You can say many things about Sydneysiders but one aphorism that really rings true is we’re a tribal bunch. We tend to stick with our own and if there’s a bridge to be crossed, we don’t. So when multidisciplinary artist Caroline Rothwell was offered large studio space in St Leonards she was hesitant, despite desperately needing more space than her cramped Chippendale quarters of eight years could offer.

“The only reason I would come across the Harbour Bridge would be to see fabricators, so I was quite unsure to begin with,” she says. To her surprise, she discovered a thriving community of artists working in the lower north-shore suburb.

Rothwell is one of 70 artists and creatives who have been migrating their practices into the business and residential area of St Leonards over the past five years at the invitation of property developer TWT, which owns a large, 4500-square-metre block of land there. TWT’s aim? To create a vibrant, well-rounded cultural community.

Chinese-born Australian citizen Tina Tian founded the commercial and residential property group TWT in 2002, focusing on inner-city areas Ultimo, Bondi Junction, Pyrmont and the CBD. Then there’s St Leonards, where TWT has 800 apartments under planning. Tian is committed to building more than just offices and homes. When her first St Leonards building was being constructed in 2010/11, she turned part of the ground floor into an art gallery.

The first person invited in was James Winter. His not-for-profit arts organisation Brand X was founded in 2005 to revamp under-used spaces, such as a former brewery in Chippendale that’s now the thriving Central Park hub. TWT offered Winter three buildings at peppercorn rents, with a specific remit to fill them with emerging artists, performers and like-minded creatives.

Today, you’ll find a large mixed block bordered by two streets. A laneway containing residential apartments and existing businesses is peppered with grungy shopfronts, where drums, guitar and hip-hop emanate from Collective Sound Studios, vibrant graffiti covers several walls, and a bespoke bicycle builder does his thing. Every March the studios open their doors for a free block party, which is always worth the trip.

A more recent initiative has seen mid-career artists invited to move into the space. Unlike the emerging creatives working inside the Brand X-run space for heavily subsidised rent, TWT’s respected art advisor and curator Natalia Bradshaw has picked artists to take studio space in return for an annual artwork of commensurate value. The diverse list of new tenants includes provocative multidisciplinary artist Abdul Abdullah, whose works are held in the NGA and Brisbane’s GOMA; young Archibald finalists and Primavera artists Tom Polo and Jason Phu; and a rotating roster of international artists in residence (Chinese printmaker Peng Yong, when Broadsheet visited).

Rothwell moved into the large, light-filled former cafe last November and is relishing both the 50-metre-square space and the camaraderie. “Space is so, so difficult to find in Sydney. You have to be earning a lot to pay a warehouse rate,” she says. Nevertheless, she’s at pains to point out this is a business deal, not charity. She’s on a two-year contract, during which she’ll create two artworks of agreed value. The pieces will be incorporated into Tian’s collection for likely display within one of TWT’s buildings.

“It’s a fair deal,” says Rothwell, who is repped by Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery and whose work has been exhibited at the Art Gallery of NSW, the MCA and international galleries. “We bring cultural capital, they’re building an art collection and we get space and a really great community. It works both ways.”

Internationally renowned, Sydney-based artist Tony Albert began as part of the Brisbane collective proppaNOW founded in 2003, receiving studio space in return for artwork. He describes TWT’s offering as “brilliant”. “It’s a massive help for artists, particularly in Sydney,” he says. “Having a space activated with artists while it’s empty has a lot of positives too, and it’s a really smart way for people in those enterprises to build their art collections.” His first retrospective is on display at Queensland Art Gallery until October.

While artists often get priced out of newly gentrified areas, this creative precinct looks like it’ll stick around. Tian has incorporated studios into future developments, planning approval permitting. If she pulls it off, it’ll be an act of true philanthropy – one that other developers would do well to follow. Her work isn’t limited to this space, either. In 2013 she founded Bridging Hope, a charity foundation that marries the arts and mental health and acts as the principal partner of the Biennale of Sydney.

Still, it’s worth remembering that Tian is a businesswoman and TWT is not a charity. “Tina has foregone nearly $1 million in rent over the past four to five years we’ve been running the community,” says TWT’s general manager, Stephen Fitzpatrick. “We believe the pay-off will be that people now know St Leonards is a creative area, a good place to live [and will buy into the area]. Because people want to live in a vibrant, creative community.”

TWT Creative Precinct
Between Chandos and Atchison Streets, St Leonards

This story originally appeared in Sydney print issue 15.