Bristol: using empty space on a grand scale

Bodies in Urban Spaces dance projectIn the UK, the combination of a passionate and driven council employee and a group of multi-skilled artists in Bristol has resulted in the dynamic use of empty buildings on a huge scale which should inspire any city thinking about creative reuse activity.

Pulling off the successful temporary use of large empty spaces has regenerated neighbourhoods, built new creative hubs and artist networks, developed reputations for local artists and, unexpectedly, provided valuable input into community services planning.

In September 2011, Lisa Andersen interviewed the manager of Bristol City Council's Capacity regeneration project, Ruth Essex, and space re-user Doug Francis, from Artspace Lifespace and Invisible Circus, for this inspirational case study about creative space reuse in Bristol.

Berlin-inspired, Bristol fashioned

Bristol City Council logoIn addition to a number of institutions that represent 'high culture,' such as established theatres, cinemas and art galleries, Bristol - located in the UK's West Country - is famous for underground and urban culture based around music, street arts and art-squats.

It is these sub-cultures that Ruth Essex chose to work with when she landed the role of Arts and Regeneration Officer with Bristol City Council.

Having worked as a community musician for many years, Ruth was also involved with large-scale empty space reuse initiatives in Berlin.

"I studied in Berlin at a time when the Wall had just come down," she says. "Berlin has thrived on using space creatively at that time and ever since. It's shaped the identity of that city and amazing projects developed from their beginning squatting buildings or having some short-term agreement with property owners.

"In Berlin, people took on projects that were very ambitious, so I understood at the beginning that quite a lot was possible in Bristol."

Ruth Essex's mandate from the City Council was to invigorate areas of Bristol with a lot of derelict buildings. They also happened to be areas populated by independent artists, suggesting a 'brilliant match'. Her major role as an empty spaces broker has been to enable this activity through developing formal processes in Council - or identifying ways to sidestep processes - and identifying empty spaces and brokering agreements with property owners. All the while building trust between council staff, property owners and space re-users.

("Ruth's great strength," a local artist told me, "is that she never says 'No' - she looks for a way to make things work.  We were not used to getting positive attitude from local government.")

"Bristol Council is a huge organisation and it's hard to find out who you need to speak to about what issue," Ruth Essex says. "My role has been to lead people through the bureaucratic silos because empty space reuse projects touch upon many different issues related to many different departments."

To identify local empty spaces, Ruth, literally, gets on her bike. She cycles the streets, maps empty spaces and tracks down the landlord. This is how she found the first property for Artspace Lifespace, a network of multi-skilled, multi-talented and passionate local artists.

Regenerating space and building creative hubs: Artspace Lifespace

Doug FrancisRuth Essex first met the people behind Artspace Lifespace when they were art-squatting a large building and had created a temporary art centre. 

Doug Francis is a founding member and Ringmaster of Invisible Circus and one of the driving forces behind Artspace Lifespace. The roots of Artspace Lifespace and their big-scale creativity lie in the 1990s with temporary galleries and arts events at London's Portobello Road markets.

When Doug moved to Bristol in 2005 he became part of a network of local artists and performers.  After trying unsuccessfully to track down the owners of dilapidated car garages in Statescraft, they occupied it in 2006 as the Bristol Arts Trade Centre. When the owner found out, they decided not to evict the artists, recognising that the rolling program of arts events and hundreds of volunteers were, in fact, regenerating the space.

This activity introduced them to Ruth Essex. After their initially illegal occupation of the garages, in a delicious twist of irony, the group then legally occupied Horfield Police Station - a council-owned building that Ruth found for them - for two years where Artspace Lifespace was established as a limited co-operative.

"To work with them on more formal arrangements with landlords for their projects was going to be win-win because they're such a fantastic team," says Ruth. "They're not just a network of artists, but also plumbers, electricians, carpenters and set builders - a group with the complete set of practical skills who aren't phased by anything.

"They've undertaken hugely ambitious projects in Bristol since then. My role has been to support their work, including championing what they do within Council and brokering contact with developers and business groups."

The Cathedral

In 2007 they approached the owner of the Pro Cathedral - a site that had been empty for 30 years. Seven months of regeneration work lead to a four-month long festival program.

Doug Francis remembers, "It took quite a lot of work because it was a listed building. But the developers got quite into the idea and were hands-on in helping us with the Development Application. Their PR guy said, "This is a no-brainer.  When we come to try to market the development, we'll be able to do it in the building as opposed to in some little office somewhere and draw attention to the site." 

"There was a massive cleanup and restoration went on as well.  So the owner got use out of it being open to the public. They could get all the shareholders and all the local people in to look at the place and they got to attach themselves to 'cool and groovy', underground arts."

So enamoured were they with the initiative that the developer donated £20,000, which was then matched by arts and business and £40,000 in kind. Further funding came from hiring the space out to Channel 4 for a shoot. The funding was spent on repairing the building and fitting it out with equipment, a 250-capacity theatre, and two auditoriums.

Over the four months Artspace Lifespace put on four new productions of their own and hosted 56 other events, back to back.

The Island

One of the most successful Artspace Lifespace projects is the transformation of an old fire station and surrounding buildings on Bridewell Island in the centre of Bristol.

The Island project

After cycling past a development sign at Bridewell Island, Ruth Essex contacted the developer, Urban Splash, and brokered a peppercorn rent agreement for Artspace Lifespace to use the space as an arts centre and studio spaces initially for six months, which has since extended to three years.

"Ruth's really proactive like that," says Doug. "She helped us with all the initial negotiations."

The space had been a nightclub but everything inside was four to eight years old so had to be refitted and new fire alarms installed. Urban Splash donated £10,000 worth of  building materials and supplies and the rest of the £20,000 needed to finish works was raised by Carny Ville. 

The Island still hosts Invisible Circus' Carny Ville, a spectacular extravaganza of circus acts, cabaret and performance artists which attracts international attention. The event is very much defined by the space - which comprises several interlinked indoor spaces, a courtyard and multiple balconies - it has not only built the profile of Invisible Circus but has come to partly define Bristol too.

"People have been blown away by the scale of Carny Ville," says Ruth Essex, "and artists have moved to Bristol and stayed on because of it. They got a studio in Bridewell Island, collaborated on projects and small companies have grown out of that production so it's become quite a hub that's generating a lot of outcomes."

Currently The Island consists of 40 artists studios, training and rehearsal facilities, a performance venue, a recording studio, photo lab, video editing lounge and costume, prop and set making resources.

The business model used by Artspace Lifespace is based on income from low-cost studio and rehearsal space, with rates scaled.

"We try and be flexible. If projects are funded then they pay a slightly higher rate than if they're unfunded, right down to a membership of £20 pounds a month if you want to train in the circus space," says Doug Francis.

The buildings on the right hand side of the city-block space were recently taken back by the developer and turned into a state-of-the art youth facility and support services, a move that Ruth Essex says is productive for all involved.

"It feels like a good result because the site is also about creative learning and some of those artists collaborated on that process and will be involved in future projects for the development," she says.

Doug Francis agrees, "That was a nice outcome for us. It drew attention to the site as a really great space and very signature to Bristol. And it remains a centre of community activity. This building is fully occupied."


Artists getting their 'taste for space': The Parlour and The Showroom

Another initiative developed through Capacity Bristol is based at College Green in the city centre, and comprises two ground-floor shops used as exhibition spaces, The Showroom, and the three floors above used for theatre development, The Parlour. Because it is a council-owned building, Ruth holds the lease from Council's Properties Division and sub-leases the upstairs space to arts groups who share office, rehearsal and storage spaces. Showroom and Parlour theatre spaces

When the respected Mayfest Theatre Festival moved in, a theatrical hub developed and the space is now home to the Stand and Stare Collective and Interval.

"I decided to directly manage the leasing to maintain a program of constantly changing events or exhibitions." says Ruth Essex. "I'm like the estate agent with these projects. As well as talking through people's work in the building, I turn up with the licence agreement and the keys and leave them to get on with it."

Just because it's easier, Ruth Essex tends to prefer working with experienced, autonomous artist groups such as Artspace Lifespace but she understands that her program must include opportunities for less experienced artists to access space; hence her 'estate agent' hat.

"I wouldn't necessarily give a whole building over to this activity, but through sub-leasing to artists they get a taste for this activity which is very important professional development," she says.

Planning future use: The College learning space

Another large space reused in Bristol, The College, is an old college in Bedminster which had stood empty for a year while current owner Homes and Communities Agency looked for a private buyer. 

The precinct was in good condition and included a gym, classrooms, a warehouse, a hair and beauty room and a horticultural area with polytunnels. All of which are now being short-term re-used by various community projects for permaculture, puppet making, mechanics and carpentry, design and arts, a mothers' space, a youth centre, a community bike workshop, community classes, tai chi and an indoor skate park. College Green activity

In 2011, Bristol City Council's Ruth Essex introduced Artspace Lifespace to the owners and they negotiated a one-year lease to be reviewed and renewed at six monthly intervals until development starts.

Because so many community groups are now actively using the buildings, any future development use may well incorporate some of these activities.

"Artspace Lifespace have been trying out different things on the site with local people and met with local kids to discuss their needs. They've done a lot of the work finding out what's needed locally which maybe consultants or the developers wouldn't have found out that easily but which will be very useful in planning for future use," says Ruth Essex. 

Building a reputation: Invisible Circus

Pulling off the successful temporary use of large empty spaces has lead to creative hubs, new artist networks, input into future use planning and has built reputations. This is particularly true of Invisible Circus - the driving force behind the Artspace Lifespace projects and Carny Ville - which has become even better known as a world-leading alternative circus through these projects.

"Taking on our spaces has made it more possible to do more of what we wanted to do," says Doug Francis, one of the founders of Invisible Circus.

"It would have been hard to find anyone to give us the opportunity to take on something at the scale of our vision, so we created it for ourselves and through that we've built a reputation. Also, to just do our own thing has a knock-on effect for the community, which is something we're keen on." 

Bringing different artists into large spaces provided a natural hatching ground for new ideas and collaborations.

"A lot of people on the site got involved with the Carny Villes and from there have developed other projects," says Doug Francis, who reiterates Ruth Essex's view that it is these incubative, collaborative values that have shaped the spaces and resulted in their success.

"The space is just a space, ultimately. Behind the success of our projects is a massive network of people and they got into it because of the values driving it, not because of the commercial possibilities. What I love about it most is turning a commercial space into a community base and then people coming and celebrating that.

"For example, with Carny Ville we work with a huge spectrum of people. A lot of people working on that event for fun have commercial 'day jobs' - riggers, television makers, electricians and production managers. They come here to make something that's part of a bigger scene and get a whole lot of inspiration and fulfilment out of it."

Filmmaker Naomi Singh has made a documentary about Invisible Circus. Invisible Circus: No Dress Rehearsal is available on DVD.

Incentives for landlords: business rates relief

One of the more difficult aspects for empty spaces co-ordinators can be persuading landlords and developers of the benefits of allowing their properties to be used on a temporary basis, particularly for artistic or creative purposes, until a commercial tenant or buyer comes along.

An incentive for landlords participating in Bristol is the tax exemption available when their space is temporarily used while awaiting commercial use. In the UK, the Empty Properties Tax means that if a landlord leaves a property empty for more than six weeks they are required to pay business tax after that period.

But if they allow an eligible community or arts organisation to use the property on a temporary basis, they can pass on the business rates costs to that organisation which, in turn, can claim a business rates relief percentage. 

While other local governments in the UK have scaled systems of rates relief, in Bristol eligible arts organisations can claim the full 100% rate relief. Bristol City Council generously supports arts reuse projects by itself, paying the 25% of all relieved rates required to be submitted annually to central taxation revenue.

Ruth Essex would like to see another incentive for landlords that broadens the definition of a 'public art' contribution under the Planning Act.

Section 106 of the UK's Town and Country Planning Act 1990 and the incoming Community Infrastructure Levy from the Planning Act 2008 allow local authorities to negotiate an agreement from a landowner to provide public services and infrastructure. While public art is not specifically highlighted, many local authorities have traditionally taken a 'percent for art' approach.

"If we can work with a more flexible definition of public art services or infrastructure in working with development sites, we could potentially maintain a supply of creative venues or workspaces that coexist with commercial spaces," Ruth Essex suggests. "That would be a huge benefit for the cultural development of our city and the artists who live here."

Working with landlords and developers

Artists and developers often come from different worlds, with creativity and commerciality sometimes at opposite ends of the scale, which can lead to tensions.

"For developers, ultimately it's about bottom lines and profit margins," says Doug Francis from Artspace Lifespace. "At first the developer, Urban Splash, couldn't get their head around the fact that we didn't want to make a vast profit from the project at Bridewell Island. The rent we now pay on this building has gone up incrementally over the three years we've been here - it's now £1,000 per month. That's what developers relate to but they also see the value of contributing to the community."

For some artists, choosing to work with commercially-minded developers can provide a moral dilemma. For the Artspace Lifespace team, Urban Splash is a large national company with a reputation for being sustainable.

"It's potentially a very difficult issue to deal with," says Doug Francis. "We were looking at another site owned by another developer who are not green and less community friendly and it was a hard position to be in. In the end they got cold feet because these projects are just not what they do.  But dealing with developers is definitely one of the great dichotomies of this activity."

Embedding creative reuse in local government

Bristol Cycle Festival outdoor cinemaGiven a choice between either spending her first year getting the Capacity Bristol project embedded within Council's strategic framework or 'making stuff happen', Ruth Essex made a conscious choice to invest her time in the creative activity.

"I've thought quite a lot about my choices because I've been on the ground getting projects happening but I feel I haven't done enough in implementing a 'temporary use policy' in the local plan for Bristol," she says.

"But, on the other hand, to work on that would have taken all my time and there would not have been this current level of creative activity and the impact. So now is probably a better time to start working on more strategic goals."

The proof is in the pudding. In 2011, when Bristol Council undertook a community mapping project where local people were asked what made Bristol special, Artspace Lifespace in Bridewell Island received more positive comments than the leading, high-profile, better funded cultural organisations in the city centre.

"What that research showed was that people felt passionately about what has been achieved through a more informal arts venue," says Ruth Essex. "A huge public response to a temporary cultural use project signifies the importance of these spaces."

If she controlled the future, Ruth Essex would like to see an ongoing position dedicated to brokering art in empty spaces at Bristol City Council. Someone who administers the spaces as well as carrying out strategic work establishing a cross-departmental temporary use team within the council that includes people from planning, properties and health and safety departments as well as the cultural team to help lower the barriers to and enable temporary use.

Capacity Bristol is now involved in interesting land based projects, putting temporary structures - pop up farms, railway carriages, containertecture structures and a big top - onto derelict land awaiting permanant development.

The lesson here is to understand people and their capacity then stretch your ideas on what's possible - think and act big!

Image Caption: As part of Bristol Cycle Festival in September 2010, Capacity Bristol helped secure the use of an ex police shooting range in a quarry in Leigh Woods to use as an outdoor cinema.