John-Paul Flintoff

The empty shop network

Dan Thompson is on a mission to bring art and culture to ailing high streets

How long does it take to set up an art gallery? Dan Thompson reckons he can do it overnight. “Or we could aim for next week,” he adds cheekily. “If you can get a photographer by then.”

In the event, it takes him ten days, from scratch.

First, he had to find a venue. His “usual contacts” – estate agents and shopping-centre managers – gave him several options. He chose a former toyshop in Worthing’s Guildbourne shopping centre, empty for nearly a year.

The shop has cheap plasticky carpets, damaged plaster, grim overhead lighting and sooty patches on the ceiling. On one side stood a newsagent, on the other a slot-machine parlour. Directly opposite were a greengrocer and a youth-oriented clothes shop. In the hallway stood several coin-operated rides for toddlers, including one with a child-sized Rupert Bear.

“I don’t want to be too poncy,” Thompson tells me, “but I quite like the aesthetic of a 1970s shopping centre.”

In February, roughly ten per cent of all shops in the UK were empty, and the number was rising fast. The analysts Experian were predicting that one in six would have closed by the end of the year.

This put landlords in an unfamiliar position. For ten years, with property prices rising, they didn’t mind paying rates on shops that were empty – because the price rise more than covered any shortfall. But with prices falling, property owners needed to do something fast.

Which is where Thompson, and a few others like him, come in. They realised that empty shops could be turned to a variety of other uses: art gallery, workshop, small theatre, cinema, community space and more.

In such a scenario, they argue, everybody is a winner: artists and others who take over a site benefit from low-cost space on short- and easy-to-manage leases, so they can take a bigger risk on bolder, more innovative and experimental projects. Landlords get to see their properties kept in good shape, and some of their overheads taken care of. And local communities benefit from increased access to meaningful and varied activity on their high street. Seeing the town brought back to life, they may visit and spent more locally – in turn perhaps helping to save yet more local businesses from closing too.

Well, that’s the theory.

Having secured his location, Thompson put the word out to local artists, calling for work to display. “We said, whichever artists want to be involved, we’d let them in. It’s very high-speed curating. You have to think on your feet. Sometimes it can end up with something really empty, other times you get too much.”

As gallerist, Thompson decides which art goes where. “It’s a benign dictatorship. You look at the work you have coming and see what hangs well.

“You have to be brave enough to say to an artist, ‘We have picked your best work.’ It used to be incredibly emotional. I would get upset if an artist hit back. I have had foul-mouthed abuse, been called all the names you can think of, a lot of them inspired by the fact that I’m 5’4” tall.”

With his tidy beard and dark blue suit, you would think Thompson was some kind of manager in an office. And he does indeed describe himself as a “businessman first and foremost”. But most of his business ideas have an artistic thrust. He once bought a record shop and ran it for six months. He recently bought a vast quantity of greetings cards from a shop that was closing, and has sold them at great profit. He even bought a derelict cinema, the Dome, on Worthing’s sea-front, which featured in the cult film Wish You Were Here, for just £10. (It’s since been restored.)

“I’ve had a portfolio career,” he says with understatement. “I get bored easily. I have my eyes open for a wide variety of opportunities.”

His most successful business activity is working as a promoter for the arts through what he decided to call, just a little grandly, the Revolutionary Arts Group. This started in 2001, when he was discussing exhibition venues with his wife Tracey and other artists who shared a studio. Hiring a traditional gallery, they concluded, would be too expensive – so they used shops and cafes to form an “arts trail” and five artists also opened their houses. Since then, over 50 houses have been opened, exhibiting hundreds of artists every year.

Though he failed his art A level, Thompson is an artist himself. He carries a sketchbook everywhere and has produced works for, among others, Smirnoff and Budweiser. But he has also worked in performing arts and reckons it’s this that makes him suited to being a gallerist and impresario.

“Theatre is much more get-on-with-it than the visual arts. Painters spend all day with a spirit level, worrying about whether their picture is hanging straight – or would if you let them – while performers know that the curtain must go up.”

This is not the first time Thompson has created a “pop-up” gallery at the Guildbourne shopping centre. “About three years ago, we got in touch with them about putting on an arts festival. They were really keen. They could see the benefit with the press coverage and a lot of people coming through the doors. And it’s easier for us to take an empty shop here because there’s just one manager to deal with, and the business rates and insurance and so on is handled centrally. If they want to they can waive a lot of that.

Until this recession, I’d never heard of empty shops being taken over this way, though I’d come across anarchists doing something similar. I once bought a rather nice blue and white vase from an ad hoc shop in Hampstead, north London, set up by people opposed to the opening on those premises of a new McDonalds restaurant. More recently, I walked past a large former car dealership to find that it was being squatted by anarchists who were now boldly opening it up for a week-long exhibition of art on a climate-change theme.

I mention these to Thompson.

“I hate to be a snob,” he says. “But the anarchists tend not to be as good as us. We have a professional edge.” I ask what he means by this. “We have plastic leaflet racks to make the counter look smart, with printed leaflets,” he says with a straight face.

Most importantly, he insists, the art in his galleries is good. There are no “nice” seascapes in oils here, or watercolours of pet cats. “Most of our artists are more contemporary, recent graduates or emerging artists.”

To show what he means, he walks me round the gallery on the afternoon before it opened to the public. He had only picked up the keys that morning and several artists were still there, quietly getting on with hanging their pictures and installations.

“We’ve got gritty black and white photography, dramatic paintings, installation art and digital illustrations. The advantage of empty shops is they give edgy art a home. The aim is to give people locally the chance to experience stuff you would normally see in Tate Modern, or the Baltic.”

He introduces me to several of the artists, including Nathan Bean, whom Thompson describes wryly as “our resident controversial artist”. At an earlier show, Bean had an installation featuring Ken and Barbie dolls that set light to themselves. This was featured on the front page of the local paper with the inevitable query, “Is this art?”

Bean is enthusiastic about the pop-up gallery, but unwilling to make grand claims for it. “Who benefits? Probably me. I could never claim that people benefit from seeing my work. But if you’re creating things there’s a compulsion to have it seen.”

Another artist is Joanna Rowlings, who has previously taken part in Thompson’s open-house scheme. Dean Barwell, similarly, has shown with Thompson before, and got a few sales at the last show. “Dan is really good at raising interest.”

Christine Forbes paints abstracts. One she shows me is on sale for £1,800, but she’s not expecting it to sell. “You could knock me down with a feather if this sells.”

“We don’t expect to sell,” Thompson says. “That’s not going to happen in a slightly shabby temporary location, with a passing audience, in a recession. Any sales are a bonus, and the exhibition isn’t trying to be commercial.”

Several of these artists are committed to the idea of making and showing art in the place where they live.

“I do feel quite passionately that we should give a lot to our home town to make it exciting,” says Thompson. “Too many artists head for the nearest big metropolis. But I love Worthing, it’s a fantastic town. We have the South Downs national park, the beach, what more could you want? I have a family, with young children, why would I want to live in the city?”

And the artists in Worthing are not alone. Many others around the country are doing similar things. In Durham, Carlo Viglianisi and Nick Malyan took over the lease to a disused off-licence in December and reopened it as Empty Shop, 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. In Brent, north London, a group of artists formed Wasted Spaces in January; they’re holding their first show in a vacant retail space in Wembley during the summer. In Halifax, a group has taken on an empty unit at the Piece Hall, and opened Temporary Art Space, which will run for six months. Others affiliated to the Empty Shops Network include groups in no fewer than 11 counties.

Some of these things will come and go very quickly, like Thompson’s five-day pop-up gallery in Worthing. He positively enjoys that: “I love the fact that we make these little intervals in people’s lives. We provide the kind of mystical shop you get in Harry Potter, or Terry Pratchett novels – it’s there, but you can never find it again.”

But others might last longer, and even become permanent. “In the best case scenario we’ve seen artists who start running exhibitions in empty shops and after a few tries think, ‘I’m going to do this commercially now’.”

One who did that is Caroline Brown, a painter who previously ran the conTEMPORARY gallery in vacant premises in Brighton and London, then moved home to West Yorkshire and found a landlord willing to give her a two-week tenancy to sell art, vintage clothing, chinaware and jewellery. Two weeks turned into three months. Then it became open-ended: the House of Rose & Brown opened in April 2007 and it’s still going.

It’s not surprising that councils and central government have pounced on the idea – after all, if offers an almost uniquely upbeat take on retail closures, recession and ghost towns. A fortnight after I saw Thompson open his pop-up in Worthing, the then-communities secretary, Hazel Blears, and the culture secretary Andy Burnham, announced a £3m plan to make thousands of small grants of up to £1,000 each, to people who find a creative reuse for vacant shops. “Town centres are the heartbeat of every community and businesses are the foundation,” they announced. “So it is vital that they remain vibrant places for people to meet and shop through the downturn.”

The funds are to be distributed by local councils. One of the first to act on the idea was Coventry, where 15 per cent of shops are empty and a new one shuts up every five days. In a bid to keep the high street alive, and attract shoppers and potential tenants, Coventry City Council invited Thompson to advise on getting artists to set up in vacant sites. The council owns up to 30 per cent of the city centre’s shops.

The city’s director of development, John McGuigan, says: “We’re not pretending we’ve got the answer and we’re not going to put public art into 60-plus shops, but where there are several empty shops together, we’d like to look at keeping those shops animated.” The council’s art officer, Rob Venus, says: “This is a great opportunity for us to develop skills in our local artists.”

But is this really something that can be created from the top down? Can central, or even local government make pop-up galleries happen?

Joe Turner of the Coventry-based “think and do tank” Freedom Clothing had an idea to put on a month-long workshop – showing people how to make things, getting them involved in knitting, sewing, crafting and so on – culminating in a show, in which local groups would have 48 hours to turn a bag of clothing waste into something for the catwalk. “An empty shop like Woolworths would be ideal,” he says.

Several weeks later, that had yet to happen but a group of artists in Leytonstone, east London, associated with Thompson’s Empty Shops Network, announced that they would take over a former Woolworths for three weeks over the summer.

Thompson still had little idea how the government funds would be distributed, but didn’t seem to care much because he wasn’t after handouts, he said.

“I’ve always believed that the arts should be businesslike and stand up on their own feet. I don’t like the idea that you depend on grants. You are not so free to do the work you want to do, and you waste a lot of time processing applications, and dealing with committees. I have been in arts organisations in the past that have had their funding cut and the organisation goes into freefall. Doing without grants, if we spot an opportunity we can do it really quickly.”

When the government announced its plans to subsidise pop-up galleries, the British Retail Consortium responded that this was a waste of money – that the government should instead reduce rates to keep struggling retailers in business. But the way Thompson does pop-ups, without subsidy, can hardly offend the BRC. He’s part of a widespread movement of artists and crafters to set up a presence on the high-street. Others include Rachel Matthews and Louise Harries’s knitting boutique, Prick Your Finger – which by putting on regular shows also serves as a kind of gallery – or the newly opened Paper Parlour, which smuggles artistic ideals among the yummy mummies of Clapham by providing a space for their offspring to make puppets and other things under the supervision of practicing artists. The only difference is that, unlike Thompsons pop-ups, these places are intended to stay for the long-term.

What they all have in common is a mission to revitalise high-streets that have been failing for much longer than the current recession – and to give pleasure to the people involved.

At 5pm, on the afternoon before the pop-up was due to open at the Guildbourne centre, Thompson’s wife Tracey, an artist herself with works in the show, arrived with their two young children and a vacuum cleaner. As she set to work, passers-by peeked curiously through the door: school-children, delivery men, old ladies, a chap in a beanie hat.

The following day – a Thursday – the gallery opened. By Monday morning, it was all gone. But you can still find traces on the internet. A video on YouTube shows art being inspected by a wide variety of visitors, including some in wheelchairs, and parents with pushchairs. Elsewhere, if you can be bothered to look, you’ll find comments from visitors: “Nice work – shame I can’t afford any of it!” “Superb… left me full of hope”, and “Pop-in gallery was fantastic!!”

Speaking for himself, Thompson was pleased. “It created a great buzz around town in a short time, and lots of people who came returned with friends.” On Twitter, you can read about his efforts to encourage pop-ups around the country, and indeed his preliminary ideas for what could be the greatest pop-up of all time: “BBC News reports 2012 organisers are looking for use for stadiums after Olympics,” he tweets. “We have some experience in using empty buildings…”

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