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Art in empty spaces in the North West

  • Date: 27 September 2010
  • Area: North
Young family using vintage typewriters

The Blackburn Book Archive. Credit: Creativity Works

The successful transformation of commercial premises across the North West is reinvigorating our town and city centres. The Arts Council's Art in empty spaces initiative - which is supported by our National Lottery funded Grants for the arts scheme - has been supporting artists and arts organisations to help them carry out artistic activities in vacant premises.

In Blackburn, as part of the town's Open Shop Project, visual artist Lucy May Schofield took up residence in an empty shop. She joined with the townspeople to create The Blackburn Book Archive, an archive documenting the reading habits and stories of the community.

An internationally acclaimed expert in artist book making, Lucy has worked within the archives at the V&A and the Wellcome Collection to create collaborative books.

She opened the doors to her temporary studio in Blackburn with an invitation to residents to suggest books, which in turn would form a unique book collection about and for their community. Residents were also encouraged to join in with a wide range of activities, including readings, bookgroups, workshops in book making techniques and making monoprints of their favourite book covers.

Lucy is now preparing the archive ready to go on display in January 2011 in Blackburn Art Gallery and Museum.

Lucy said: 'I think that the people of Blackburn responded so wonderfully to this project partly because they found the shop such a welcoming space. Located in an old hairdresser's next door to a cafe, the project allowed so many curious visitors to pop their heads around the door to ask what was happening and, within moments, sit themselves down at a typewriter and type out their book recommendation for the archive. It was heartening to witness some of the more socially excluded members of the community engaging with, and enjoying the company of, people they may never ordinarily have the chance to talk to. I found the whole experience of the Open Shop Project fascinating and inspirational.'

Rebecca Johnson, Head of Arts, Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council added: 'Through the Open Shop Project the community became really inspired to talk about books and to create their own artworks for the book archive. The shop itself became a centre for creativity and conversation.'

The Blackburn Book Archive took place through a partnership between Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, Blackburn Central Library and Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council, and The Open Shop Project - the engagement strand of the Liberating Empty Terrain (LET) project by Creativity Works, which aims to link local heritage venues with town centre audiences through creative activity. The LET project aims to raise awareness of the high quality creative industries that exist in Pennine Lancashire and has been funded through central government money targeted at putting empty shops to use during a time of recession. Creativity Works is co-ordinated by the Arts Officers of Pennine Lancashire, Creative Lancashire, Curious Minds and the Arts Council.

In Oldham, where the local cinema closed down in 2005, 17-year-old student Sophie Barrott devised the idea to turn a former tourist information shop into a 30-seat cinema in which to screen popular films for local audiences.

Sophie set up her Small Cinema project, with additional support from Oldham Council, to draw attention to the need for a cinema in the town. She took the initiative of hiring all the necessary equipment - from projector to screen - and rented films chosen by the local community through a dedicated Facebook Group.

The temporary cinema was a hit with local people and Sophie, who worked with Arts Manager Annie O'Neil from Oldham Council on the project, is delighted with the outcome.

Sophie said: 'It was surprising how positive people were about the Small Cinema Project, and how diverse the audience we reached truly was. Each night we provided not only an amazing film, but a truly unique experience, that won't be forgotten any time soon. I couldn't be more proud of what we achieved!'

The Small Cinema was supported by Oldham Council's SHOP project, a 10-month long programme of activity to aid the regeneration of the town centre during the economic downturn. The SHOP project aims to animate empty spaces with a vibrant and well marketed temporary programme of high quality cultural activity designed to have a wide ranging appeal and to draw in new participants for arts projects. SHOP is developed and co-ordinated by Oldham Arts Development team with support from Oldham Partnership and the Arts Council.

Sound City, Liverpool's biggest music festival, ran their Screenadelica exhibition from the old Rapid store on Renshaw Street as part of the Shops Upfront project. The former retail space - which claims to have the longest shop front in the UK - was opened up and transformed into an exhibition showcasing work from over 50 internationally acclaimed artists and ran five Saturday sessions of live music by the best of Liverpool's unsigned bands. The project, which took place in May, attracted an audience of over 10,000 people.

In another Shops Upfront project, Liverpool born contemporary photographic artist Tom Fairclough ran his powerful and moving exhibition Collateral from two units inside Liverpool's Metquarter. Tom combines imagery of rubble taken from Liverpool's 1941 bombing during World War 2 with quotations from the residents who lived through the Blitz. Collateral attracted a lot of media attention and is planned to re-run in May 2011 to coincide with the anniversary of the Blitz in Liverpool.

Tom said: 'Shops Upfront has been a welcome breath of fresh air on the streets, every city shifts and this has allowed artists and performers to brighten up the areas that have been facing commercial challenges and put something interesting and unusual in front of a public that might not normally visit galleries and shows.'

Shops Upfront is Culture Liverpool's initiative to enable artists to access empty retail units for short term exhibitions, workshops and art events, jointly funded by the Department of Communities and Local Government, the Arts Council and Liverpool City Council.

Anthony Preston, Senior Manager, Regional Planning, Arts Council England concluded: 'These projects are successful because they are highly personal and they have inspired diverse groups of people to work together. They breathe life into unused locations, allowing people to participate in art in new and unexpected places. They leave positive legacies, showing that art can make a difference to where we live and work and can contribute to the economic vitality of our town and city centres.'

The former Rapid hardware retail space is currently exhibiting work by over 20 artists from across the world as part of Liverpool Biennial 2010. The old store is acting as the festival hub, featuring a number of interactive exhibitions that visitors can help create or become part of themselves.

For more information about the Blackburn Book Archive visit:

For more information about the Small Cinema in Oldham visit:  

For more information about the Open Shop Project in Blackburn visit:

For more information about the SHOP project in Oldham email:

For more information about Shops Upfront in Liverpool visit: