Upcycling Space: an artist's experience

Pop Up Shop North Sydney

In July 2012 eight artists set up the Pop Up Shop North Sydney in two empty North Sydney Council-owned retail properties in downtown Crows Nest.

Angela Van BoxtelThis pilot empty space initiative from Council was originally planned to run for six months. A year and a half later, the spaces closed in December 2013 for redevelopment. In 2013 Pop Up Shop North Sydney won the Australia Day Award for Community Group of the Year by North Sydney Council.

As the artist who was involved in the project for longest, Angela Van Boxtel, shares her tips and tricks on how to set up and run a space and what it has meant for her personal and professional development.


Eco-artist and designer Angela Van Boxtel is a Dutch-born, Sydney-based artist who lives in Manly. Her art is about connection and appreciation for nature and the beautiful natural surroundings. Mediums include digital media, film, photography and up-cycle design.

Angela’s regular blog features a number of posts on her experience with the North Sydney Pop Up Shop and its workshops and events.

Website: http://www.angelavanboxtel.com

Contact: angela@angelavanboxtel.com


Setting up a shared space

Opening nightPop Up Shop North Sydney has been a great journey for me. With the original promise of only six months occupancy, I can only be happy that I have had such a great run in a beautiful creative place. And a place that otherwise would have stood empty has now been filled for 18 months with artistic inspiration for the wider community to enjoy.

When I and seven other artist where selected by North Sydney Council to get this exciting project from the ground, we were divided into two shops, as teams of four, and set to work.

First we had to strip down each of the shops - a former video library and a pet shop. We spent weeks preparing our shops and created two great creative spaces where we could work, sell our designs and run free workshops for the community.

Opening the shopYou have to be very committed to be in the shop in the first place as it’s about you and the personal relationships you develop with your audience.  Attendance is very important. If you have certain openings hours be there!

If you are with a group make sure you have a plan and shared approach from the start. The space has to work as a shared space: not only what you alone want but what you want as a group too. But give each other a certain amount of freedom within that space. If you are too set in your way of doing things, it will not work. You are together and have to form a united front as that is the image you portray to the community.

In the first shop we had a rotating roster as that would work best for all involved. So we were rostered on different days (not the same day) every week. We would make the roster a month in advance. In the second shop we had a fixed day. In fact, I preferred the rotating roster as you learned more about what happened locally on the different days you were in the shop and learned better to target your audience. 

You also have to be committed as a front. If you do a roster make sure you catch up all together at least once a month to discuss frictions and other things, otherwise it’s easy to lose touch with each other. Also try to catch up outside of your project with each other and get to know each other. Very helpful as you understand each other better and where you come from.

Finally, make sure everyone is equally committed and not let do one person be the horse to pull the carriage!

Communal space for workshops and meetings

Programming the space

Your shop front is your ‘creative business cart’ for the outside world. Make it entertaining, inviting and attractive. Don’t let it turn into a static display, change it all the time and keep it fresh

Workshop signMake sure to have a communal area - a table, a seating area - where all can connect and ‘hang out’. (We did not have this in the second shop and it felt less cohesive.)

We did not organise exhibitions. We only did workshops and small events.  The free workshop component was part of our agreement with Council and, as a consequence, the North Sydney community had access to eight free artistic workshops a month from Hat Design to Photography to Textiles and, with my workshops, creative up-cycling and educating the community about local and individual waste issues.

Workshops are a great way to connect with groups in the community, but you can’t say 'this is what I want to do' - you have to adjust your ideas to the area to be successful.

I tried to tie in the workshops with larger festivals such as the Sydney Design Festival to put our pop up shop on the map. These are great ways to get your name and your pop up place out there. 

Connecting the space to local community

Opening eventFigure out what makes the local neighbourhood tick as that will lead to a success or a failure. So learn to know the environment where your shop is in. Make friends with your fellow shop owners. Introduce yourself, be nice, be polite, greet them, invite them for a special opening, so all know what you are doing and who you are.

Make sure to figure out the traffic in your area when it’s the busiest and open on those times to connect with your community. Observe what sort of people pass your shop at what times and connect with that traffic in your programming. I learned for example that on Thursday nights a lot of women would stay after work to meet friends in the area and they loved having something creative to do during that time. And on Saturday mornings a large group of mums dropped their girls of at local ballet school and had to ‘kill’ two hours of their time. Those special groups can become great customers and each area will be different.

Tie in with festivals and events already happening in the area and benefit from them publicising your space. The only issue is that most large events work to deadlines month in advance - if the future or the lease of your pop up shop is not that long secured in advance it gets a bit harder to engage with events.

Local engagement from shop owners and Council

Local shop owners loved having us. They thought it was great to have the spaces filled as an empty shop is not good for any business. We were welcomed by our neighbouring shops when we started - they even brought us chocolates and one of those crazy flashing ‘opening’ signs!

yarn bombingAfter I had done a yarn bombing of the tree in front of our shop, the local Chamber of Commerce got in contact to say they’d love to see more creative activities in the shopping precinct and asked me to be in charge of programming.

They also offered to find a new space once our short-term tenancy in the original shops finished as they wanted to keep this creative activity happening.  (But, by then, my work had taken of elsewhere and I had figured that I wanted to be in space closer to where I live in Manly.) It shows that great new opportunities can come out of a short-term creative pop up.

yarn bomb treeAgain, I think you need to have a professional approach and don’t make it all about you but about your place in your community (which also includes local businesses). 

With North Sydney Council there was an issue of staff buy-in to the concept. The pop up shops were one staff member’s ‘brain child’ and, when there was change of staff, we were left to ourselves. That was not a problem for us but there has been no ongoing commitment to creative 'pop ups’ in Council to come out of our success. Next time, if there is one, they will have to re-invent the wheel over again.  It’s a pity as there was much to learn and keep from the experience. (That’s the reason why I decided to stay on the project after the first year  – and  I was the only artist to continue.)

For any local government involved with this activity, I suggest you retain 'how to' knowledge and plan something to build on a pilot project. Empty space activity is a very valuable way to engage with your community (especially the local business community), and local arts and culture.

My personal and artist’s journey

As artists, we all had a fabulous time and, from total strangers a year and a half ago, many of us became close friends. In 2013 Pop Up Shop North Sydney was the Australia Day Award for Community Group of the Year by North Sydney Council.

Bottle cap art workshopAs an artist, this is what I learned from the experience:

It was great to see people coming from as far as Hornsby to attend my workshops and that has given me a lot of confidence - what I have to offer is unique and special.

The main lesson learned was that it was not about the outcome but the journey you’re on. Embrace the ups, but also the downs as those are the parts where you really learn.

One of my next steps will be to create an art and designer space in Manly on a more permanent basis. For this, my pop up shop experience will be very helpful as it thought me a lot - not only about what I want, but also how to work more closely with others and, above all, from what I’ve learned about business, about how to set up a space which can fund itself. 

The best thing to come out of the Pop Up Shop North Sydney is the amazing women I met along the way who continue to be in my life and who inspire me with their work and the journey's they are on. Thanks to them and to North Sydney Council for giving us this great opportunity.