Artists in Empty Spaces

By Vickie Fear

In February I was invited to take part in a panel discussion at Plymouth College of Art on the topic of artists accessing empty spaces in Plymouth. As an artist I have performed in a handful of empty shops, public buildings and outdoor spaces; as a co-director of a couple of artist-led initiatives I’ve run events in cafés, industrial units and country fields and as the co-ordinator of PAC Home I was keen to take part and discuss some of the obstacles preventing this sort of activity from growing.

Following on from the discussion, there have been some encouraging noises from artists, cultural organisations and representatives of Plymouth City Council, that there is an interest to activate some of the many dormant units across the city. To make this possible there are steps which need to be taken by all three of those groups and although I agree that the issue of business rates needs to be addressed*, I would like to focus on the actions which the artist community need to take.

I am concerned about the ambitions of artists in Plymouth and whether the ideas for activating these empty shops are exciting enough to see a noticeable impact on the profile of contemporary art in the city. I want to see quality not quantity and I want to be able to see work in these units which I would ordinarily have to travel further afield to see. I also want artists themselves to run them. Existing arts venues in the city are doing their bit to bring work from across the country, actually scratch that, from around the world, to Plymouth but with tight budgets, crippling overheads and extensive education work behind the scenes this city needs a stronger artist-led scene to really push the boundaries of what you’ll find here.

We also have an unusually high number of art graduates coming through the system in Plymouth but at the moment the vast majority of them are not seeing this city as a viable option to live and continue their practice in. There are so few examples of artist-led projects here that most students I speak to have no interest in getting spaces for pop up events, interventions or exhibitions because they just don’t know that there can be so many benefits to doing it themselves.

So in the hope of inspiring a new spurt of activity I’d like to highlight a few examples, which I think have demonstrated true creativity, originality and daring in recent years. Follow the links for full information about the projects on their websites.

CentralReservation, Bristol, 2010

For four months Lucy Drane, Hannah James and Jane Porter ran this temporary project space in an ex-motorcycle showroom in Stokes Croft. Over two floors (10,000 sq ft) the group established residency studios and a programme of ambitious projects including one night performances, exhibitions and a monthly art market.


Vauxhall Art Car Boot Fair, Liverpool, 2014

Although not strictly artist-led, Karen Ashton and Helen Hayward have been running the Vauxhall Art Car Boot Fair (yes, supported by the car manufacturer) since 2004. Last year the event toured to Liverpool to coincide with the Biennial and a variety of artists and artist-led initiatives ran stalls or activities from car boots.


Primary, Nottingham, 2012 – present

Set up by Nottingham Studios Ltd this artist-led space offers 30 artists’ studios as well as project spaces and an interesting programme of events and activities in an old primary school, ten minutes walk from Nottingham city centre.


Project Space 11, Plymouth, 2010/11

Here in Plymouth itself Scott Daniels, Bryony Gillard and Beth Emily Richards ran a project space for 10 months in Plymouth City Market with a programme of residencies, exhibitions and offsite interventions.

Vickie Fear
Vickie Fear is an artist and Programme Assistant at Plymouth Arts Centre where she also co-ordinates PAC Home.
Twitter: @PAC_Home

All images sourced from websites or facebook pages of the projects discussed.

*If Plymouth City Council could offer 100% business rates relief for non-profit making, artistic or community use many spaces could be occupied using government issued Meanwhile Leases until landlords are able to find permanent commercial tenants. Plymouth College of Art will be publishing a Fact Sheet with further information about the benefits of using Meanwhile Leases.



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