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The Regional Democracy Think Tank for West Yorkshire

Reform of Meanwhile Use: Arts & Culture On The High Street

By Laura Brooks, Frank Darnley, Corinne Furness, Mussarat Rahman and Andrew Wilson

“There is no lack of imagination or those willing to try out new ways of celebrating life and culture within the district, but there is a lack of resources to sustain ideas and enhance collaboration.”

Meanwhile use of empty buildings is an established model and has been used extensively by artists in the UK over the last 15 years. Through meanwhile use, groups of artists and small organisations occupy temporarily unoccupied spaces such as shops or offices, transforming them into community hubs, workshops, galleries, museums and theatres. Then, when the space is let or redeveloped, the artists move out.

Meanwhile use can be responsive, accessible, and creative. It often engages people in seeing and making art who wouldn’t visit traditional venues or see themselves as artists.

The economic return of arts and culture has been valued at £5 for every £1 invested, but through meanwhile use, artists and community groups make a wider civic contribution. They have often taken on the roles which used to belong to community development workers and even town centre managers: organising and promoting free events for the public; populating empty buildings with activity; providing spaces for community meetings; connecting different interest groups, even signposting members of the public to care and support services. However, meanwhile use has its limits.

The current model requires enormous amounts of energy and labour from artists to transform these spaces, build audiences and grow communities around them. When artists are asked to leave – sometimes with as little as one week’s notice – much of this work is lost.

As well as the lost investment of time and energy by local artists and community groups, the current meanwhile use model can lead to money being extracted from the economies of smaller, less prosperous towns. Typically, meanwhile use is done through an intermediary organisation with charitable status, often based in a regional city.

The intermediary becomes the nominal tenant, and then sublets the space to local artists for a peppercorn rent. The private landlord pays reduced business rates, and in return gives a proportion of the savings to the intermediary and to a solicitor as fees. For a small shop space in a West Yorkshire town the private landlord using charity 80% rates exemption saves £11,536 and keeps 70% of that, £8,075. The intermediary organisation is given a donation by the landlord of 20% of the savings, £2,307, and a solicitor takes a fee of 10%, £1,153.

All of that money, along with the peppercorn rent paid by local artists, is lost to the local economy if the intermediary is not based in the same town [see recommendation 1]. As well as the economic loss, having intermediary organisations as caretakers leaves local artists lacking the skills to develop long term spaces themselves.

At the very core of meanwhile use is the idea that these spaces will, at some unspecified point, return to their original use. In 2021 we need to accept that this isn’t going to be the case for all spaces.

We’d like to propose a new way of working, imagining how we might make meanwhile sustainable. We need to think big. In every town in West Yorkshire a medium to large empty space in a central area should be given over to local artists and community partners to create a cultural hub.

This can happen in small towns as well as cities, and there are excellent examples already in the region, including Keighley Creative, Temporary Contemporary in Huddersfield, Arts Bloc in Morley and Fire and Water in Sowerby Bridge.

There should be a three year rolling contract with a minimum notice period of 12 months and a commitment to finding the next space. This might be done by utilising council owned spaces, through agreements with landlords, or via the purchasing of buildings to recognise the communal worth of our town centres. Artists are resilient and resourceful but the space allocated should be usable with heating, light, toilets, and water. The space should be accessible and local disabled and neurodiverse artists should be consulted on ensuring that it meets their needs [see recommendations 3, 4].

Likewise these spaces should allow a mix of uses – there might be artist studios or workspaces,performance and gallery spaces, rooms for general use or office spaces. Some artists might want to commit to being in the space long term but others might want to use the spaces for temporary projects.

Both should be embraced. Artists, professional and amateur, will create, test, trial and learn, with a focus on upskilling and giving artists of all kinds the skills to run these spaces (and future ones) themselves [see recommendation 2].

We recommend the Mayor champions these practical reforms of meanwhile use:

  1. Reduce the extraction of wealth from smaller towns by encouraging local government to work directly with groups of local artists and private landlords.
  2. Work with the Arts Council to develop the training and capacity building role of the intermediary organisations it supports, passing on skills to local groups so they can eventually take full responsibility for meanwhile use spaces in their towns and cities.
  3. Champion the move from short term meanwhile use to the establishment of an arts and community hub on every West Yorkshire high street, run by local artists and citizens.
  4. Bring together consortiums of local artists, community groups and local government to buy hub buildings in town centres if necessary. Kirklees Council have already done this, and the recently announced Community Ownership Fund might provide match funding in other places.
  5. Host a one-day conference to launch a West Yorkshire network bringing together the arts and community hubs and other artist-run spaces. This conference should be on a Saturday, and have child care, to allow artists with young families and who work during the week to attend.

Laura Brooks
Laura Brooks has worked with everybody from Bradford University mentoring young people in a bereavement project, to co-programming Women of the World festival with the Southbank Centre. Now she’s building the ambitious Bradford Fringe Festival, from nothing to the brightest new fringe festival in the UK.

Frank Darnley
I exhibited my own work in group exhibitions including at the Ferrens in Hull and the Bluecoat in Liverpool and was also commissioned by Bradford Festival, Mind the..Gap , Pilot, Skinning the Cat and IOU Theatre. ‘Meeting Aliens’ involved an interactive robotic sculpture developed with Bradford University and was my solo exhibition curated by Steve Manthorpe at Cartright Hall in 1999.This led to an MA at Huddersfield in Smart Design in 2005.

Corinne Furness
Corinne Furness is a researcher and theatre maker based in Leeds. Co-director of community theatre company Eager Spark, she has made work for empty shops, community spaces and rural touring as well as for theatre auditoriums. She is currently completing an AHRC funded PhD exploring professional-amateur collaboration in the subsidised theatre sector and regularly consults on working with artists in empty shops.

Mussarat Rahman
Mussarat is an up and coming social innovator and cultural leader, developing innovative local and national programmes with community in mind. These have been developed from her own experiences, knowledge and working practices working hand in hand with community, She has been an active social change maker for the last 15 years running and developing new programmes continuously. Biasan, Intercultured Festival.

Andrew Wilson
I experiment with structures to facilitate collaboration and have been one of the co-founders and main organisers of para-lab (2017-) and Superposition (2013-2017), both collectives of artists and scientists; The Making Space, a cooperatively run shared workspace (2013-); Same Skies (2015-); and two co-operatives to develop software.

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