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.