A window on why ..

100_0205I was discussing the ‘Art in empty shops project’ with someone the other day and, instead of feeling proud of what I had achieved, I felt  a bit embarrassed about the whole thing. Which lead me to think ‘why?’

The idea was great and did work well… for a while. Empty shops in the High Street are not doing anyone any good. Not the owners, the agents, their neighbours, the town’s residents or visitors. So to go in and voluntarily clean up the empty shops and put them to use should have been a win win situation. In the end it became a no win situation.

There was an initial shop clean-up day organised by Hailsham Town Council, with volunteers doing the cleaning with cleaning materials donated by local businesses. I was then asked if I would volunteer to invite artists to participate in the Art in Empty Shops project   – they would clean up a shop then could then display their work in a window of that shop for a set period of time (unless the shop was let in the meantime), with the blessing of and keys loaned  by the agents.  Nobody was getting any financial reward except those artists who happened to privately sell a picture to someone who contacted them after seeing it in a shop window.  They didn’t need to pay a fee to exhibit or give a commission on any subsequent sales – it was all free. It was a non-commercial venture. The reward to the town and businesses was that the shops were kept clean and tidy and the High Street looked like it had something happening in it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASome artists declined the offer because it would make their work look bad being displayed in a tatty shop or because they rightly felt their work was at risk from either sunlight fading or physical risk of vandalism or theft – insuring work in empty shops isn’t possible. some artists refused because they couldn’t do the cleaning. But many artists did accept, some professionals, many amateurs.

Insurance proved to be the downfall of part of the project – understandably, one agent wanted us to arrange insurance of the shop windows where work was displayed. But this wasn’t possible because the shops were not being used for commercial purposes. We were only allowed to use the shops on the understanding that they could not be used for commercial purposes otherwise the owners would have been liable to business rates. Catch 22. We couldn’t use those shops without the insurance.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe first problem seemed to be that a lot of artists did not understand that they were expected to clean up the shop in return for free exhibition space so I and other the artists (and Steve from the council) always ended up doing a lot of cleaning. Not many understood that they were expected to keep the windows clean themselves so the Town Council did agree to pay for a window cleaner to clean the art-occupied shops for a few weeks. I think this, and posters paid for by Arlington Arts Group was the only funding that was put into the project.

I was also amazed at how little thought some artists put into the display of their work. If you have work that you want to show off, you must surely care about how it is displayed. This was the biggest issue from a visual side – no matter what people’s taste in art, good or bad, if it is displayed well it will make the window look good. If it is displayed badly, even the Mona Lisa wouldn’t enhance an empty shop window. I took along extra materials, stands, fabric, wire etc to help people put together some kind of display but, with no funding  I couldn’t keep doing that.

Don’t get me wrong – some artists put together some fabulous displays,  truly works of art in their own right, and a lot of the work was excellent and you frequently saw people stop to have a good look. Sadly a poor display next to them did, as the artists who declined  had so rightly said, make the whole thing appear tatty and the work look bad.

I had complaints from some participating artists about which window they had been allocated (concerning either its size or the cleanliness of the shop), how much space they had compared to someone else, or how inconvenient it was for them to set up or take down on certain days. Some artists complained that they had asked to display work but hadn’t been offered a space even though another artist had work in twice. Sigh. Steve and I did our best to accommodate everyone’s different timing, coming out in evenings and on Sunday mornings as cleaners and key bearers. I was thanked by just a handful of the participating artists – I’m not sure what thanks Steve got if any.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo I couldn’t win – generally the shops were not being kept clean, the art wasn’t making them look good, artists were getting cross with me, I got the feeling that other High Street businesses didn’t like the project, the agent was getting fed up with me, I had inadvertently offended some people (think that might happen again), I was spending my own money on display materials, I was spending far too much time and worrying a lot about something that seemed to be of no benefit and finally …… the use of the last few shop windows was withdrawn because they were ‘all about to be refurbished’. I felt like a bit of a twit really.

What started off with great promise at the Hailsham Arts Festival, with gorgeous displays of vibrant art and a pop-up gallery in one shop which the public enthused over, ended up as a damp and still grubby squib but I am wrong to be embarrassed. We had a good plan and  a lot of people worked very hard to try to make it work, but I think without actually renting the properties, it was always doomed to a short run. Some of us did ask to rent a property for a few weeks, but the owners only want long term lets.

The empty shop windows are now in the process of being covered up with vinyl pictures of what could be in the shop.

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