Shân Edwards: It’s time to paint Scotland’s town centres red… and green and blue

Outer Spaces took advantage of Covid providing an opportunity to be bold and create a whole new infrastructure

I am writing this piece today from two places. The first is a table by my front window at home and the other is an office unit in the centre of Edinburgh. Hybrid writing on hybrid working.

My work environment is both very different and yet familiar. Instead of rows of cubicles and banks of computers, I'm surrounded by canvases, sculptures, paints and other artist materials. Staid office spaces are now vibrant studios. Empty town centre retail spaces are being transformed by artists up and down the country.

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The huge impact of the Covid pandemic on the cultural sector is still being felt. Skilled people, many of them freelance, lost their incomes. Artists were unable to access the spaces where they made, presented and shared their work. Communities of artists with once thriving social and cultural networks became disconnected. Students couldn’t get into their university and college studio spaces. Arts graduates struggled to find affordable studio space even before the pandemic. There was a real risk that a generation of arts graduates would not be able to pursue their careers or reach their potential. It's difficult without the opportunity to access studio space and the communities they offer.

At the same time, commercial buildings were closing down. High streets and town centres were badly hit. Many shops permanently shut and offices abandoned as home working became common practice. The solution was to begin matching artists requiring space with empty commercial property on an unprecedented scale. For free.

During lockdowns, furloughs and bouts of emergency funding, it became clear there was an opportunity to be bold. An opportunity to create a whole new infrastructure.

This is why we started Outer Spaces. By offering a studio or workspace for free we have been able to remove an artist’s highest professional expense. This is vitally important now during the cost of living crisis. We need to ensure artists, especially at an early stage of their career are not ‘priced-out’ of spaces and networks.

The available spaces can be found in busy urban centres, out of town commuter hinterlands and post-industrial communities devastated first by austerity, then Brexit and Covid.

Painters and sculptors, illustrators and photographers, artists working in film, music and more are now in residence in these spaces across Scotland. Outer Spaces now support 300 artists including 23 arts collectives/orgs with a further 1000 on waiting lists. There are currently 18 sites in 11 different locations: Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Glenrothes, Greenock, Kilmarnock, Kirkcaldy, Motherwell, Newton Mearns, Port Glasgow and Dundee with plans for new spaces in Stirling, Glasgow and Aberdeen. Projects transform closed and boarded-up shops, streetscapes and empty commercial centres. They're becoming visible, colourful, inviting spaces where people can experience the arts first hand.

Royal London’s former HQ on Henderson Row in Edinburgh hosts artists across three floors of the building. A retail space in the Westside Plaza Shopping Centre, Wester Hailes is now a lively hub of community focussed activity through our ongoing partnership with Edinburgh Art Festival. Artists based in Glasgow have a new hub in the former Marks and Spencer building in Sauchiehall Street. The former retail space is now a mix of private studios and large open spaces to display art and work. Everyone has independent access, sharing with a variety of artists, writers, dancers, musicians and theatre producers. In Aberdeen, Peacock Visual Arts is using an Outer Spaces shop unit on Union Street for ‘The Print Room: Prints from Peacock, a workshop for art’. Works on display rotate regularly to engage passers-by, putting new work in the public realm that was previously unseen. Interpretation materials are provided so members of the public can find out about the artwork on display and the artists who made them.

It’s not perfect. Studio spaces are available on a rolling month by month basis and we work to find alternative spaces for any artists who need to vacate a space. This is an opportunity to seize now, because nobody knows what’s going to happen long-term. In the short to medium-term we’re using this opportunity to test ways to support artists and artistic practice. We're also exploring different organisational models and structures. Most importantly, we're challenging financial inequalities in the arts.

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At present there's lots to learn about how best to meet artists’ needs. Our space in Henderson Row, Edinburgh provides a model which we can build on for the future. This is a new creative community space for artists. For research and development. For artistic exchange and collaboration. A place for artists to be ambitious again.

Artists are only beginning to understand the potential of working in non-traditional spaces. Embracing the opportunity to work in different contexts like office environments. Sharing what they do with ‘accidental’ audiences in shopping centres. Or working at a completely different scale because we don’t limit the amount of space an artist can have.

As Scottish Contemporary Art Network’s summer campaign reminds us; Artists Make a Better World. Whether it is making space for diverse voices, making us healthier and happier or making communities stronger.

Sitting at my desk I can see first hand, that better world blossoming in new spaces across the country. We look forward to supporting that change wherever there is creativity and we can find space for it to grow.

Shân Edwards is the Director of Outer Spaces, a charity collaborating with artists, art collectives, organisations and commercial property owners to occupy and activate the nation’s empty commercial spaces.



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