A blog about the Revolutionary Arts Group's network of artists and arts organisations using empty shops to create temporary pop-up shops, community spaces and galleries
I’ve been working with a bunch of young staff from London’s major cultural organisations on Seven Days in Seven Dials; a week in the life of London’s Culture Quarters.
The staff are all part of the Culture Quarter Programme, a collaboration between nine big-name arts organisations which are providing 30+ young unemployed people between the ages of 18-24 the chance to gain six months’ cultural and creative sector experience (and that has to be better than being an intern!). The staff are working at Create KX, Design Council, English National Opera, Exhibition Road, The Hospital Club, National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Opera House, Somerset House and the V&A Museum.
We’re bringing in a crack team of podcasters, photographers and artists (some of them we worked with on the Empty Shops Tour earlier this year), and with the Culture Quarter Programme participants we’ll spend a week using a shop as a meanwhile studio & workspace. We’ll be using some new kit – I’m looking forward to seeing creative use of our Muvi micro-camcorder. It’s about the size of a memory stick.
We’ll produce loads of stuff – audio tour podcasts, short videos and photographs exploring the history of the local area; the artistic, cultural and historical links between the organisations involved in the project, and individual experiences of the participant’s day-to-day activities within their organisations.
Like Maurice Gorham says in Londoners, ‘You can see London through the eyes of countless greater experts and greater men, but there is always something that they have not seen, very often because it was not there for them to see.’
You can drop in and visit the studio to watch us making stuff daily from 10am-5pm on Monday 5 -Thursday 8th July. The exhibition then opens to the public from Saturday 10 July until Friday 23 July 2010.
Seven Dials is a fab location – loads of history, dating back to the late 17th century, is mirrored against the contemporary energy and buzz of modern day Covent Garden. Known to many as Covent Garden’s hidden village, it still feels like a village with its own community, characters and local shops.
We’re supported in this one by the owners of Seven Dials, Shaftesbury PLC – and by all the partners of course.
So, we’re getting old and we’ve settled down. We’ve taken a shop for long enough to take our boots off and get comfortable.
Agora, 1a New Road, Shoreham by Sea was one of the stop on the Empty Shops Tour earlier this year. It was on a regeneration site, so had sat empty for ten years waiting for demolition. It was a huge job, clearing rubbish and making the space good enough to use for a week. And while doing it, I fell for the space. A big, bright central space with high windows either side, a handy store at the back, an intimate office upstairs, even a big (if overgrown and full of rubbish) courtyard. So after a little (and I mean, very little) negotiation we agreed to stay longer.
We pulled in enough funding from Adur & Worthing Regeneration to have the frontage restored, and to buy furniture and equipment we needed. First thing was a coffee machine, followed by comfy sofas from a junk shop round the corner.
And now it’s up and running, as atelier, factory, gallery, hub, office, public place, meeting space, sewing room, studio and workshop.
We have a few resident artists who use the space, lots of guests, and a programme of exhibitions, talks and events coming together.
Using it as the national empty shops centre, we want to help people test ideas, explore empty spaces, swap skills – and we’ve had our first success, with two artists using our space to plot and plan and start their own project.
If you want to get involved, get in touch: email my trusty sidekick [email protected] or find me on Twitter, @artistsmakers
A couple of years ago I ran a small local arts organisation, the Revolutionary Arts Group, struggling with no resources to stage artist-led festivals and open studio events, and using non-traditional venues for exhibitions- an old bakers, a functioning church, and other community spaces.
As the recession bit, I was fielding more and more enquiries about how we did it – particularly using empty shops – so the Empty Shop Network was born. The aim was to start collecting information about work in the redundant spaces in town centres, and provide a central point of contact for anyone wanting to find events local to them. It was always a big ambition on no budget, but I realised that I was thinking along the right lines when Susan Jones from a-n offered me a small grant to produce a piece of research which became a ‘Knowledge Bank’ article. It laid the foundations for the Empty Shops Workbook as well.
In the past couple of months I’ve flown out to Belfast for an a-n AIRTime event where I was able to talk to 60+ Northern Ireland artists about using empty shops, talked at colleges and universities, and just completed a tour of empty shops across the country, running a week-long project in Brixton, Carlisle, Shoreham by Sea and Coventry along the way. And I’m working on a cracking project in central London as well. It’s been a very busy year, has 2010.
Add the last year of writing strategies for local authorities, talking at national community conferences, spending timewith Central St Martins students at graduate week, hobnobbing with the great and occasionally even the good at the Conservatives Arts and Creative Industries Network… the list is kind of endless when you include all the conversations, BBC News interviews, magazine articles and other stuff that’s happened around the fringes.
I’m starting to earn a sensible (but by no means excessive!) wage as an artist and arts manager.
And it’s all because that small, early grant gave me the confidence – it was tacit recognition that I was doing the right thing.
That grant has helped us to access even more funding and set up a range of projects – and the thing I’m most proud of, we’ve already paid about twenty times the original grant to other artists and small creative businesses.
So thank you Susan, and thank you a-n for providing real support just when it was needed.
Almost a year ago, I had a phone call from a civil servant at the Department for Communities and Local Government. He’d picked up on the work I’d done with artists and empty shops and wanted to know if it worked. When I proved that it did he asked how central government could help.
The answer, I said, was small grants not big interventions. Artists and arts groups could develop short-term, meanwhile projects on small budgets – using their local knowledge and understanding to leverage volunteer time, goodwill and additional resources. But small grants delivered quickly would ease the burden on those active individuals.
Earlier this year that department announced that 57 towns would receive £52,000 grants to support projects in empty shops. And today another 50 towns have received similar good news.
So the hundred worst hit towns in the country have the chance to fund projects on their high street and the funding could be used for cleaning, decorating derelict shop fronts or funding business rate relief.
All of those will have some impact – but only in the short term.
The Empty Shops Network has been collecting information, sharing ideas and bringing people together to explore innovation and creativity on the high street: community radio stations, interactive software on shop windows, theatre in fish and chip shops, micro community centres, mobile wi-fi workspaces. And these creativity-driven projects could have more long-term benefits, developing new use and kick-starting a new generation of businesses rather than just papering over the cracks in the existing model of high street use.
Best of all (well, in a bittersweet way I guess), my hometown of Worthing has received one of the latest round of grants. And our local authority’s chief exec Ian Lowrie opened the first Empty Shops Conference in October with a call for more local authorities to support groups like mine, the Revolutionary Arts Group. He actually argued (his words) for more revolutionary thinking. So we know he’ll be putting CLG’s money where his mouth is – and Worthing will be at the centre of a national movement which is reinventing the high street.
As I’ve had time and space to work on ideas for empty shops this year, and as I’ve been able to support others in their work, I’ve become ever more keenly interested in the ideas, inspiration and ideology behind the work.
The Revolutionary Arts Group started nine years ago, by using an empty bakers in Broadwater as a temporary art gallery. We’ve since brought together artists to use spaces for more conceptual work, as places to inspire site-specific art and installations, and as festival hubs full of exhibits but also hosting workshops, short-term studios and performances. This is a similar flightpath to many other artists and groups who’ve taken over empty shops.
And now I’m watching the birth of a new phase: the thing I’ve always hoped would happen if we gave creative people space and support.
The next wave of empty shops projects won’t just be about artists exhibiting existing work on bare walls: they won’t be about easy in, easy out market space for makers: they won’t be about graphic design to cover empty shops. Although all of these have a place, are (thanks to the work of groups like the Empty Shops network) well established and proven to be better than barren and bare empty boxes littering the high street.
A wave of new projects on the starting blocks across the UK are about interaction and interrogation, community and chat. Over the last week, I’ve talked to people about ideas based on technology and tv remote controls, geography and urban exploration, science and social enterprise, podcasting and people’s stories.
As funding is becoming available, artists are moving from static ideas to serious reinvention of high street spaces.
The Empty Shops Network has a mission to revive, restore and reinvent the high street. The next year is going to be seriously interesting. You want out of a recession? Welcome to a new high street, a next generation of enterprise, an inspiring movement and the future of town centres. Welcome to Empty Shops 2.0.