Page last updated at 13:15 GMT, Thursday, 2 July 2009 14:15 UK

Art goes 'pop' during recession

By Caroline Briggs
BBC Arts and Culture reporter

Lee Johnson is behind London's latest 'pop-up' exhibition
Lee Johnson is behind London's latest 'pop-up' exhibition

A former Italian restaurant in the heart of London's Covent Garden has become the latest venue for a "pop-up" contemporary art gallery.

Impromptu exhibitions have been opening all over the city, as artists make the most of a glut of empty commercial property during the recession.

The Watch This Space exhibition showcases the work of 12 up-and-coming artists in a beautiful three-story Georgian building just off Drury Lane.

Empty for two years, the former restaurant been transformed into the temporary Opera Quarter Bar, and, for a few weeks at least, will feature work by artists including photographer Hazel Atashroo, illustrator Elliot Young and fine artist Sarah Kate Wilson.

In a way the recession has made people more creative and the scene is a bit more interesting at the moment
Lee Johnson

Lee Johnson, the show's co-organiser and curator, said the economic downturn was the reason behind the current crop of "pop-up" shows.

"Pop-up galleries seem to have really taken off, it's become a bit of a buzz-word in London at the moment," she said.

"The idea was that we would use these spaces which have been lying empty during the recession and put artists into them.

"The artists get the space for free, and the landlords would rather have the space busy and full of creativity than have it empty.

"It's Covent Garden, it's an amazing location, and we use it to try and get exposure for the artist and make some sales. They wouldn't usually get a space like this without spending thousands of pounds."

Ilaria Conte
Ilaria Conte is one of 12 artists whose work is on display at Watch This Space

Ms Johnson added that while the recession had been bad news for the art world in general, it did have a plus side.

"I used to work in press for a London gallery, and prices were just becoming so over-inflated in the art world," she explained.

"I think it was only a matter of time before the whole thing exploded. We used to spend so much money on entertaining and dinners for artists and things were selling for so much money.

"In a way the recession has made people more creative and the scene is a bit more interesting at the moment."

Italian-born photographer Ilaria Conte is one of several artists whose work is on display.

"It's fantastic. This place was completely closed a month ago and it is being used for a fantastic cause, for art," she said.

"There was nothing around, completely empty, and now it is buzzing with people from the art world, from the media, and you get the opportunity to meet people from the art world and exchange ideas. It's the perfect environment."

Ilaria Conte's work explores ideas of intimacy

Department store Selfridges is also getting in on the "pop-up" scene with the exhibition of work from 10 up and coming artists from murmurART.

Each artist has been nominated as a favourite by a panel including Tracey Emin, Kevin Spacey, Kay Saatchi and Zaha Hadid.

On the less glamorous side, local councils have also seen the potential of the creative industries to stimulate local high streets.

A temporary gallery has sprung up in the former Woolworths store in Leytonstone, east London, featuring the work of 60 artists.

And in Camden, work by US photographer Anthony Epes has gone on display in an empty high street shop.

Leader of Camden council, Keith Moffitt, said: "We know the current financial climate means that the appearance of our high streets is being affected by shops closing.

"By opening pop up shops we are making a high streets more appealing to shoppers and visitors."

And it's not just happening in London. Many of the UK's towns and cities are seeing their own high street galleries.

People walk past a boarded-up Woolworths store
Councils are looking at 'pop-up' shows as a way to revive high streets

In Dursley, near Gloucester, the windows of two shops have been transformed into small galleries, where a number of artists and photographers have shown their work for five weeks each.

Sculptor Karen Hilliard, who helped set up the scheme with funding from the district and town councils, said artists were "definitely, definitely" feeling the strain of the economic downturn.

"It's not a good time," she said. "There are fewer and fewer places to show and sell your work, so anything that is public is very helpful.

"This is a strong platform for showing artists' work at a time when traditional gallery spaces are dwindling."

Even the public, who may wonder what is happening on their local high street, have embraced the idea.

"There been a very positive response," notes Ms Hilliard. "Normally when people go to see art they are making a decision to go into a gallery environment, and I find that people are very interested.

"I have seen the older generation going past with their trolleys who have stopped and had a discussion about it, and I've seen families standing in front of the windows and discuss it in their own way with their children.

"To me, whether that discussion is good, bad or indifferent, it is still promoting and exploring debate about art, which is very positive."

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