Starting up on your own is certainly no easy feat – in fact we often discuss the potential obstacles that lie ahead at the RSA’s monthly Social Entrepreneurs breakfast. However, one thing I have noticed is that the first barrier is not (as you might think) imagined lack of capital; it’s simply getting started.
Seemingly, a number of skilled, imaginative people are just unsure how or where to begin.
It wasn’t until I began working at the RSA that I fully appreciated the value of having a support structure. I thought breaking out on your own was something you should do…alone? I soon learnt that successful leaders do quite the opposite: they join a network, get training and tap into all the help that’s available.
A couple of weeks ago, we hosted an evening event at RSA House for thirty individuals currently undertaking the Clore Leadership Programme which focuses on those with experience working in the Arts, and the Clore Social Leadership Programme which is primarily for people with careers in the social sectors. We were privileged to have a mixture of current Clore Fellows join us for some drinks, networking and an historical tour of the building.
For those who don’t know, the Clore programmes are designed to develop strong leaders in the cultural and social sectors so that more individuals are better equipped to engender positive change in their communities, organisations and the world around them.
Given the electic mix of experience and knowledge in the room a number of interesting conversations were initiated – from discussing the trajectory of the Walt Disney corporation, to the role of art in school curriculums – Clore Leaders are inspiring and inspired company. For more information about the current cohort of Clore Cultural and Social Leaders you can view full profiles on the respective websites.
We were also joined by Asma Shah FRSA who spoke to the room about her social enterprise Ladies Who L-EARN. Asma demonstrates exactly how transformative the Clore programme can be. With a background in the Arts, Asma was a Clore Cultural Fellow though as she pointed out, you wouldn’t know it now as her current work sits firmly within the social sector.
Upon finishing the programme she joined the RSA Fellowship and by applying to RSA Catalyst, Asma was able to get her project off the ground. Since then she has been able to access further funding, attract more volunteers and ultimately, help more women.
Asma was keen to point out the combination of the Clore Fellowship and RSA Fellowship is a powerful one. This cannot be overemphasised. Asma began working with women in her community who had limited access to the kind of training or social capital that she had gained from joining influential, supportive networks like Clore and the RSA.
The RSA has partnered with Clore Leadership for nine years now and we continue to work together because of our mutual belief that investing in individuals is one of the fundamental ways to improve society.
Part of investing in people is offering them a framework to carry their ideas, so that getting started is never an obstacle.
Alexandra Barker is a Fellowship Development Coordiantor at the RSA
If you would like more infromation about RSA Fellowship or any of people or projects mentioned above, then contact firstname.lastname@example.org
One evening over the Christmas break, I found myself at the home of a friend and her partner, both of whom happen to be psychoanalysts. Over dinner, whilst attempting to steer the conversation away from work, we began discussing the role of storytelling in our lives; the social narratives we believe in, the stories we pass on to others and the ones that resonate at a personal level.
The conversation led us to conclude that whilst a good story will always have readers, a really powerful story, will inspire people to act. In the Fellowship department, we often discuss how to make this shift. When there is so much great material available, it can be difficult to know how to piece it all together and the power in a story can easily be lost.
At first glance, social change appears to lend itself well to narrative. For a start, there is natural beginning; if we are trying to solve a problem, first we have to understand it. The starting point has to be-
What exactly is happening here?
This is especially poignant when encountering subjects that people might be uncomfortable talking about. Rachel Clare FRSA is Assistant Director at the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) which deals with the issue of male suicide. According to recent government statistics on mortality rates, suicide is a bigger cause of death in young men than HIV, traffic accidents and assault combined, with 77% of all cases of suicide in the UK every year being male. CALM was born from a simple need to generate greater awareness of the problem.
Once a problem is defined, we have to figure out the best way to solve it – how do we improve the world around us?
Monday night’s Fellows event RSA Engage demonstrated that within the Fellowship there is a wealth of ideas about how we can transition from the beginning to the middle; problem to potential solution. Amongst the seven Fellows who pitched their project at the event, was Richard Blissett FRSA. Richard was recommended for Fellowship by a previous Catalyst winner and in turn decided to apply for funding for his own project. Through RSA Catalyst, his digital tool Edukit is well on the way to helping teachers find the appropriate resources to support disadvantaged students, quickly and easily. For Richard, the how lies in getting the right tools to the right people.
However, for a modest enterprise like Edukit to earn a place in the grander narrative of social change, it must also create a story around itself. Tools will not reach people if it’s not clear why they’re relevant, so creating a strong, individual narrative is critical – it is not enough to be heard, you have to be understood.
New RSA Fellow Emily Farnworth founded her social business Counter Culture on precisely the understanding that powerful stories are the key to changing indiviual behaviour, yet when tackling complex issues such as poverty or climate change, a simple beginning, middle and end doesn’t always cut it.
Emily believes that ‘the only way to solve the world’s biggest problems in a meaningful way is to see all sides of an argument.’ Counter Culture was established to help businesses and charities reach their audiences through a more agile form of storytelling that incorporates multiple and differing perspectives.
This can be achieved in many different ways. Even if you don’t recognise it immediately, brands, charities and individuals are communicating with us all the time without ever needing to put pen to paper. New Fellow David Pope, filmmaker, consultant and member of the British Council’s Creative Economy Pool of Experts, is interested in the storytelling possibilities offered by new technologies because this evolution is creating opportunities for a more diverse range of voices and stories to reach wider audiences.
New mediums can transform the way an issue is presented and the type of people who can tell the story. An example -
In December, Mark Leruste FRSA joined the Fellowship. As well as being an ICF Certified Professional Co-Active Coach (CPCC), he is a Country Manager for Movember, the infamous worldwide men’s health charity that invites men around the world to grow a moustache for 30 days in November to raise awareness and funds for men’s health. This in itself proves that a serious message can be communicated through the power of a moustache.
A story can still carry weight even if the chronology is disjointed or the medium unconventional.
Movember shows that a life-threatening disease affecting a particular demographic can gather mass support using humour and facial hair. If that isn’t re-writing the story, I don’t know what is.
If you would like to find out more about any of the projects or Fellows mentioned above, or would like to know more about joining the Fellowship please contact email@example.com
Alexandra Barker is a Fellowship Development Coordinator at the RSA
‘Who Am I?’ is a RSA-linked project exploring, through art, photography and poetry, the thoughts of young people and their place in contemporary society. We have now received support via RSA Catalyst to crowdfund so we can produce a book showing their artwork.
We hope to capture what young people think about who they individually are in relation to those around them, to awaken a thoughtful approach and to unlock latent creative talent! Our aim seems to be working as the art works to be displayed at the touring exhibition which launches at the Library of Birmingham on Wednesday 22 January 2104 are of the highest quality (we were mainly funded by Arts Council England who we will not let down). The project aims to celebrate the many voices, languages and cultural influences alive in Birmingham and the Black Country.
One of our biggest achievements has been the wide range of young people involved. We have NEETs, those with special education needs, sixth formers and young people ‘off the street’; a wide ethnic and age range plus a good gender mix. Kathy, one of the students, really made it all worthwhile when she emailed me:
“I am really looking forward to the exhibition, I think it’ll be a great experience and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being part of the project, it has really inspired me and taken me on a journey of self-discovery.”
I’m really happy about the number of regional Fellows that have got engaged in this exciting project. They have brought their skills and talents and they themselves have been surprised about how they have engaged with the young people and the effect it has had on them personally – summed up by one Fellow who said:
“I didn’t know I could relate to young people like this – they have been an inspiration!”
There is still time for Fellows to get involved! After the exhibition launch in Birmingham it goes on a six month tour around the Black Country before returning to the Drum in Birmingham in late June 2014 for its final showing. So do catch it and see for yourselves!
We would also like your help to spread the word by contributing to our crowdfunding campaign to produce a high quality publication which will permanently capture the remarkable art work and achievements from the young people involved. All you need to do is visit our Who Am I? project page on the RSA crowdfunding site and donate anything from £10 to £1000! You will be well rewarded – from a copy of the publication to having the exhibition come to your organisation.
If you’d like to find out more about the project, I’m more than happy to speak to you, so please do contact me on 07809 618742 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Keith Horsfall FRSA
Chair, RSA West Midlands region
Connect to Keith on LinkedIn
The Big Idea: The New Cross area of south London could gain a new arts space. A previously closed public library has re-opened as New Cross Learning, inspiring and uplifting thousands of local users. Catherine Shovlin FRSA has launched a crowdfunding campaign to develop a creative arts space working with the local community…
Over the last 10 years we, Artmongers, have been stirring things up in Deptford and New Cross, South London with thought-provoking public art that changes the way people relate to space. Now we want to create New Cross’s first public artspace: a giant 3D lightbox on the ceiling of New Cross Learning. We will work together with local groups, running workshops to create multimedia artworks that change every six months. Central to our aim, we will be collaborating with emerging artists in our local community as well as school children, community groups and Goldsmiths students. To do this, we need to raise nearly £5k.
This is where we need your help. Through RSA Catalyst we have launched a crowdfunding campaign, Looking up in New X, to raise the funds needed to bring a much needed art space to the New Cross area – and we have ten days left to go!
The story so far
Since it opened in 2011, New Cross Learning has quickly developed into a vibrant community hub. Locals go there for books of course, but also for computer access, street dance, poetry group, baby bounce, community meetings, training sessions, Chinese dragon making workshops and much more.
The front of the building got a great facelift in 2012 (thanks to RSA Catalyst and the Funding Network) with a participatory artwork that marked the beginning of community ownership and involvement. Now we want to do something about the inside. New Cross doesn’t have a public art space so we are raising money to make this happen.
Last year’s flash mob on the A2 (for those outside London, the A2 is a major road connecting London with Kent) highlighted the challenges pedestrians face getting from one side of New Cross to the other. We didn’t break any traffic rules but we definitely caused a stir. And this year’s campaign to plant 1000 sunflowers has involved hundreds of school children, Goldsmiths University, local businesses and community groups. It brightened up the place and more importantly it encouraged people to realise the possibility that it is our environment and we can choose how it is. Then recently we worked with another RSA supported project – Talk to Me London to create unexpected creative interventions at bus stops in New Cross including a disco.
Taking back ownership of public space encourages all sorts of social benefits – not least the improved sense of well-being while you’re taking part.
Taking back ownership of public space encourages all sorts of social benefits – not least the improved sense of well-being while you’re taking part. Enough downcast acquiescence, people in New Cross are ready to LOOK UP and improve their public spaces for themselves. Backers get to be part of the creative process, and some will even get a piece of art for their home. Most importantly, those who support this project will know that they are part of transforming an area and empowering local residents.
How you can get involved
Those living around New Cross will know how much community spirit there is in the area. We want to give something back and give local residents the chance to express themselves through art – and in a local space everyone can enjoy.
We need your help to make this happen. Please visit the RSA crowdfunding page and find our project - Looking up in New X – and help us to reach our target. If you would like to get involved in the project or would like to visit us in New Cross, you can email me at email@example.com or follow us on Twitter.
Catherine Shovlin FRSA
New Cross Learning and Artmongers
The South Central Region of the RSA is holding a series of events aimed at sharing ideas about education. These events are run by and for RSA Fellows with the aims of:
- Sharing knowledge and ideas about education
- Meeting and networking with other Fellows
- Clarifying existing, and provoking new, ideas for potential projects
- Sharing information on Catalyst funding which could potentially support the growth of the ideas.
On Thursday 17 October, at the Jelly Arts Centre, former Headteacher of Chelsea Open Air Nursery School and Children’s Centre Kathryn Solly gave a presentation and led a discussion on ‘Conserving Creativity in the Early Years.’ This is a guest blog from Kathryn.
My talk for the RSA South Central Region’s Ideas in Education Series started from the premise that the earliest years of education are the crucial ‘seedbed’ of future learning and development, and hence that the highest quality provision is essential in order to retain and nurture creative future possibilities.
One of the key parts of the evening’s discussion centred upon, what Shirley Brice Heath calls, the choice to provide ’the kind of learning that comes through direct experience, participation and collaboration’ versus ‘one prolonged stretch of spectatorship.’ Many attendees agreed that there is a need to prevent the narrowing of the Early Years curriculum too soon and to resist an earlier start to formal schooling in primary schools.
We need creativity, in its broadest sense, to permeate all Early Years educational provision. It is about the ability to innovate, and develop ‘possibilities thinking’, which is vital to nurturing future creativity in the work force, innovation and industrial development, as we prepare young children for a world we do not know and for jobs that do not yet exist.
It is about the ability to innovate, and develop ‘possibilities thinking’.
We need well-educated trainees entering industry and we need for our nation to retain its creative cutting edge.
The OECD states that early childhood learning is in the ‘public good’. Political pressures, and resultant conflicts, are leading to the creation of a premature formal curriculum stressing early literacy and numeracy versus a broader play-based learning approach (which includes developmentally appropriate literacy and numeracy). The latter focuses upon children’s interests and needs and is led by professionals working in close partnership with parents. There was a broad consensus that for many young children who are well supported at home achievement in literacy and numeracy is not an issue. However, for many summer-born children, and those with individual needs and disabilities, emergent literacy and numeracy are best achieved in contexts where they make sense to children as part of their self-chosen play.
I would be interested in discussing further, with attendees and Fellows, the critical importance of creative Early Years education– both facilitating it and the challenges faced by the professionals trying to support the appropriate development of our youngest citizens, whose voices are rarely heard.
Find out more about the campaign against developmentally inappropriate learning at: ‘Too Much, Too Soon’.
You can contact Kathryn Solly via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Book now for upcoming events in the Ideas Education series:
To find out more contact Fellowship Councillor for South Central Bethan Michael.
Filed under: Arts and Society, Education Matters, Fellowship
At the RSA Family of Academies we are working with four schools in the West Midlands who are about to embark on an arts audit. By reviewing what activities are already taking place across their schools they will be able to examine the ways that the arts and arts experiences could be woven through the curriculum and the school day.
One of the priorities for RSA Academies is ‘enabling learners to achieve a broad range of qualifications, skills and competences’ which poses some interesting thinking. How do you enable learners to achieve not just qualifications but also a broad range of skills and competences – and further still, confidence. And how do you get the disengaged interested in learning again?
A new report from the Arts Council of Wales explores arts and creativity in schools and the impact that arts experiences which take place in schools have. The headline figures are conclusive and striking. Of the 42 schools and colleges involved in the research, 99% said they felt that an involvement in arts activities had improved learner engagement. Dai Smith, Chair of the Arts Council of Wales follows this: ‘teaching in and through the arts, far from detracting from literacy and numeracy should be seen as an enabler to driving up standards in academic priorities’.
The research also identified that 98% and 99% felt that the arts developed emotional wellbeing and interpersonal skills of the pupils. The report provides evidence of the enrichment and progression of learners as a result of arts organisations coming through the school gate and through outside visits to theatres, galleries and exhibitions.
Which thinking about it, most of us will have our own experiences for which this rings true. I can still vividly remember a trip to the Barbican to see Romeo and Juliet with Tim McInnerny just mesmerising as Tybalt. The act itself of the trip to a big city, visiting the vast concrete megalith that is the Barbican and then to be wowed by the strange language of Shakespeare is the sort of stuff that stays with you at the tender age of 13.
Beyond this, the arts enables young people to explore identity and self-expression, to create and to experiment. Last week one of the RSA’s Royal Designers of Industry, Ben Kelly joined Arrow Vale RSA Academy in Redditch for the day. Designer of the interior of the Hacienda, Ben is a real life example of a rule breaker and innovator, and he inspired years 9 and 12 students with a new sense of what’s possible and attitude to success.
Whitley Academy head boy, Prince Chivaka leads a series of podcasts in a project with RSA Fellow Fran Plowright called Frontline Voices. Across the RSA Family of Academy schools, Prince and his fellow students explored questions of what it means to be a young person today growing up in an uncertain and changing world. Fran explains more about the project in her What about tomorrow? blog.
And take a look at Whitley Academy in Coventry. Their art website, Whitley Arts was created to showcase and sell their unique student artwork. It has also opened students’ eyes to the possibility of their work being in the public realm. The site acts as a focal point, a potential destination of work whilst underpinning learning and personal development.
We are working to create more of these moments of inspiration and practical projects where creativity is fostered as a core skill, and where hopefully more learners become more engaged as a result.
We love a celebratory list in the UK. From the Sunday Times Rich List and the Courvoisier 500 to Nesta’s New Radicals, every year brings a new hierarchy of brilliant, bright or affluent people for us to admire, envy or challenge.
However this year one list has certainly got everyone talking more than most. In February Radio 4 Woman’s Hour compiled their inaugural power list – a list of the 100 most powerful women operating in the UK today. It has not been uncontroversial. Eyebrows have raised at a number of issues – is the queen really the most powerful woman in Britain? Is the version of power depicted too traditional and narrow? Does this list show us how far women have come in equality? Or does it show us how little progress has been made?
The stats about women’s representation, everywhere from the boards of FTSE 100 companies (17.3%, and going down) to the democratic system (men outnumber women 4-1 in the UK Parliament) make for grim reading. The RSA Fellowship itself is more than two thirds male, so we’ve got a way to go to reach equality, something we’re working on. (One fact we are proud of however is that women have been Fellows since we were founded in 1754 – not true of most membership organisations.)
As often is the case with these lists we were happy to recognise several faces as RSA Fellows – one of whom was Rosemary Squire OBE. Rosemary is the founder, co-owner and joint chief executive of Ambassador Theatre group, the UK’s largest theatre owner/operator with 39 venues UK-wide, a major international producer, and a leader in theatre ticketing services through ATG tickets.
In the spirit of sharing the experiences of RSA Fellows, and (in the month of International Women’s Day) the experiences of strong women, I went to ask Rosemary about the career and life of Britain’s 16th most powerful woman.
You’ve been named as the 16th most powerful woman in the Women’s Hour top 100 in the UK. How do you feel?
Great! I’m particularly excited that theatre, the industry I’ve worked all my life in, is up there with all these “proper” businesses. Theatre is a real business in this country and it is important it is recognised. I’m also pleased for all the people who have supported me to get here.
What did you think of the list, and how important are lists like this?
I think it makes you think about what is influential. It is an interesting list. Many of the other women are in industries, like politics, where they’re still massively under represented.
I know quite a lot of the women on there, and I thought there were a couple of things I saw we all had in common:
The first, boring as it may seem, is education, education, education. All those years of training and university and post graduates – at the time you might think well why am I doing this? But actually it provides all kind of skills that everybody uses, whatever they do. Education gives you the skills to be able to use the opportunities when they come up in life.
The second is role models. There is nothing more powerful that someone you respect and can identify with to be able to say “you know what, you can really do it. I’ve done it, if I can do it you can do it.” I’ve had that in my life and it is really important.
Who were your role models?
My Mother and my Aunt – they were unusual in their generation. All my family were grammar school kids, my Mum and Dad both went on to university in the war, and my mum was somebody who had studied, come up the hard way with really tough challenges at the end of the war. They were desperate to get teachers out in classrooms so she went out to teach, aged twenty, sixty kids in the class. Those skills have stayed with her for life, she’s always been prepared to turn her hand to anything, and that was a great role model for me and my sister.
They were the first generation to go to university. For my sister and I it was an assumption – yes of course we would.
There are 30-40 million visits to the theatre each year in the UK. And we sell 10 million tickets. So that is powerful.
You run ATG with your husband and you have three children. How do you manage the work/life balance?
I don’t think I get it right all the time. Although I think my kids are great, so in that regard I may have done a bit of it right!
I’ve been very lucky to have my mother down the road; she has been a huge help to me. All of my kids have great relationships with her. It has been a great safety net – a lot of people don’t have that.
I’ve had other support, including great nannies. I’ve always tried to be fair about looking after people, the support staff who help you. People undervalue how important it is to look after them – pay them properly, treat them with respect as you would any other employee, and don’t take them for granted. It’s about building that safe and secure network of people around you. My nanny has worked for me for 12 years.
The thing I think I’ve had to sacrifice is friendships, and a social life. Particularly in the last three-four years we’ve been so busy, since we acquired our biggest competitor in the UK, I just don’t have time. It narrows down to what you can do, you have to distil and prioritise, and the family and kids are my priority. It does all come at a price.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Definitely. I remember the days of women’s groups and selling Spare Rib at university. Literally reading The Female Eunuch on the beach aged sixteen and thinking my god this has completely changed how I see the world. Things haven’t changed. Don’t lets kid ourselves that the glass ceiling isn’t there, it is.
You know, having a child is like having a love affair, you fall in love with that child, and that love stays with you forever. I have my children in my head at any one time, somehow they’re just there.
How did you deal with it?
I think you have to have confidence in yourself. And you need a role model. I’ve known Christina Smith since the early 80s and she was brilliant, I remember her distinctly saying “well if I can buy buildings and do property deals, so can you – it’s easy.” She gave me that positive confidence to realise things aren’t as complicated as they appear to be.
There’s an awful lot of mythology about lots of things. Being able to ask questions about something you don’t understand and not feeling an idiot, that’s something I’ve gained with more experience. I now know its not stupid to ask. Anything can be explained.
Is there anything in your life that has nearly blown you off course?
I think things would have been different for me if I hadn’t had Jenny (Rosemary’s first child Jenny has Down’s Syndrome).
I was in my 20s, and you do think you’ve got a charmed life. I got a first at university, I went off and did postgraduate scholarship, I got a nice job and a nice boyfriend and then we’re getting married and it’s all lovely. You assume, you take for granted, that your child is going to be healthy.
In a way it threw me back more into work, because I found it difficult at home. It wasn’t this experience I imagined. She used to wake up 8 and 10 times a night until she was 13, it was a nightmare in lots of ways.
So that could have easily thrown me off course. It made me ill in lots of ways, I had physical symptoms to deal with too. But then I had another child pretty quickly and I’ve been lucky enough to have another child in my 40s. It’s been fine long term. And in a way having a child with special needs does give you a perspective as well. A lot of the issues that are key are crucial for Jenny like money, housing, how to occupy yourself. It is very grounding.
You know, having a child is like having a love affair, you fall in love with that child, and that love stays with you forever. I have my children in my head at any one time, somehow they’re just there. I’m sure your mother does too. I’m sure I’m in my mother’s head.
It’s nice to be able to show others our work, especially my grand parents who live far away. Laura Warick-Student
As part of my role within the RSA I am lucky to be able to constantly see the creativity of students of our Family of Academies. On a recent visit to Arrow Vale and Ipsley I saw some highly original and thought provoking pieces; this is of course true across many of the nation’s schools, youth centres and community spaces. At Whitley Academy the same is true. They are especially passionate about student artwork and creative thinking.
Staff, students and parents are really proud of the original and inspiring student work. It is great to share! Lorraine Allen-Principal
Milliner to the stars, Stephen Jones, visited the school for a day in early November of 2011 to advise pupils doing A-level Art and BTEC Art on how to design a hat. They handed in their finished designs as course work to count towards their final marks. Mr Jones designs hats for celebrities as diverse as Marilyn Manson and Beyoncé Knowles at his studio in London’s Convent Garden.
The Principal Lorraine Allen has been considering her students exceptional artwork and felt that students work should not be kept behind Whitley Academies four walls. She has been working with staff to create a belief that students should be working to “be the best they can be”. From then on it became a case of how student art work was shown to a wider audience and not when. The school worked in partnership with students and agreed that Whitley Arts would be developed as an online portal to promote and inspire current and budding artists from Whitley Academy. There are separate pages to promote work created by students in Key Stages 3, 4 and 5 along with an e-commerce page which allows anybody to purchase works of art that students have created in a range of different medium from postcards to A2 canvas prints.
Whitley Arts will underpin learning and interest in the Creative Arts at Whitley Academy by using student artwork as a focal point, and by encouraging a culture of innovation, inspiration, and personal development. The RSA/RBS report Disrupt Inc. highlights the need to allow young entrepreneurs to develop in their own way. Hopefully Whitley Arts will help open students eyes to the possibility of creating work that is admired and coveted by the public in the future. Through negotiations with artists and the Academy it was agreed that artists would receive 25% of the sale price of each piece sold with the remainder used to support the arts, the students, and their learning at Whitley Academy. Please visit the site to see some of the creative work developed by students.
I am sure our students are as proud as I am, especially as it is now no longer just our community who gets to see our students talent, but also an international audience. Miss Riach-Creative Arts Teacher
The RSA’s Family of Academies are continually looking at ways to improve student learning and enhance their experiences. If you have any ways of supporting the Academies in the arts or any other field then please feel free to contact me via email at email@example.com or on twitter where I’m @pickfordrich
Next month on the 18th of April we will be hosting our second Fellowship Roadshow. RSA Academy in Tipton will be opening its doors to Fellows who feel they can support the work of staff and students. Please contact me for more details.
Kayte Judge FRSA ran ‘We Are Bedford’, a project supported by RSA Catalyst that used empty shops as creative spaces. In this guest blog she shares her experience of setting up pop-up shops.
The number of empty shops in our town centres continues to grow year on year. For many, this slow and steady emptying of our retail spaces is a creeping portend of doom. And while, no doubt, the changes to our high streets and town centres are inarguable, what we cannot say with any certainty is what will happen next. We simply do not know.
What is clear is that retail is changing, and both large and small retailers are leaving town. Those voids offer an opportunity for innovation and playful reinterpretation of our social spaces. Pop-up shopkeepers have emerged, seeing opportunity in the remains of the retail boom and bust, trying, failing, trying again. They have been leaving tracks. Lessons have been learnt and can be shared.
I have been involved in empty shop work since I was awarded RSA Catalyst support in 2010. I applied in order to explore the use of empty shops as arts venues. I knew exactly which shop I would use and what I would do in it. I imagined hot flasks of tea, blankets and incongruous deckchairs, fingerless gloves, hot breath billowing into the unheated shop air and a cellist playing on the raised lino clad flooring where the till used to be. It was going to be beautiful.
What I didn’t know was that the shop was owned by an offshore pension fund, an absentee landlord of the most inaccessible kind. It wasn’t to be. Instead, myself and another Bedfordian, Erica Roffe, were offered, in an almost spooky act of serendipity, seven empty shops in a new development. Seven. Seven unfinished, un-floored, un-heated, un-lit, shops in one area of town. We formed a nebulous ‘thing’ called ‘We Are Bedford’ and 20 cold weeks later the area was brought to life through just £1000 RSA Catalyst funding, an army of volunteers and an almost supernatural amount of willpower. Over 4000 people visited the arts galleries (there were three), audio art installation, burlesque life drawing classes, craft space, live music venues, tours, archaeological sites, buskers, junk modelling workshops and boutique, authors talks, and ticketed performances. It was March 2011. Before the year was out, and via a further Catalyst fund, we would open a Pop Up gallery, a ‘Monster Draw Big Draw’ event, and a six week Pop Up Emporium stocking only locally made or designed goods. We then decided to spend the money in the best possible way: to offer a bursary to others in grants of up to £500. By winter 2012 the money was spent, lessons were learnt and my pop up shop keeping days were over.
Throughout my work I had the support of Dan Thompson, the founder of the Empty Shops Network, author of the Empty Shop Toolkit and a leading light of empty shop work on a national scale. An RSA fellow, Dan, (based in the South East) has since authored Pop Up People, a report which gathers the data and examples of pop up and empty shop work throughout the country, and Pop Up Business for Dummies. Both of these documents feature the work of We Are Bedford as a case study among many and would be a vital first port of call for anyone thinking of treading this path. For me his support was vital and subtle. It wasn’t so much the practical support offered (although that was invaluable) it was the moral support. Pop Up shopkeepers exist in the margins and loopholes of a bureaucracy that is designed to squash innovation and it can be a scary ride at times. They are human, and vulnerable and responsible for everything that happens in those empty shops. Dan listened when I needed to rant about paperwork, or rates bills, or the madness of it all. He came to visit.
We Are Bedford was a temporary project, powerful, but of its time. It had to end. Others have had more staying power. Reading based RSA Fellow Suzanne Stallard is an artist and founder of Jelly, an energetic charity championing the creative arts. Jelly started in an empty shop space due for demolition under a compulsory purchase order in 1993 with a six month lease and, 20 years on, jelly has grown, emerged and changed shape dependent on it’s location and space, occupying and using over 50 properties. Currently they are using a nightclub (as a sound and performance art space), 3-storey office block (as a creative space and studios) and various empty shop fronts for pop-up shop window exhibitions. Since the beginning jelly has played a strategic role in Reading’s cultural life, enabling art to appear in unexpected places and creating opportunities for people to look on and join in. Much of their work now involves working in partnership with emerging art groups, local communities and they believe in the power of the arts to delight, intrigue, challenge and enrich. Jelly is committed to forming creative alliances and partnerships that encourage art and cultural life to flourish, responding to the opportunities with the changes in the High Street. This has been a long-term commitment to empty shop work and is undertaken voluntarily. You can find out more about how they continue to survive on their website.
There is plenty to be done in empty shops. Pop-up shops are a place for playful piloting, quick and dirty prototyping, fast failing, and, sometimes, soaring successes. The town centres of the UK need new ideas. If you have an idea, or have seen an empty shop opportunity there is information available, although beware: while empty shop problems seem universal, the solutions are often hyper-local.
Key points to consider if you want to set up your pop up shop
- Research your target property’s landlord
- Prepare to persuade your landlord to be amenable to pop up shops
- Surround yourself with helpful volunteers
- Be creative – and exciting – this will attract supporters
- Take advice from others with experience – with a mentor for the tough times
- Be flexible, and be resilient
Look for the long term – and remember, fail to plan, plan to fail.
To get you started visit the following sites and take a look at the documents below
- The Empty Shop Network
- The Pop Up People Report
- Pop Up Business for Dummies
- Meanwhile Space
- Meanwhile Project
Get in touch
For those of you in the South Central region Suzanne and myself are happy to help where we can. We are working women who juggle a number of things, children included, so please allow us up to five days to respond. You can contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
If you are located in the South East region, then Dan Thompson would be willing to help – again via email firstname.lastname@example.org
Good luck planning for your own pop up shops!
Kayte Judge and We Are Bedford also feature in the RSA Catalyst video
Every now and again I have a really inspiring meeting that draws together common threads from our work in Arts and Society with thinking from other people and the wider world. Yesterday was one such day. I was meeting the artist Lucy Steggals about the Creative Intersections project we are doing with King’s College London and our recent event showcasing the journey of this work with participating artists and academics – and recent learning and reflection from Arts and Social Change in Citizen Power Peterborough came flooding into the frame whilst hearing about Lucy’s experiences in Gravesend and the Isle of Sheppey.
We’ve just published a case study on the artist’s residencies. Called ‘Context Matters’ this is a reflective and observational document by Richard Ings about the experiences of the two residencies that I have curated for Arts and Social Change. Very much intended to be about sharing learning and experiences, this takes the first-hand views of the two artists, Joshua Sofaer and Simon Grennan along with the two community groups they worked with; Morland Court Residents’ Association and Peterborough Street Pastors respectively. This coupled with the Made in Peterborough commissions programme; the first with Encounters who devised the Take Me To project and the second with Joanna Rajkowska’s Peterborough Child sculpture – consolidated much of the fascinating consideration and challenge that needs to be borne out when working in ‘Any Place’ successfully where there are mutual outcomes needed for the many parties involved from the funder to the commissioner, from local residents to the artists themselves.
In embarking on the journey of working in communities with the arts, much of the consideration lies in where and how the artwork is conceived. Initially informed by the brief given to the artist and underpinned by the strength of support to the ideas within it from the local partnership, there needs to be a framework with which to engage at the beginning. This is then followed by flexibility so the ideas can be shaped and informed by local conversation and context. This need for flexibility and open acknowledgement across the stakeholders is crucial. We don’t know for sure how it is going to proceed until we’ve met the local people. If the first path chosen is not working then another needs to be taken and this takes time.
Establishing the trust for this to take place with the people you are working with is also paramount – and as an artist (and in our case, commissioner/producer) you give something of yourself to that. Friendships are established, mutual professional bonds develop, time (and sometimes budget) is spent way beyond the project brief to get the job done because you become invested in it and the people involved. You become part of the group.
Different artists work in different ways of course. For some, their approach means engagement locally begins once the work is installed and for others the work is informed entirely through local people making the decisions on the artwork. There exists in the middle and at the edges a process of co-design and co-creation. In introducing an artist to a place, much is led by the nature of the introduction to the local community. As an ‘outsider’ in many cases, whether it is as a facilitator, workshop leader or artist, this can play a significant role in the expectations and understanding of people locally – who if to be engaged need to have a sense of: Who are you? Why are you here? Who is the work for? Why should I bother to get involved?
All of which needs to be skilfully woven with the artist’s own integrity and practice. This is not about the artist dictating direction necessarily but about having a voice to shape and lead the project among all the parties involved.
In turn, this throws up the fascinating subject of where the art is created and where the real value of the work is held for the different people and stakeholders involved. In ‘socially engaged’ projects, sometimes it is necessary to pull back from the final product as being the end game (and therefore the sign of success) to instead consider the journey and process that has been crafted and experienced.
To quote Richard Ings in the case study “there is, in artist residencies generally, a creative tension between the artist’s prime function, which is to make art, and they social role they may be asked to play (or find themselves playing) – and about the role that the group or community they are working with should play in the realisation of this art”
If you are interested in these considerations and challenges, socially engaged artist Hannah Hull and ixia are exploring these ideas through the Critical Spaces network. Hannah is bringing together artists and conversations along this socially engaged arts/artists working with people theme to generate an artist-led critical voice and practice in the public realm.
There will also be more to follow from the RSA as the full suite of case studies and evaluation of Arts and Social Change, and Citizen Power more broadly are published online in the coming months.