More Economic Alfalfa

Back in March I linked to a story about how Philadelphia was trying to revitalize its South Street district by arranging for artists to temporarily take over empty storefronts.

Artsjournal featured a story from The Guardian today about a similar effort in London which seemed to be designed a little more constructively for artists. My concern about the Philadelphia initiative was that the artists’ tenure in the spaces was rather tenuous. In London’s case, the project is arranged by the South London Gallery who has secured a three year lease and will place artists in the stores for six month residencies. While this may ultimately be a much shorter time than the participants in the Philadelphia program will enjoy, at least the parameters are known from the start.

In fact, The Guardian piece acknowledges just how unstable such an arrangement can be. Referring to arrangements like the one in Philadelphia where landlords are persuaded to offer storefronts for free or low cost, Stroud Valleys Artspace director Jo Leahy notes,

“The downside for the artist is that they’re welcomed with open arms during the recession, they help to regenerate an area – and then they get tossed out when they’re no longer needed, because the economy picks up and the rents go up. So it’s worth having eye on the future, and trying to insure yourself for when times improve.”

And the good the artists’ residencies did for the city of Gloucestershire was measurable. Leahy notes that the 25 storefronts her program utilized in 13 years rented easily when her organization moved out. Even more importantly, it warded against the encroachment of negative influences.

“Leahy adds that the estate agent she works with has reported lower rates of vandalism in shops used by artists, as opposed to those that are left empty. Art in shops puts the feelgood factor back, she argues. “It’s another way of judging a town. We’re used to measuring a place by how busy the cash tills are. This is about measuring somewhere by its ideas, by the things that people are making happen here.”

What I thought was most constructive about the project South London Gallery is spearheading is that they are not merely content to plant artists in the storefronts and hope something grows. South London Gallery, which has an outreach manager, is hoping to bring arts exposure to the neighborhood in which they are located but whose residents they rarely see enter their doors. While they hope the people do one day come to the gallery, their immediate goal is to “demystify the process of creating art, taking it away from the private studio” and locating working artists in the familiar space of a business people used to patronize.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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