration students from the University of Newcastle.
Is there such a thing as too big? Have you reached your optimal size, or would you go bigger if you had a bigger venue?
Absolutely there is too big. Olive Tree is always bigger over summer, and at our Christmas markets, as we aim to offer an alternative, to the mass produced, imported, large scale commercial contexts. We encourage the community to support locally, and ethically produced, small batch and handmade goods at Christmas.
But we do need to be careful of the number of stalls, and we wouldn’t go bigger that our current stall numbers in this market context. There are bigger events like Finders Keepers and Big Design Market which are quarterly indoor events, and are really large, but these are held in state capitals with a much large potential customer bases and they are less frequent events.
Going bigger in Newcastle would have to be a different type of event. That is on the horizon. But that's a different story!
Do you envision ever having a permanent home for Olive Tree Markets? Or operating seven days a week?
There is always the possibility that a location may need to change. We had to move from The Junction School due to building works, Civic Park is our second home, and we went through a tender process in 2014 for the original three years, and another EOI for a further three years in 2017. A permanent home would be great! I submitted an EOI for Newcastle Station in 2017, but came second in the process, Olive Tree was part of a bigger concept I put forward called Immerse Events, which included the Olive Tree Market, a makers retail outlet, workshop spaces, a community space, food markets and cinema.
If I won the lottery, or had a fairy event benefactor/ developer, a permanent location, with capacity to be indoors when needed, and also to have room to run other events and projects with the creative community would be amazing! But you need to be pragmatic too. I looked at a fantastic space at Clyde Street, near the creator incubator, but we couldn’t afford the commercial rent running as a monthly market.
As far as running seven days a week, t would need to be a different concept, a whole other business model, that incorporated other arms in addition to the market for income generation, the location would need to be right, there would need to be the critical mass as far as visitors and customer base. Marketing and destination support would be integral to the success. There are business models in other countries that do it, but it would be a huge undertaking, and part of a bigger concept.
How many people do you employ for a market day? What is your maximum number of stalls? What is the maximum number of visitors you’ve had?
I employ one part-time staff member, Khara Deuhof, who works three days per week, as my event and marketing assistant, and Grace Turner who curates our music line-up. I employ five staff on market day, as well as my partner Jason and daughter Lily, who also work all day (as unpaid volunteers) on market day as we need more hands-on deck but are at capacity budget wise for staff.
Our usually monthly number of stalls is approximately 140 in Newcastle and our seasonal market at Maitland Regional Art Gallery has around 80 stalls as it’s a smaller location. In November and December, the market becomes larger, we have between 150-180 stalls over summer. Any more is too many. It's a balancing act, providing choice for our customers, but not having too much competition for our stallholder.
Our Christmas markets are the busiest markets of the year. These dates have had up to 10,000 people.
Have you done any research on your customer base? What have you learned about them?
Yes, we have done a lot of research over the years, both on our stallholder customer base and visitor customer base. It’s important that we know and respect what our community wants and expects of Olive Tree.
Our stallholders want markets that value and promote creativity, they want well produced, strongly curated line-ups, for us to favour handmade and maker stallholders in our role as curators.
As far as our visitor customer base, Newcastle has really grown as a strong supporter of our creative community and have become really conscious in wanting to support local, ethical and creative businesses, they want to know the people that make their purchases. And they want great free events that have meaning and are exciting to attend. And our travelling visitors primarily come because of the quality and number of contemporary handmade stallholders and the atmosphere of the event
Do you have bigger dreams for the markets?
The community engagement aspects of helping creative entrepreneurs and start-ups establish and evolve their careers is my favourite part of my role. Giving back and helping the next generation of creatives is really important to me.
The new emerging creatives initiative where we launch and mentor a new artist or creative start-up each month and showcase their work at Olive Tree is a great example of that. Our first artist, honours student Samy Baly, has just received a $10,000 grant from the Australian Museum, and has been commissioned to illustrate a book “Ugly Animals”. The showcasing of works by a collective of students from University of Newcastle in partnership with the Business Centre in November was also another example.
I also love curating and producing high quality engaging events, that have meaning to the local community and add to the cultural landscape of Newcastle and providing opportunities for the community like the free indigenous art workshops we hosted in partnership with Cherie Johnson from Speaking In Colour, as a Make Your Place Grant, funded by Newcastle City Council.
So really my dream is to continue to work with the creative community in different incarnations, and also to develop new projects. Another in the pipeline I’m currently working on an outdoor film event, Immerse Cinema.
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