As restrictions imposed as a result of the pandemic lift, the public is becoming starkly aware of the many shops and other businesses that have not survived lockdown. There’s been much contemplation around what our high streets will look like in a year’s time, let alone a decade. Despite the layers of uncertainty at play, there is an initiative gaining traction among key players – from central government to local authorities, retailers to consultants and, crucially, the public – that cultural spaces may be key to refashioning the high streets in small towns and larger cities alike. But how do we make it happen – and how quickly it can take place?
When the public discover developers’ plans to convert large central retail spaces into flats, they respond with petitions for theatres, cinemas and music venues. The image of pedestrianised high streets reinvigorated by the arts, with late-night shopping and dining supported by performances, theatre, cabaret and music, and daytime drama classes, films and family-friendly events is a preferable one for many. One of the key conclusions of KPMG’s January report on the “accelerated shift” to online purchases is: “High streets will need to be reimagined as cultural and recreational hubs that will act as magnets for businesses and jobs able to transform less prosperous areas.” The key word here is ‘accelerated’ – online retail is no new threat created by the pandemic, but communities are at risk of high street tumbleweeds if empty spaces cannot be corralled quickly into service.
Not a new problem
City high streets have been in need of reimagining for over a decade. In fact, the UK’s 2018 Budget brought with it the Future High Streets Fund, which had a focus on transforming underused space into something more viable, with approximately 10% of the now £1bn fund allocated to the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Even now, organisations like the Really Local Group are working with local authorities and communities to create flexible cultural areas in underused spaces, and larger developers are changing their approaches to city centre spaces. However, these pivots take time, often several years – and meanwhile, there are significant empty spaces at the centre of our towns and cities that can be put to new and community-focused use.
Rather than stalling the recovery and recreation of the high street, empty spaces provide significant opportunities, and the recent past can provide the models. In the 2000s and particularly in the wake of the financial crash, a raft of UK arts organisations began to use empty spaces in previously unexplored ways – along the way establishing site-specific immersive theatre’s place within the arts landscape, and stoking the millennial inclination towards experiences over products, but also creating a range of models for partnering with landlords of empty and underused spaces.
Theatre companies such as Punchdrunk and You Me Bum Bum Train pioneered the word-of-mouth, ‘you had to be there’ speakeasy aesthetic. Others were more public-facing. One of these, Theatre Deli, where I am now executive director, pioneered a mutually beneficial cost-saving model with landlords and developers, taking over prominent city-centre spaces, which over the years included a Woolworths in Sheffield, floors of the Guardian building in Farringdon, a high-rise in Canary Wharf, a public library and baths in Southwark. These very public spaces have been repurposed for a range of offerings to the public: from makeshift theatres, bars and cafés to affordable studios for rehearsals and classes, and flexible desk and office space for creatives and start-ups.
Checking the listings
In the intervening decade, a few key space-transforming highlights have caught the public’s imagination – not least Secret Cinema’s immersive filmscapes or the infamous production of Sweeney Todd set in Harrington’s Pie and Mash Shop in Tooting that transferred to an off-Broadway venue. But the real advantage of the ‘meanwhile-use’ approach to empty spaces is speed, flexibility and responsiveness. Arts organisations don’t require years to take over a space – they can get in over a month or so, and get out just as quickly. More importantly, they can respond to the needs of the community in which they find themselves.
Today, Theatre Deli’s venues include a cavernous warehouse space that used to house a branch of Mothercare in Sheffield, and two floors of an office building in British Land’s Broadgate campus in the City of London. In each case, development was slated, but could have been years away – whether that delay was down to permissions, funding, or just the priorities of the property owners. Theatre Deli provided much-needed community and creative space in the meantime – learning about what local audiences and artists were interested in or lacking, and providing it.
When Theatre Deli started its work, it would take over spaces and throw its doors open to local artists to create work within them. Now it performs a similar gesture but can add significant resources to back it up – for example, our artistic residency programme is designed to support new and exciting work, and specifically identify those groups in the community that are underrepresented in or marginalised by the existing local cultural offering. Simultaneously there is always a wide-armed offering to the public – whether it’s a friendly welcome to a quirky bar or a programme of events and performances, backed up by a regular re-evaluation of the community response to ensure the offering remains fresh and inviting.
A by-product of this flexible and agile approach, driven by both artists and audiences, is a real understanding of what communities want and need. Through this rapid reinvention, it is possible for arts organisations to provide a line of communication between high street landlords, local authorities and resident communities that goes beyond a consultation and becomes a true relationship. Theatre Deli has recently released a white paper on the variety of benefits to landlords in partnering with arts organisations, but where they might previously have been primarily attracted to such arrangement to save on the high costs of having empty space, landlords are now much more likely to see it as a positive part of their relationship with their local community, and part of their corporate social responsibility offering.
The recognition of the need for cultural venues at the heart of our high streets is an acknowledgement that the high street as a concept belongs to the community – and is not simply the site of exchange between retailer and consumer. By inviting arts organisations into the equation – especially when the alternative is an empty shop floor – property owners can explore their own place in this relationship, and use what they learn to design dynamic, adaptable, future-proof high streets, in step with the communities they serve.