There’s a hint of tumbleweed blowing down the nation’s high streets. Behind the headline-worthy collapses of Woolworths and MFI are the disappearances of hundreds of smaller shops. By the end of 2009, the analyst Experian predicts, one in six UK shops will have closed down. Not only will the effect on employment be catastrophic, the projected 135,000 vacancies will not be good for the health of town centres – empty shopfronts quickly multiply.
Yet what is grim news for some may prove a bonus for artists.
From the abandoned warehouses of Shoreditch in east London to the empty apartments of Berlin, we know artists gravitate to disused space, and have been successful in transforming it. Can art now drive the regeneration of slack retail space by turning it into a low-cost cultural playground?
In Durham, Carlo Viglianisi and Nick Malyan, an artist and an art fan, both in their early twenties, took over the lease to a disused off-licence in December last year and reopened it as Empty Shop (www.emptyshop.org), a gallery and creative centre where local sixth-form college students can go for media and art classes. “The local response has been fantastic,” says Viglianisi.
They are far from alone. Across the country, artists and would-be gallerists have been having the same idea, seemingly quite spontaneously. This January in Brent, a group of artists formed Wasted Spaces; they are holding their first show in a vacant retail space in Wembley this summer. In Halifax, another group has taken on an empty unit at the Piece Hall and opened Temporary Art Space (www.temporaryartspace.co.uk), which will run for six months.
There is nothing new about using vacant shops as exhibition space. Heather Sawney, arts development officer for Thanet District Council, has been doing it since 2001 as part of the local Margate Rocks art festival. But what has changed is that, instead of petitioning reluctant property owners for short, low-cost rentals, artists are now embraced. “What art can do is show that there really is still a use for these spaces,” says Sawney. “And that’s useful to property owners and to the community.”
Worthing’s grandly named Revolutionary Arts Group has also been putting art into unused shops for years, but the process is no longer a struggle. “When property prices were increasing, landlords could afford to sit on an empty space,” says the group’s Dan Thompson. With property prices now in decline, landlords are suddenly keen to offer low-rent, short-term leases to artists.
An added benefit, Thompson says, is that the shops are also low-cost business incubators. “In the best-case scenario,” he says, “we’ve seen artists who start with running exhibitions in empty shops, and after a few tries think, ‘I’m going to do this commercially now.’”
Back in Margate, a delicate ecology of private galleries is already emerging. The Windows of Opportunity project launched this February, commissioning artists to turn storefronts into artworks – imaginary fresh fish shops and greengrocers – creating a dream of what these discarded spaces could become again.
The result is that locals who wouldn’t step over the threshold of a gallery are able to look at art in a place they are familiar with. Footfall in the area of these ventures rises, too. “The only way you are going to make town centres or shopping centres succeed,” says Thompson, “is to make them unique. And the arts are fantastic for that.”