I’m writing a final report on the work I just did in Sittingbourne, opening and running a pop-up shop and co-working space in the High Street there as part of the EU-funded ReCreate project.
This is mostly a request for help from people who were familiar with or directly involved in the project, but I’m up for feedback from all sides. In fact, just writing that has helped me see that I’d like to make it much easier for people to read who had no exposure to the project at all, but that might be a longer-term goal than getting the final report submitted with the final invoice!
This section is meant to sum up the Key Successes. I’d like to know whether:
- you agree that these are indeed the key successes – and if not what you’d add or take away;
- you think there are better ways of saying what I’ve said;
- you have better examples than the ones I’ve used to illustrate the success; or
- any of it doesn’t make sense at all to you.
- Or, y’know, anything else that would make it better.
Reactivating the High Street
We made a difference to how the street felt to local people and to how people thought about using empty spaces.
Sittingbourne High Street has lots of empty shops, especially towards the eastern end where workshop34 was. We immediately brightened this area, simply by cleaning the exterior, removing fly-posting and putting the lights on. Once we opened the doors for business and hung the bright yellow sign above the doorway we made a real difference to the feel of that end of the street – many people would simply come in to see what was going on because they were so surprised to see anything happening there.
We had good relations with neighbouring shops from the start. The owner of one local jeweller visited in the first week and we got to know especially well the local cafe owners, encouraging shop users to buy their lunches, cakes and coffees in one of the three nearest ones.
We encouraged Belinda Gyampa, a local hairdresser specialising in African haircare, who had become a regular user of our shop first to visit and then take on one of the retail units for hire in the building opposite.
Led by Community
Many spaces supported by ReCreate designed an offering and then fitted local people into it. We took the opposite approach – asking people what they wanted to do and then saying “Yes, do it!” As a result we squeezed a wider range of activities into the short time-frame than we might have otherwise done.
While we know a lot about what works in pop-up shops and creative collaboration spaces, we are also strongly committed to doing things with people rather than for or to them. During the month of November, Lloyd sat in the shop most days and simply talked to people about what they would like to do ithere. He almost always said “Yes! Please!”, partly because there was little time to be fussy and turn down stuff, but also knowing that only a small proportion of people would come back.
The other reason for giving power to the community from the start is that it makes it much easier at the end of the project. Lloyd works on the basis that the best success is when the group believes that they did most of it themselves.
We also wanted to break the dynamic of dependence – the cycle of someone with grant-funding coming and doing something for the community and then disappearing without empowering anyone doesn’t help in reactivating the High Street. So we stepped outside of giving people what (we think) is good for them and gave them what they wanted: space to work together, the power to decide and the power to change their mind if it didn’t work.
Together we all grew in confidence as we tried things and they worked. Most obviously, some people showed and sold their creative work for the first time, but others benefited in more subtle ways.
Giving people the responsibility of deciding what to do and of delivering it means that they get to do things they might not have done before. Even those who had run or worked in the previous pop-ups gained from being able to focus on making good work and selling it, rather than the tedious admin and management responsibilities.
People in Sittingbourne are used to people saying “No” to them. Saying “yes” to everything meant that we were able to reduce scepticism and support a much larger number of artists than expected. And for every artist who put their work on sale there were probably twice that who didn’t bring anything in, but who went away encouraged and reminded of their creative dreams.
We were grateful in particular for the opportunity to work with young people from Sheppey through the YAF project and help many of them show their work for the first time, make decisions about how to present it and price it for sale. The festival’s poster was designed and laid out in the shop with one of the young people working alongside an older experienced designer/photographer.
Several artists, regardless of age, showed and sold their art work for the first time ever in workshop34 and while selling is not the primary motivation for most people, they did feel added validation when one of their pieces was bought.
In most spaces, one vision has to win – here we chose to help the vision emerge from hearing everyone’s point of view equally. People learned valuable skills in negotiating a common vision.
A challenge for this disparate group of artists, entrepreneurs and those who volunteered in the shop was to let everyone to do what they wanted and needed to do, but without preventing others from doing the same.
This was hard. People expected either someone to make all the decisions or else to be left to get on with what they’re doing and ignore the rest of the group. In workshop34 we encouraged them to negotiate conflicts over space usage. Whenever Lloyd was approached to decide who was right or who had the better idea, he always pushed it back to the group and got them talking to work it out for themselves. As a result, more things happened, people gained new skills in negotiation and learned to let go of their attachment to winning at all costs.
Creating Financial Flow
We didn’t want to just be a subsidised space that gave everything away. While we believe the High Street is more about health than wealth, making money is an important part of reactivating community. Many of the people involved made money, and made progress developing business ideas. We made great progress towards being self-supporting.
It was important for us to put the project on a commercial footing from the start rather than starting with everything free and then had to impose charges. Lloyd took the approach again of letting the space users lead this. We quickly established a 20% commission deal with no hanging fee for artists but whenever someone wanted to run a workshop or hire a room we talked through what they could realistically afford – most people were running events for the first time, or just starting a business and rather than put pressure on by insisting on a standard fee, we were able to work with them to find the best deal for all of us.
As it was, from the beginning of December onwards, we ended up taking just over £3500 in sales and workshop fees/room hire, three-quarters of which went directly to the artists, makers and workshop leaders.