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With many retail outlets and offices standing empty across the UK, an ingenious new charity is matching creatives with landlords. Will Jennings has the details.

old shop converted into artist's studio
Hypha Studios artist Molly Stredwick’s studio space, Eastbourne.

Molly Stredwick

One in seven British shops is empty. Sitting like toothless gaps in high streets that were once bustling centres of activity and community, boarded up and empty shops can have huge impacts on town centres, not just reducing local economies but also the attractiveness and buzz of a place. The pandemic and associated lockdowns have only added pressure on towns already battling Brexit effects and an increasingly digital shopping culture.

The cultural sector also faces immense external pressures. Despite the UK government proudly proclaiming creative industries bring £13m an hour into our economy, very little of the annual £112bn finds its way down the pyramid to cultural workers and freelance makers. 

Apart from makers affected by Covid - many of whom were amongst the estimated three million who fell through the furlough “gaps” – it’s a difficult time to sustain a creative practice. Once rent, food and living costs are taken from a part-time paycheque, there’s not much left for materials or a studio. And studios themselves can be expensive, often with long waiting lists and not suitable for creatives without transport, who have caring responsibilities or cannot use a space daily.

We are not gatekeepers

Hypha Studios exists to address some of these issues, stitching culture and high streets together with the aim of supporting people and places. In brief, we put creatives and artists into empty commercial space, from small to large shop units, and - hopefully soon - into former department stores and offices. 

We don’t charge creatives for the space. This can limit possibilities, pricing out some of the best emergent voices. Neither are we gatekeepers deciding who can take part in cultural making. Instead, we offer creatives free space for limited periods of incubation, to test ideas and develop their practice in new ways. 

In return, we ask all creatives to offer public events - an exhibition, talk, workshop or any kind of commitment to sharing understanding and experience of the arts. And we are determinedly not London-focused - the “brain drain” into London by early-career workers, leaving hometowns and university cities, is acute in a cultural sector dominated by the capital.

A wide network of local nodes

Hypha Studios was born after founder Camilla Cole wanted to curate exhibitions in non-gallery contexts, aware of how many interesting spaces were available but empty. As a sole practitioner, she found it hard to engage with and convince landlords. But by setting up a charity acting as an umbrella, offering “quality control” of both the art and use of the space, she gained credibility. 

Liaising with local authorities and cultural organisations and generating external charitable funding, Cole has supplanted her own personal ambitions to help a wider number of practitioners with spaces. The name Hypha Studios is a nod to the hypha, a branching structure of fungi forming a wide network of local nodes - exactly the kind of broad, strong ecosystem we hope to achieve. 

From makeshift studio to gallery exhibition

We are young, achieving charity status only in June this year. But even in just a few months we have seen real impact for creatives, public and places. Our first placed artist was Molly Stredwick, who was ideal for our launch. 

After graduating from Camberwell College of Arts, she was forced by Covid and lack of income back to her parents’ home in Eastbourne. Without the space to practice her painting, she set up a makeshift studio in a caravan in the woods, using a decorators’ table outside for larger works. Hardly ideal!

After seeing our open call on Instagram, she applied and was chosen by our trustees and the director of Eastbourne’s Towner Gallery, Joe Hill, to have a shop unit for just over a month. In that time, Molly made large-scale works, mounting a final exhibition: “What’s the Opposite of Floating?”. 

Incredibly, she sold the entire body of work, enabling her to fund new projects and to look for her own studio space on the south coast. She has been selected to show in other local exhibitions, including at the Towner, and importantly has formed connections with the local and artistic communities. 

How does the matchmaking work?

Other selected artists include Rosa-Johan Uddoh who was able to prepare for her first solo exhibition at Focal Point Gallery in Southend, conceptual artist Dion Kitson currently working in Dudley, and Ceri Allen, making and showing work in Penrith alongside drawing workshops and demonstrations. 

Each got their space through a simple, transparent process. Once we source a space, we place a call-out on social media and through local networks. Mindful that artistic applications can be overly complicated, requiring a certain skillset or lexicon (which can act as a form of cultural gatekeeping), ours is deliberately simple. 

We ask a few questions based around locality, the need for space and how it would help their practice or a proposed project. And, importantly, we ask about their ideas for public outreach or events. Based on their responses, Hypha Studios create a shortlist which is presented to our trustees and a local guest judge to make the final selection.

Supporting a broad range of practices

Currently we run on a shoestring, relying on donations from landlords or partners, but we have plans to broaden funding as we expand. We recently received Arts Council England funding for an ongoing project in Broadwalk Shopping Centre, Bristol, where we have eight artists working in empty shop units. The funds will support a public programme of exhibitions, talks, performances and workshops over the coming year. 

We deliberately invited a broad range of practices, including Tangle Immersive’s virtual reality work, Owl on the Roof theatre collective, performance poet and publisher Paul Hawkins, science-focused artist Rachel Nee, and portrait photographer Tom Skipp.

A public who may feel that a contemporary art gallery is not for them have a familiarity with shopping architecture and, as curiosity develops, may pop in and chat with an artist or turn up to an event that they wouldn’t go to a gallery for. Putting culture into places the community already frequent and understand, in a non-threatening way, can have real impact. 

Ways to support our growth

As we grow, we want to better record and consolidate that impact to develop new funding streams and strategic outreach. We have so many exciting projects in the pipeline, but to grow sustainably we need wider support. The easiest means is word of mouth. So if you see one of our open calls, share it and tell anyone you know in the locality of the opportunity. 

Beyond that we want to speak to local authorities and cultural organisations who are interested in partnering with us. And especially let us know if you are aware of local properties sitting empty – large or small – which would make a site for new culture to develop.

We offer every creative some professional development, which could be a conversation with a peer or expert advice in an area they wish to develop new skills. If you want to be one of these mentors, please get in touch. Finally, we will soon be advertising for new trustees and setting up an advisory board. If you want to find out more, we would love to hear from you.

Will Jennings is Director at Hypha Studios and educator at UCL Bartlett and Greenwich Schools of Architecture.

 @HyphaStudios | @willjennings80

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