Accessing empty spaces

There is a well-established history of artists taking over empty shops and other spaces for temporary exhibitions or community projects, and in the current economic downturn such activity is being actively supported both by local councils and artist networks.

The Empty Shops Network’s howtopopup resource provides everything you need to know about setting up events in temporary spaces.

Popupspace is a new organisation that provides a database of empty properties available on temporary or short-let lease arrangements. There is also an online forum run by Meanwhile SPACE for artists interested in the subject for current or future projects.

If you have already taken over a shop and want to list your event or project, you can join the Empty Shops Network.

The Empty Shop Network has also published an excellent guide to artists working with empty shops, freely downloadable on their website together with Pop Up for Dummies, written by Dan Thompson.

Popupspace has also launched a Pop Up Insurance, a Retail premises temporary Insurance that can be as short as one month.

Many private property owners understand the regenerative potential of the visual arts and could be persuaded to provide a space at a low price, or free for a period.  Many artist-led spaces have used domestic venues (such as Apartment in Manchester and Switchspace in Glasgow, co-curated by Sorcha Dallas and this can be an excellent way to test the water before making a larger commitment of time and money.  Other groups may elect to use different spaces for each of their exhibitions or projects, such as Cuckoo in New Zealand or Reclamation Artists in Boston, USA, meaning the early stage of the organisation can avoid the difficulties and extra workload a permanent space can bring.

To find possible venues you can contact the local council in which you live or work – they tend to prefer a connection to their borough when considering collaborating with an artist – or if you have found a venue, get the owner’s contact details via a property search on the Land Registry website (each application for information costs £4).

It can be difficult sometimes to persuade private landlords or local councils to offer temporary leases to artists for cultural activity.  In response to this, the Department for Communities and Local Government (who set policy on local government, housing, urban regeneration, planning and fire and rescue) published a list of advantages to landlords that may be useful in negotiations:

  • attracting local communities and visitors to an area, where they may use local businesses
  • maintaining town centres and high streets which have faced multiple closures as a result of the recession
  • offsetting empty property business rates as properties used for temporary activities are no longer liable for these rates
  • specimen legal documents available for landlords to speed up and cut costs on the process of lending or letting spaces temporarily

If a private landlord is unwilling to let or lend a space temporarily to artists you could approach your local council and suggest they take on a lease and sublet it to you.  This has the advantage that:

  • the landlord would not be liable for insurance
  • they would have a guarantee from the council to return the property quickly should a permanent tenant appear
  • they would also benefit from having utility and security bills covered
  • there would be no empty property rates to pay

More information that could help to convince a reluctant landlord can be found on the Living Places website.  Living Places is an alliance of public bodies who believe everyone should benefit from the arts, sport, public space, heritage, museums, libraries and archives, the built environment and the creative industries, regardless of where they live.

In 2009 the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) published a guide and drafts of so-called ‘meanwhile use’ leases – special leases that can be used for temporary projects while a more permanent tenant is sought.  These provide standard documents to reduce or eliminate legal costs when negotiating property contracts for temporary use.

Your local town centre manager can help you to work with landlords and the council, and help to simplify the planning procedures you may require.  Bear in mind that projects taking over a space for less than 28 days do not usually require ‘change of use’ permission from the council (where a shop space would need to be reclassified for artistic or cultural use, for example).

Local Development Orders allow for ‘change of use’ that would otherwise require planning permission (a much more lengthy and costly process) and from June 2009 these will be made much more flexible in an amendment to the Planning Act 2008. You may also want to research your local area agreements to see if your proposed project ties in with other local priorities which may help you leverage the funding or permission you require.

Selected press coverage of artists using empty shop spaces can be found under Artists’-Led Projects.

The type of venues you use will depend on the programme you intend to offer and the types of project you are interested in.

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