Art in Vacant Storefronts in the US

Lauren RosenbergLauren Rosenberg, Program Manager at the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture, completed her 2011 Master’s thesis on the 'art in storefronts' movement in America.

Her research analyses three initiatives that make temporary use of empty spaces, all of which are led by different organisations - a Chamber of Commerce in Chicago, a government agency in San Francisco, and an artist-run, not-for-profit group in New York - which have different strategic goals and their own challenges.

In late 2011, Lisa Andersen spoke with Lauren about her research and what she has learned about empty space projects in the US.

Research on art in unexpected places

While working for the Chicago Office of Tourism, Lauren Rosenberg was drawn to the idea of discovering art in unexpected places which led to her choosing the 'pop up' movement as the subject of her Master’s thesis.

“I think a lot about how people experience things when they’re somewhere unfamiliar.  But it is really hard to talk about that from a visitor point of view,” says Lauren. “And somehow I started talking about pop ups as an example of finding art in unexpected places and realised that this is unexplored territory. There’s no academic writing on the topic.”

Case studies: Chicago, New York and San Francisco Projects

Over the course of her research, Lauren identified many different kinds of organisations who were getting involved with pop up spaces. For her thesis, she chose three projects run by distinct groups:

Although each initiative had some similar goals, they also had very different ones, which was evident in the way the program was carried out and in the results they achieved.

Pop Up Art Loop: a business-led project

The goal for the Pop Up Art Loop project, spearheaded by the Chicago Loop Alliance, was to rent out the vacant store fronts, so the art was 'window dressing', providing colour, movement and energy. Their priorities was to increase foot traffic and for the storefronts to look attractive to encourage commercial tenants.

During their first phase the project worked with individual artists to develop exhibitions but in later phases they have tended to partner with organisations to co-produce exhibitions, including the Chicago Artist Coalition, the Chicago Photography Collective, and the School of the Art Institute in Chicago which has a campus in the Loop area. 

Involving art students

“Art students often don’t get exhibition opportunities beyond their campus, but with the Pop Up Art Loop they can get involved in curating and hanging the show and being involved in all aspects of the administration of the project,” says Lauren. “It’s really good experience for students, not only for the administrative experience but also for exhibiting their work to a broader public."

In May 2011 the Bachelor of Fine Arts and Master of Fine Arts program shows for the Art Institute were in empty store fronts, tripling the size of the usual gallery space for their student work.

Benefits of a business-led approach

According to Lauren, one of the main benefits of a business-led pop up project is that the Chamber of Commerce can more easily access empty spaces and convince business owners to become involved and develop the space.

“I think across the board it’s difficult to convince landlords to give up their space for free or to lease it out for less rent but a Chamber of Commerce is in a really good position to tell landlords about all the benefits, make sure they understand the opportunity and get them excited about it,” she says.

Art in Storefronts: a government-agency approach

The Art in Storefronts Program came about in 2009 when the then-Mayor of San Francisco posed a challenge to artists to find a way to revive some of the communities that had suffered in the economic downturn. 

“This project is very community-minded,” says Lauren. “When it first started they did it in five or six different neighbourhoods and they worked with another city department to place them with landlords who had empty spaces.”

With this project, the focus was more about community narratives than individual artists.

“The artists were asked to create something specifically for that space. It had to be a new project that responded to the space and to the neighbourhood itself,” says Lauren. “The project is focused on creating a sense of neighbourhood pride, ‘cleaning up’ the neighbourhood and giving people a reason to walk around and a chance to get to know each other.”

Lead by a government agency, the San Francisco Arts Commission, Art in Storefront’s process for selecting artists is based around arts excellence and community inclusion. Artists are asked to apply and then art projects are chosen from a committee made up of community members, government officials, artists and heads of art organisations.

Another way that Art in Storefront stands apart from other empty spaces initiatives is that artists receive a stipend for their work.

“This is really important because it costs money to put up an exhibition,” says Lauren. “A lot of artists are willing to do it for free because of the exposure and experience they get, but the stipend covers their expenses, values their commitment and I believe they’re able to achieve greater things.”

More Information:

Read our detailed case study of San Francisco's Art in Storefronts program.

No Longer Empty: an artist-run initiative

The No Longer Empty project in New York was founded by Manon Sloam, a curator known for her work with the Chelsea Art Museum and the Guggenheim.

According to Lauren, Manon started the organisation because she finds more freedom to work with the artists she wants and for the artists to experiment when working in storefront spaces. 

“Their process is interesting because they pick the space first then ask artists to propose ideas that relate to that space. For example, one of their projects was in the former Tower Records Store and they used that space to put in an exhibition on the changing music industry,” says Lauren. 

“All the artwork on display related to that concept on some level. Artists were invited to participate and asked to respond to the space in their proposal.  It was a fantastically inventive use of space. They weren't using it as a white cube, they were responding to the space itself, its purpose and its neighbourhood.

"With No Longer Empty, lots of different artists get involved and really interesting work comes out of it.”

However, the challenge for No Longer Empty has been finding spaces to use, and particularly the right space – one that gives the artist something to respond to.  On the other hand, thier projects can roam more freely across spaces in New York, rather than be restricted to a particular locality, such as Chicago's Loop for the Pop Up Art Loop project.

Outcomes for artists

For artists, the main advantage in taking part in an empty spaces project is to gain exposure and experience. In Chicago, the Pop Up Loop Project offered local artists the chance to have their work showcased in a metropolitan window display in the high end of town – an opportunity that otherwise would not have been open to them.

Building a reputation

This kind of exposure can grow an artist’s reputation, as was the case for Sara Schnadt, one of the first artists invited to show their work through Chicago's Pop Up Loop.

From November 2009 to January 2010 Sara's installation in The Loop, Networkexamined how virtual space co-exists with ordinary space. The exposure she received from this project led to specific opportunities for her to exhibit in prestigious institutions, including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit.


In addition to exposure and potential sales of artworks, artists also get the opportunity to experiment and take risks in empty spaces that they would be otherwise not able to take in a gallery or museum. Private galleries are focused on sales and museums tend to want a work to be received in a particular way. Empty spaces initiatives allow emerging artists to gain experience of putting on an exhibition and established artists to do something experimental.

“Because there’s no institutional agenda or, in some cases, because there’s no need to worry about sales and the commercial aspect of the art world, artists have a certain kind of freedom when exhibiting in the storefront,” says Lauren.

“There may not be enough opportunities for artists to do that kind of experimental work, between leaving school and working in a commercial market. I think it’s important for artists, for their growth and development, to have time to experiment, to try new ideas. They might be afraid or not be able to try out something in a museum or gallery.”

An example is Ryan Brennan, an artist who was involved in several No Longer Empty exhibitions in New York. In his second exhibition, Ryan’s performance installation, titled Artist in Bathroom Residency gave the illusion that he was ‘living’ inside the gallery’s bathroom. The project encouraged Ryan to think about the notion of using video as medium to communicate with the audience in a new way. The project allowed him to push himself in a new direction to develop work that ultimately benefitted his practice as an artist.

Connecting with audiences

Seeing how passers-by react to their work, rather than just those who specifically go to a gallery, is another advantage for artists.

As part of Art in Storefronts Program in San Francisco, artist Niana Liu exhibited Three Entrée Restaurant, a simulated Chinese restaurant installation in an empty Chinatown storefront.

“She said she really benefitted from being there on a daily basis and meeting the people who were seeing her work and walking by,” says Lauren. “I think it’s really important thing to see how people react to your work and to also see how so many different kinds of people get to see your work – in this case it was people walking to dinner in Chinatown and stopping by. Niana really enjoyed being a part of a community.”

Community benefits

Artists are not the only ones to benefit from people attending their exhibitions in empty spaces, it also positively impacts on local communities, including landlords.

When large numbers of people attend a specific happening or events, such as 2010's Never Can Say Goodbye exhibition by No Longer Empty at Tower Records in New York, there is a better chance of the space being commercially rented as it presents it in a good light – although this type of empty space project takes considerably more resourcing in terms of needing volunteer staff to be on site to allow the public inside.

After School Matters program, ChicagoAnother example of how an empty spaces project turned into a long-term community benefit was the use of Block 37 in the middle of the Downtown Loop area. Block 37 had been derelict for almost 20 years until the Commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs at the time, Lois Weisberg, came up with an idea for a young people’s arts program to make use of the space.

Called Gallery 37, local teenagers were paid an hourly wage to create artwork in this block area outside, so people could walk by and watch them work, and then they could sell their work in a gallery nearby.

“It was a very successful program because it was solving two problems at once," says Lauren, "And this is what pop ups do. They solve an abandoned building problem – what to do with this empty space, how to make it look better and how to use it effectively. And also, in the case of Block 37, the problem of a lot of local schools not having arts programs.”

The program paid the young people a stipend to do art work through the summer, allowing them to bring in much-needed income for their families while working on their craft, developing arts skills and exploring with professional teaching artists. The arts program included different disciplines: music, dance, visual arts and the culinary arts.

Eventually the space was purchased by a developer but by then the Gallery 37 had became a permanent program called After School Matters, which is now part of the Chicago public school system – a great outcome for the community. 

Sustaining art in vacant storefronts projects

Government engagement

One of the key issues for sustainability that came up through all of Lauren's research was the importance of the government becoming involved with empty space projects.

“At all times in all locations a percentage of all property will be vacant, including government-owned spaces. In Chicago, there is usually more vacant spaces in the Neighbourhoods and, therefore, more of a need to attract customers to their retail districts. So the next question to answer is how to incorporate an empty space program into city government and city-wide planning.”

Artistic and community engagement

Just as importantly, Lauren stresses, is the need for these projects to have a curatorial vision and to ensure members of the arts sector and the community are contributing to the decision making - as in San Francisco - and not allowing government to have all the say in choosing projects and deciding how a space is used.

“My research has shown me how important it is to consider the space itself and make sure it’s part of the project concept for the best artistic outcomes. Store front spaces are not white cubes - like traditional galleries designed to display art - they're quirky and come with their own community.  Arts projects that use the shape and heritage of a space will come up with something really interesting and creative.” 

Measuring outcomes

What's also needed, according to Lauren, is to make the business case for empty space projects and not just relying on anecdotal evidence of their success or need.

“I would argue that we need to make the case for empty space projects as part of economic policy and cultural tourism development – to convince people that this is not just good for the arts community but for the business community,” she says.

“Currently there's little hard evidence anywhere in the world on how successful these pop ups have been in attracting visitors and new tenants. Not only are these very different kinds of groups getting involved, but they’re all pretty new and they’re developing their policies and procedures as they go.”

Sharing knowledge

Lauren believes that as empty space projects become more commonplace in place development initiatives, it will become more important to compare best practices so that empty spaces co-ordinators can think more strategically about what they are doing.

"In Australia that's happening with your Empty Spaces Project, but in the US it doesn't seem to be happening, says Lauren Rosenberg. "The projects I case studied for my project are growing based on doing what they think is going to work best for them. But I think they all have something to learn from each other and through sharing that experience people are only going to get better at this."

'Art in Vacant Storefronts' Thesis


By Lauren Rosenberg

Department of Arts Administration and Policy

The School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Spring, 2011

Abstract: In the United States, pop-up galleries are appearing with growing regularity in cities like New York, San Francisco and Chicago. The practice of placing art in vacant storefronts, while seen as preferable strategies by landlords and community stakeholders who might otherwise face emptiness, vandalism or neglect, has also been employed as strategy to beautify neighborhoods, draw pedestrian traffic to commercial areas, attract new tenants, and provide much needed exhibition space for artists. However, there is value in this trend beyond its ability to solve the problems at hand. In fact, some artists use empty storefronts as sites for creative research and development, “laboratories” for experimentation. Reminiscent of the alternative, artist-run spaces that rose to prominence in the 1970s, today’s omnipresent pop-up galleries can potentially fill some of the void left by the National Endowment for the Arts when it stopped funding experimental spaces for artists. This paper aims to determine the significant merits of the pop-up gallery trend in a comparison of this practice to earlier artist-run organizations; an examination of both practices as sites for creative research and development; and a discussion of the benefits and limitations for artists who exhibit work in vacant storefronts, facilitated by various organizational models.

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