Making the case for revisiting creative occupation of empty shops and rethinking the High Street

I’m writing this post as an arts professional who has an opinion, with experience of supporting and delivering arts events in empty buildings. Artist-led groups thrived in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, when artists began to initiate their own gallery opportunities, due to the huge number graduating from an overstretched university system. The YBA (young British artists) or the Britpack, was one of the first. That was in the days when artists needed spaces, and councils had empty ones that needed filling. The rest is history.

Below, I make the case for revisiting creative occupation of empty shops and rethinking the High Street.

Listening to the news today and hearing economists saying (yet again) that we must ‘save our high street stores’, and more or less blaming the pandemic and online businesses for the closure of shops, is depressing. For a start, our high streets have been declining for years. Yes, online shopping has taken the trade by supplying products more cheaply and delivers them to your door. Why is that a problem, isn’t it something that makes people’s lives easier? 

The only reason we must keep some retail shops is so we can buy local, good products, to reduce the need for  importing so many things. That way we keep the carbon footprint down. Shops run by independents, keeping the economy local. The government could invest in  farming and creative companies that work in an environmental way. Ones that support recycling, plastic free and fossil few industries. The recent government report, by Dasgupta, flags all this up. So the government can no longer pretend it’s not an issue – they commissioned the report. 

We need to reconsider a new economy that isn’t just about financial profit.

The biggest problem with the success of home deliveries is not that high street stores are closing, but that all those extra fossil-fuel vehicles delivering are damaging the environment. That could be addressed using electric vehicles, which the government could make a legal requirement. Where jobs are lost in the retail industry they could, surely, be employed in the environmental recovery industry, which must be our priority

For centuries new innovations have changed the way society operates and products are distributed. The printing press saw off town cryers; washing machines replaced dolly stirrers; tumble dryers mangles; tractors horses. The list is endless. Big chainstore shops are no longer needed because they make more profit selling online. Arcadia has collapsed, Debenhams and many others are closing. So what could replace them?

Years ago I read a book written by Louis Gerstner who turned IBM around. In a nutshell, IBM was the world leader in mainframe computers but desktops were arriving which could be used in homes. The closed-shop management team and Board would not acknowledge that they too should take on desktops or would cease to be needed. Part of the problem was appalling internal communications, but the biggest failure was not seeing that however hard you dig your heels in for the sake of the good old days, when a better, more useful and universal product comes along, it will inevitably, eventually, replace the old system.

I appreciate not everyone has technology, or the internet, even now. That is another outcome of social inequality. But if we stop trying to keep fixing broken things, like shops, (especially chain stores that don’t even contribute to local economies) open, and focus on enabling people to shop safely and well online, wouldn’t that be wiser? Don’t forget that libraries were opened to give access to books for all, even those that couldn’t afford them. Or pay for education. We still want, and need libraries now, but maybe for different things? It is interesting too that funding of libraries is no longer a government responsibility, but an Arts Council England one. Clearly our government no longer values our literacy and perceives it as a creative pursuit, not a necessity. Is there a case to argue here that creativity IS a necessity to our wellbeing as well as something that meets the human inclination to be social animals?

There was a time when people worried that cinemas would close down, when TV, video and DVD brought film into our homes. But they didn’t, they came back bigger and better with multiplexes. And to counter-balance that, small film clubs opened up in villages and towns. The film industry is still thriving and also includes small producers and creatives. Cheap access to digital cameras and phone cameras has opened up even more creative opportunities. All of these developments have contributed to social activities. People love to share experiences together, which is one of the greatest sadnesses for many during lockdown.

Mass production of cheap clothes, imported and sold at low prices end up in landfill, which has resulted in a genuine desire to buy quality, natural, handmade artisan products. And to mend them not bin them. The fashion industry are now looking at their own responsibilities in this system too. Fast fashion contributes to pollution, fast food no longer satisfies people.

No longer supporting chain stores means cutting out the middle men/women. Which risks removing power from those who only care about profits and have little respect for social need or environmental duty of care. 

Surely this is a good thing?

So now, to my point, how does this relate to the arts? After all that is my specialism, it is why you read my blog posts. Here is why:

  • When things progress and there is a sense of loss of things left behind, it is artists that often find ways to find new audiences or the lost social aspects – e.g. film – the big Hollywood films are still happening BUT artists and those who love 35mm are also thriving and keeping things accessible and social.
  • There became a concern that ebooks would destroy book shops – but many people went back to buying books, missing the tactile quality of paper books. And people like to share paper books. People still love going to book launches, the personal touch. Book Clubs thrive online and off. Artist books are very popular, as is bookbinding by hand.

There are many more examples, but essentially, what I am saying is that ART and ARTISTS enliven places and spaces. They are social and accessible. Anyone can join in. 

Since the pandemic began there have been losses and gains for the arts. It is horrendous for those whose practice depends on having large audiences, such as theatres and festivals. But for some audiences, this resulted in a gain. Suddenly, the big city-based event providers started providing access to audiences who had previously been able to see their performances. Those who live beyond the cities in rural areas. Those who can’t afford expensive tickets to attend the London theatres.

Art and craft materials are selling like hotcakes.Online art classes well attended. Artists who walk are thriving too – indeed many nature activities have been accessed by people confined to local areas. It is nigh on impossible to buy a dog these days, unless you have thousands of £’s. 

Everyone is appreciating the countryside more, David Attenorough is the new god, rural areas are packed with more visitors with shiny new camper vans with their puppies. 

So chain stores come and go, high streets have gone temporarily quiet. Those who have just discovered online shopping may well not return. What to do with all those empty shops?

How about artisan shops? Artist studios? Small event spaces? Local makers who run workshops too? Shoe repairers who also teach you how to do it (but they will always do it better!)? Book exchanges, with comfy sofas and serving good coffee and homemade cakes? Community spaces? Convert the big chain stores into a hive of artisan makers, where they make and sell too? Wool and fabric shops? Blacksmiths? Potteries? Artist supplies? Florists? 

The list could go on.

But in the meantime, until we are able to do this, let’s make sure that local authorities and central government stop pushing for reopening high street chains.  

They are the past, we are the future. 

We need to reinvent not resuscitate.

Published by carolyn black

I'm an artist and also commission contemporary art in unusual locations. As a producer, I fundraise, curate, project manage and deliver projects. I'm also a writer and film-maker.

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