Spaces need artists

Access to meanwhile spaces is now commonplace in the visual arts sector. Here, writer Chris Sharratt speaks to Shân Edwards of Outer Spaces and Kate V Robertson of Sculpture Placement Group about the opportunities and challenges of working in temporary commercial units, and how local authorities could support this practice.

Artists have always needed space – space to work, space to exhibit, space to interact with other practitioners. Now, though, with the high street feeling the pain of online shopping and offices left empty due to redundancies and homeworking, increasingly its spaces that need artists. Could it be that the pandemic has turned yet another thing on its head?

For precisely that reason, at the beginning of 2021 Shân Edwards set up OuterSpaces, a charity that aims to ‘activate and reanimate the nation’s empty commercial spaces’. She explains: “When Covid happened, there was a massive interest from landlords who had empty properties.”

Having previously worked as Chief Executive of Edinburgh Printmakers and before that The Art House in Wakefield, Edwards has had plenty of experience of temporary ‘meanwhile’ spaces for artists and art projects. But, she believes, the landscape has changed massively in the last two years.

“I’d been running projects in less prosperous areas in places like Aberdeen, Grangemouth and Paisley where there were empty commercial properties,” explains Edwards. “But suddenly it wasn’t just less prosperous places where there was empty commercial property – it was everywhere.”

As Edwards observed how the high street and office working was being transformed, she became convinced that rather than this being a temporary Covid-induced blip, something more fundamental and longterm was happening. In a lot of cases, the prospect of commercial tenants returning any time soon seemed unlikely. “It felt like a real opportunity to bring artists back into the centres,” says Edwards as we chat on Zoom, “because they had been pushed out for years and years due to it being way too expensive.”

OuterSpaces has so far secured eight spaces in Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Motherwell, and is in the process of setting up another six, four of which are larger office blocks including city centre sites in Glasgow and Edinburgh. All the spaces are artist-led, self managed by studio holders and rent free (although a voluntary monthly contribution can be made, the money going towards programme development).

Increasingly, landlords are coming to Edwards with vacant spaces that need to be filled. The reason is simple: they want to save money, and having tenants in a building does exactly that by drastically reducing security and building maintenance costs, as well as deterring vandalism.

Most importantly, if a building is tenanted the landlord no longer has to pay business rates, as this passes to the tenant. Because OuterSpaces is a registered charity, it can apply for charitable rate relief of 80%. “When we negotiate a property with a landlord, we don’t pay anything because we are creating a saving for them,” says Edwards.

“We tend to work with agents for landlords that are off-shore entities or pension funds. They have a portfolio of property, so what’s costing them the most tends to be what we get offered – although of course that’s not what artists always want, and it’s the artists that ultimately decide.”

OuterSpaces is far from alone in believing that artists and the arts have an important role to play in the post-pandemic regeneration of our town and city centres, and long before Covid organisations like The Stove Network in Dumfries have been reanimating spaces on the high street. Recently, a report funded by Arts Council England and the South East Local Enterprise Partnership described the creative and cultural sector as “pivotal” to the future of the high street as towns attempt to bounce back from the devastating impact of lockdown. The issue is also finding its way into local politics in Scotland.

Ahead of council elections on 5 May, a group of cultural organisations in Scotland – SCAN included – collaboratively-produced a Culture & Heritage Manifesto for Local Government. It includes a specific call for local authorities to “support the repurposing of empty commercial properties”, turning them into “cultural spaces such as studios, venues, co-working spaces for freelance practitioners, workshops, and pop-up exhibition spaces”. Although not specifically in its manifesto, the Scottish Greens have previously expressed support for the idea and a spokesperson told SCAN the party is “committed to allowing artists to be instrumental in regenerating town centres”.

But what can local authorities actually do to support this process? To start with, Edwards thinks they need to put artists and the cultural sector centre stage so they sit alongside the concerns of the traditional business community and feed into the Scottish Government’s Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) model. When it comes to the specific task of finding new uses for disused spaces, she believes that councillors and local politicians need to better understand the model for repurposing buildings from commercial to creative use, particularly how key the business rates reduction is to the process.

She explains: “We have to apply to local authorities for charitable rates relief, and sometimes this can be a very, very lengthy process. Meanwhile, we are at risk of having an enormous rates bill which we can’t afford. That means we can’t do as much as we’d like to: we have to go at a pace that allows us to manage the risk of having to pay the full rates.”

If local authorities realised the impact of such delays, perhaps they would find ways to streamline and speed up things, posits Edwards. While she has so far always managed to secure rates relief, in some cases it has taken more than five months for this to be granted. That means having to work at a much slower pace than if the availability of suitable spaces was the only factor at play. The demand is certainly there: currently there are 400 artists on the organisation’s waiting list for studio space across Scotland.

Of course there are many artists and organisations that are operating from other repurposed spaces across Scotland. The use of ‘meanwhile spaces’ has been common practice for many years, enabling artists and new organisations to find low-cost or free space, with the downside of temporary tenure and all the uncertainty and stress this can bring.

Glasgow’s Sculpture Placement Group has been based in a large shop unit in the Braes Shopping Centre, Castlemilk for nearly a year. Previously in Many Studios in Glasgow’s east end, SPG needed more space for less money, and although it does have to pay rent for its current space it made significant savings when it moved.

Artist and SPG co-director Kate V Robertson explains that repurposing a commercial space was the perfect fit for the organisation. “We’re all about sustainability and re-use and trying to make us of things that have become redundant, so being in a shopfront really fitted with that sustainable ethos, and also that repurposing idea.”

Being visible to the public has been another positive, although the space is used for storing sculptural works rather than for display. SPG dealt directly with the property manager of the shopping centre, and the tenancy has been on a month-by-month basis. The lack of longterm security this creates is a perennial problem for any form of meanwhile space. It’s particularly problematic for an organisation like SPG which needs storage for sometime.

Robertson explains that they will probably have to move out soon due to the plans for the centre, although as yet there is no confirmed date for this. It is clearly a constant concern, and she describes the temporary nature of the tenancy as “time-consuming and stressful, something you don’t want to be focussing your energy on”.

She adds: “When we moved here there was a bit of relief because we could stop thinking about it. But that lasts about a month and then you have to start thinking about it all over again.”

It’s clearly important to acknowledge the limitations of repurposing commercial spaces, to recognise that it is not a solution for everyone. After all, briefly occupying a space for an exhibition or performance, which by its nature comes with a start and finish date, is one thing. But for artists and artist-led organisations that want a space they can feel secure in longterm, the limitations of the current model are clear. As Robertson puts it: “If you can afford it, a space in a studio complex with a lease agreement is much better. But, if you get it for free you can cope with the precarity.”

Is it possible – if high street and office culture really has changed for good, if there really is no going back to the pre-Covid days of full(er) occupancy – that there is scope for both affordable, repurposed spaces for artists and longterm security? Shân Edwards at OuterSpaces is hopeful there might be. “It’s always been temporary up until now – usually a 12-month lease – because the occupation was until the landlord could find someone who would pay the market rate. But there’s a real opportunity to move from the highly temporary to much more longer-term rental agreements with landlords – because there’s a surplus of commercial space.”

Image: Shân Edwards, Director of OuterSpaces