Reclaim the empty shops on your high street with a bit of creative thinking, says Elaine Midgley who reveals how artists, estate agents and the local community can come together to make pop-up galleries
This month, Cambridge’s empty shop project, Changing Spaces, will celebrate its first birthday having cost the local authority virtually nothing. Since June 2009 we have exhibited art and community projects in the windows of 24 different vacant retail locations across the city; provided an exhibition space for more than 30 artists and community groups; managed two temporary galleries, helped seven property agents to let their units, and worked with lots of volunteers who are now leading the development of the project as a social enterprise. So how did we do it?
HIGH STREET BOOM
Our success has been down to partnership working, using the City Centre Management Partnership, Love Cambridge (an independent organisation that brings together the public and private sector to work together on projects to improve the city) and Cambridge City Council as the co-ordinators of a wider group of stakeholders. We were fortunate to get everybody together in one room: Council arts, planning, licensing and rates teams, with local property agents, owners and, most importantly, artists and volunteers all with a shared vision of wanting to revitalise Cambridge’s high streets during difficult times.
What we wanted to do wasn’t particularly ambitious, but it was obvious that there was a reason it wasn’t already happening. The legal issues were quickly identified as the critical sticking point. Namely, who would be liable if something went wrong? How would a property owner know an artist was reputable? Who would pay the business rates? What has attracted attention has therefore not been what we did, but the manner in which we have managed the scheme. We have a system, a brand, and we have documented our learning.
LETTING ARTISTS IN
By working with the City Council legal services team we developed a contractual set up whereby property agents license the empty shop to the Council, and then the arts development team place artists in the space. Council involvement gave peace of mind to property agents for a simple, secure process with one point of contact for both parties, providing easy access to space for artists without the need for detailed negotiations for each shop. There is a simple website where artists and community groups register their interest in having an exhibition space and local volunteers manage a rolling programme of displays across the city. Crucially, all shops are branded using the Changing Spaces logo in a vinyl window sticker, ensuring agents can still promote the availability of the unit, artists can promote their exhibition and the project is centrally co-ordinated and marketed.
There were some key hurdles we had to jump on the way. We overcame the business rates issue initially by only using the shop window; not setting exhibitions more than 2 metres back from the window thus not constituting “occupation” of the unit in the eyes of our rates team, leaving the unit as officially still un-let. We managed to display film without the need for temporary event licences by including either an educational or promotional aspect to the footage. We insisted that artists obtain their own public liability insurance. It may sound simple, but it took a lot of time, dedicated volunteers, patient legal advisors and some leaps of faith by trusting property agents as well as a small grant for marketing from the Development Trust Association-funded ‘Meanwhile’ project (although much of this was provided through in-kind support from local businesses).
SECURING TALENT AND TRUST
The outcome is that we have received local press exposure for creative projects; practitioners have become more professional about how they exhibit their work, even selling work through the scheme; and property partners have become more flexible in their approach to temporary access. We have started enabling public access to temporary spaces which sell art and run workshops for a period of six weeks – which counts as “occupation” long enough for an agent to earn a three month rates break on a long-term vacant unit.
We will celebrate our birthday by announcing proposals for Changing Spaces to become a social enterprise in its own right, employing those volunteers who have been vital to its success and franchising the learning obtained in a way that creates a sustainable business model. Its legacy will be a permanent organisation in Cambridge dedicated to exploring the use of vacant space in the city for creative projects of all kinds. My advice for setting up a project? Get everyone together and explain the practical and financial advantages in a business-minded way. Even better, why not seek advice from Changing Spaces?
Elaine Midgley is Arts Development Manager, Cambridge City Council.
This week Elaine was mesmerised by the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra at the Cambridge Corn Exchange, especially the three encores – a fitting end to a triumphant evening. She almost finished Shena MacKay’s ‘Heligoland’ and astounded herself by actually describing Kevin Costner as a better Robin Hood than Russell Crowe... or at the very least, a damn sight more fun!