Transforming Spaces

I went to this conference on Saturday, at Firstsite in Colchester – it was a really good, inspiring day.

Since a lot of you won’t be familiar with the empty shops movement, here’s a short executive summary. There are a lot of disused commercial & retail spaces in the UK, and that’s only set to increase. There are also a great many creative people who don’t have, and can’t get, the capital & guaranteed income stream to make use of them at market rents. (Not to mention: the requirement for that sort of income stream rules out a lot of really good & innovative uses for these sites which just wouldn’t generate enough to pay a market rent, business rates, and running costs.) There are some legal & organisational tools which remove a lot of the barriers, both for landlords and for tenants.

The day opened, of course, with a bit of coffee & networking. As Eva said, artists hate that word but can’t stop doing it. When you reframe it as just chatting to each other about your practice & experiences, swapping useful contacts & tips for getting things done, artists look at you oddly and start wondering whether there are really people who don’t do that instinctively.

Abigail Cheverst, manager of Slack Space, opened the day with a discussion of what it is we do when we take the arts into empty shops, and why, and how. Almost none of these notes are verbatim, and they may get a bit cryptic sometimes. Anything in italics is my own editorial comment; everything else is the speaker’s. If I’ve got something wrong, or left something out, please do comment!

Empty shop work is a response to recession, and is very specifically against waste. There’s a lot of unused resources out there, and there’s always more creative talent looking for outlets. Successful projects almost always arise out of a very local passion.

It’s important to leverage a full range of networks (working with educational groups, health groups, local councils, creative communities, local community groups, national & regional groups, &c.), and to consider creativity in its widest sense, actively avoiding exclusion. [Abby is speaking here specifically from Slack Space’s point of view, explaining their very successful practice, but I think it generalises well.]

Having a strong brand & recognisable design aesthetic, consistently applied, is vital.

What we can offer, more than anything else, is a truly accessible space. There are a lot of people who’d never consider going into a gallery or a museum, but they’ll happily walk into an odd-looking shop on the High Street without thinking twice, to see what’s going on and if it’s interesting. Equally, the transient & temporary nature of empty shop work allows us to design disabled accessibility into our projects from the get-go.

As far as marketing goes, we tend to use a lot of social media, partly because it’s cheap and partly because the kind of people who join in these sorts of things are almost all on social media too. (That doesn’t mean to say we don’t want, and can’t get, others – just that it’s an easy win to get that demographic in.)

It’s important to develop a structured programme of volunteering, because you do basically need someone there all the time – someone to open up, someone to keep an eye on the art, someone to make the tea, someone to enthuse about everything & show visitors around. Given that, it’s important to give back to volunteers too – we can offer professional development, contacts, skills, and personal development. Quite a few of the volunteers at Slack Space had gone on to get paid work in the arts sector on the back of that, and one had since founded her own gallery. [Later, we heard some lovely testimonies from artists & workshop leaders who’d been voluntering at Slack Space, on how much it had meant to them and how much confidence & ability they’d discovered in themselves.]

In order to Do Things, you need to be an organization with legal status, but there are a lot of ways to do that: charities, companies limited by guarantee, community interest companies, industrial & provident societies, associations. [I’m reminded of One Click Orgs, a lightweight and effective tool for building associations.] All of them have their pros & cons, and they’re suitable for different purposes & scopes.

If your organisation isn’t a charity itself, try & associate with one – it gives quite a few benefits, including an automatic 80% rate relief. Slack Space is “fostered by” Firstsite – that is, Firstsite provided advice, business mentoring, and some monetary help, and signed their legal agreements (eg. the lease on each shop) when Slack Space couldn’t.

We benefit landlords in several ways, not just vice versa. We take on the liability for rates, which they’ll be paying while the shop stands empty; we relieve them of the need for maintenance & security; we improve the shop & the local area, increasing footfall and helping to attract a tenant when we move out; and we give them good PR.

When contacting landlords, doing it directly is often good, because agents are usually on commission, and when we offer to pay £0.00 as rent that means their commission is £0.00 too, and they’re rarely enthusiastic about that sort of thing. Look for socially responsible landlords (the Slack Space site is owned by the Co-Op) and network with local charities, particularly the “clubbable people” type like the Lions Club, Rotary Club, and so on. Local councils can be helpful, too.

Contact your local rates dept to negotiate. There’s an automatic 80% reduction for charities [which may also count for nonprofits & social enterprises] and the rates dept do have discretionary powers to reduce the rates further but in these recessionary days that’s very unlikely. There are a lot of local variations in policies.

When dealing with the health & safety side of things (absolutely and utterly vital) is really useful & easy to read.

If you’re planning on offering music, dance, &c. be aware that those are “regulated entertainment” and must be licensed. [This is due to change, because the Licensing Act is being amended. Most music at least will no longer be regulated. Note also that morris dancing and similar activities are explicitly exempted from regulation. You can dance the morris anywhere.] If you don’t want to serve alcohol, the license is a lot cheaper & easier to get; if you do want to serve alcohol, you can get a Temporary Event Notice or ask a friendly publican to run an outside bar. [Which can be inside – it’s just that it’s outside its “home” licensed premises.] If you’re going to play or distribute recorded music, you need a PRS (Performing Rights Society) license; Slack Space pays £40/year for theirs.

Michaela Freeman then talked about Artside, and curating in the public space. One of the problems she faced, during her time curating art in shop windows & public spaces in Southend-on-Sea, was in explaining the nature of art installations to the venues. Apparently, when you tell them you want to put art in their windows, they expect you to turn up with wooden easels and pretty pictures to put on them, not plinths, 3D art, conceptual pieces, and abstracts.

Working with & around shopfittings is important. All shops have their own arrangement of fixing points, paintwork that mustn’t be scratched, posters that need to stay in the windows, and so on. Venue buy-in & engagement is really important, and not just from the “being invited back” point of view – there are a million & one things recalcitrant managers or staff can do to minimize or subvert the impact of the art, even once you get past the “is this piece of art going to harm our business or make a political statement we don’t like?” problem. [Another eternal artistic issue: censorship vs access. But there’s usually somewhere else to put the politically important work, and something else – or something political in another direction – to put in the sensitive space.] It’s also important not to alienate the public, eg. by doing anything too weird or conceptual – but they’re generally smarter and more interested than they’re popularly given credit for.

You have to be able to explain the advantages to the shops: things like positive PR, increased footfall, extra eyeballs.

In Southend, they were able to use the beach as a vast public space – for instance, Natasha Vicars’ piece Flowers for the Sea, where she gave away flowers at a stall on the beach, inviting people to take them down to the water’s edge, make a wish, and throw them in.

Amy McKenny, from TAP in Southend, opened with a beautiful quotation.

Blessed are they who see beautiful things in humble places, where other people see nothing. — Camille Pissarro

She talked about her own experience setting up & running the gallery, in a gorgeous-looking building owned by a water company, and showed a lot of rather lovely-looking and ambitious art projects in the space.

“At what point does gathering become a community?”
“If you build it, they will come.”

When you’re writing a funding application, use the language that makes you passionate. Give details, name names. Adapt the wording to the funder you’re talking to, but remember the passion, the reason you do it. It’s always worth contacting them first, rather than making an application cold and opening the conversation that way. Ideally, you’ll end up in a good ongoing relationship with runding bodies – that’s the best outcome for them, as well as for you.

TAP has been moving away from a formal this-exhibition-then-that-one setup towards a Hub-style co-working, floating, transient model.

(In response to a question from the floor about income streams) Diversity is important – run a cafe, sell prints if you’re somewhere where people buy them (they do in London, but not in Southend), rent out studios to artists, &c.

Something that came up in a lot of sessions was the central idea of failure. One of the most important aspects of the empty shops movement, to most of the speakers, was the idea of being allowed to fail, of trying things and learning from them, and then trying something else. Effort, engagement, activity, is an end in itself.

Kayte Judge, from We Are Bedford, presented a detailed case study of her work in a struggling retail estate. Bedford has been a pretty economically depressed area for a long time [it certainly was when I was at university nearby in 2002] and she took over seven empty retail units. By the time the project finished, all seven had gone to thriving commercial tenants.

One of the advantages of empty shops work is that we can define this as a roaring success – we’re not planning on being there forever, and a win for the community is a win for us. We’re birch trees, a typical pioneer species that colonises scrubland, and gradually gets ousted by oaks as a mature woodland ecosystem develops.

Kayte talked about “slack resource” (things you can use and re-use) and “slack time” (as in “when are you not using the space? – OK, we can do something then”), emphasising again the way empty shops work fits into liminal spaces and metaphorical corners, the gaps between “traditional” or “official” activities in the public sphere. Another thing she said was that you need a “busking mentality”, the right-let’s-get-out-there-and-give-it-a-try, get-your-game-face-on attitude, to get things going. This was the session I found most helpful myself, but it’s hard to convey that here – mostly, it was from the inspiring and detailed examples, and the “it worked – everyone wins” nature of the project itself.

The last talk before lunch was from Chris Clarke, another Slack Space stalwart, who talked about some of their history & events, all of which had evolved from volunteers’ efforts – lots of crafts workshops, a regular folk club, art exhibitions, a spectacular fundraising day for the tragedy in Japan – and gave a few more useful tips for Getting Stuff Done. When you’re approaching firms, try and deal with their CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) people. Local family firms are almost always keener on helping out, and more engaged with the project, than chains or franchises. Stay flexible, and remember your getout period – always keep in the back of your head “how long would it take us to get all of this out of here?”

Eddie Bridgeman, from the Meanwhile Project, gave us a lot of nuts-and-bolts details of how his organisation operates, how to find & approach landlords (try large property companies, not asset management companies, and remember that agents have a legal obligation to pass on any offer, even £0.00, to the owner), get permissions for what you want to do (be polite, clear, & upfront – this is pretty good advice generally, in fact) & drive local engagement with your project. (One example he gave was a tailor who ended up using photographs of local people for his publicity, which of course brought them & their families in to see everything.)

After the property’s been occupied for six weeks (less one day), the owner gets a rates holiday if it stands empty, so we do them good even after we move out.

Eddie also explained his “three Cs” model: Credibility (network, reassure people you know what you’re doing, have a track record available, get yourself known, prepare a detailed background for other people to see), Collaboration (let other people do what they’re good at, and help them with what you’re good at; find experts when you need them), and Clarity (communicate clearly, make the full truth available, tell people what you want when, make sure everyone involved knows what you want and what you’re going to do).

The meanwhile lease is a recognised legal document, explicitly exempting the tenancy from the provisions of the 1954 Landlord & Tenant Act (less faff for everyone there) and allowing for use without rent until the property finds a permanent tenant. The benefits of having a standard lease for this sort of use are immense.

My notes from Andrew Cribb‘s talk (3space) are much more sparse, partly because I was running out of paper by then! All I have is that he notes a tendency towards exhibition-only uses (ie. a habit amongst arts people to think “aha, a nice space, we shall exhibit some art in it”) and wanted to emphasize that there are a vast number of diverse activities to go in there, such as youth groups, charity HQs, social project offices, and so on and on.

At the closing plenary, someone made a link with alternative/complementary currencies, and there was a short discussion on their strengths (locality, community-building) vs their failure modes (lack of fluidity, can’t pay the rent, tendency to be taken over by crystalwavers). Abigail Cheverst also talked about what was effectively a gift economy at Slack Space, and having noticed that the people who could afford to contribute least at pay-what-you-can events were usually the ones who stayed behind to move chairs afterwards.

Another thing that came up a lot was that this is all wonderfully local & regional. The East of England area has a vast amount of dynamism & creative talent, more apparently than other regions. There’s still quite a fear that rural artists & makers are getting left behind, though – someone raised the example of the Dengie. Essex has always been very village-centric in its cultural life, and even the smallest are still pretty vibrant places, but it’s nevertheless hard for people to see everything centred in the largest towns.

A few more links to close, to other projects & organisations I heard about on the day – they’re all worth looking up.


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