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Empty shops: From eyesores to art spaces

Former Empty Shop premise in Durham
Empty Shop took over this empty shop in Gilesgate for six months

As many as one in five high street shops in the North East could be lying empty, according to research by the British Property Federation.

On the face of it, it's a depressing figure, telling a tale of dying town centres and ongoing economic woe.

However, some people prefer to see these empty units as an opportunity not an eyesore.

It's a case of glass-half-empty/ glass-half-full.

In Durham, the organisation Empty Shop is turning empty city centre retail outlets into temporary art spaces - for exhibitions, workshops and other events.

The shops remain on the market while Empty Shop occupy them for little or no rent.

Carlo Viglianisi and Nick Malyan
Carlo and Nick say they want to create a warm and welcoming space

Then as soon as the premises are let, or sold, Empty Shop move onto another location.

Warm and welcoming

The not-for-profit company is the brainchild of friends Nick Malyan, an arts worker, and Carlo Viglianisi, a freelance artist and designer.

They got the keys to their first empty shop, in Gilesgate, in December 2008 and are now on their third location in the city.

"The motivation primarily was about providing a really warm and welcoming space for art that's completely accessible to people of all levels of ability, backgrounds and ages," Nick explained.

"We operate an open door policy," Carlo added. "Anyone can come along, book it for a day, and use it for whatever they want.

If we can do this for the rest of our lives - as cheesy as that sounds - it will be fantastic
Carlo Viglianisi

"At Empty Shop anyone is as valid as anyone else - so it doesn't matter if you are a professional artist or someone who just wants to dabble.

"You don't get judged by us on that level."

Blank canvas

Nick said some landlords could be hard to convince at first but that by occupying vacant shops Empty Shop actually helped them.

He said their presence proves a shop can be viably occupied and establishes footfall to it.

Empty Shop volunteers also do work to improve the interior - stripping out fittings and turning the shop into a blank canvas for prospective tenants.

Before and after pictures of room in Empty Shop HQ. Photos: Empty Shop
One of the main spaces in the new Empty Shop HQ - after and before!

And it seems to have worked so far - they had to move out of their first two locations because they were sold to new tenants.

Nick and Carlo don't see this as an inconvenience but an achievement - they want to encourage regeneration.

On 19 February 2010 they opened a new location on Framwellgate Bridge.

This one is slightly different because they plan to stay there for a while.

They want it to become a permanent headquarters alongside which they will continue to run temporary spaces in other places.

Both have day jobs so it's a big commitment - but one they enjoy.

"It's what we love doing," Carlo said.

"If we can do this for the rest of our lives - as cheesy as that sounds - it will be fantastic."

The Shed

Back on Tyneside, Gateshead Council are also utilising empty shop space to encourage regeneration through art.

People in The Shed in Gateshead
Downstairs the former furniture store is now a light and airy space

They hope to bring life back to the High Street by turning a former bed shop into a creative hub.

The Bed Shed building is earmarked for demolition in two-year's time, but rather than allowing it to remain dormant they are letting new creative businesses use the space rent and rate free.

Eleven businesses moved into the ground floor space at the end of 2009 and there is room for a further 20 on the second floor.

Councillor Mick Henry said he wanted the temporary workspace - known as The Shed - to help generate a vibrant and creative atmosphere in the town.

Exciting

Jennifer Douglas, a visual artist, was among the first to move into the building.

Jennifer makes large scale installations, sculptures and drawings and said The Shed fulfilled a real need.

Before and after pictures of room in Empty Shop HQ. Photos: Empty Shop
Empty Shop have turned this space in Durham into studio space

"For a long time it's felt as though there hasn't been enough space or studios for artists to work in," she said, "either to make work in or have thinking space. So this has really addressed that.

"There's quite an enthusiasm and freshness [about it]. It's really exciting."

Jennifer also said the position on the High Street made the studios feel quite open, with shoppers and people passing on the bus able to see inside.

Have you spotted any other interesting uses of empty shops? E-mail: tyne@bbc.co.uk




SEE ALSO
In pictures: Death of the High Street?
11 Feb 10 |  People & Places
Artists move into Gateshead shop
24 Nov 09 |  Arts & Culture
Taunton showcased in 'Empty Shop'
11 Mar 10 |  People & Places
Empty shop premises 'to hit 15%'
21 Jul 09 |  Business


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