The Challenge Of Incorporating Pop-ups Into UK Cultural Policy

As I ponder the tricky question of “what does cultural policy involve?”, I am taking a look at the challenges that face local authorities as they begin to incorporate pop-up empty shop arts spaces into their cultural policy agendas.

There is wide-spread acknowledgement as to the benefits that artists and arts organisations bring to local communities when a pop-up takes over an empty shop.   December 2008 saw the highest vacancy rate of commercial shop units across the UK since records began, the figure estimated at 5% of shops on the high street standing vacant (Local Data Company 2008).  This figure tripled in 2011 to 14.5%, with as many as 1 in 3 shops empty in some towns (Local Data Company 2011).  As a result, pop-ups are a growing practice amongst artists and arts organisations, aided by charitable business rates relief and kick-started in 2009 with funding from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG).  Further empty shops funding was granted by Arts Council England, but appears to have since dried up in the cut-backs.  This has left artists and arts organisations who are keen to make use of empty spaces struggling to find funding sources to cover the expense that invariably comes with running spaces and the project costs associated with pop-ups.

With the increased number of empty shops on the high street and growing demand from the creative community to make good use of the spaces, local authorities face new challenges as they begin to incorporate pop-ups into cultural policy agendas. Political factors are an important consideration such as setting best practice and good governance, changes in government policies and law (e.g. rate relief), conflict of interest between landlords and charities, commercial zoning restrictions.  Economic factors include the ever-changing funding landscape that artists and arts organisations are constantly being affected by, the increased number of empty shops on the high street, the rise in the number of unemployed artists and cultural workers.  This in itself raises concerns over the ongoing issue of cultural labour and the expectation for artists to deliver more for less, along with calls to include more voluntary workers in projects. The social benefits of pop-ups are widely talked about (although complicated to measure), such as reducing crime and vandalism, bringing people together, and instilling a sense of pride of place in the community.  Environmental effects are perhaps more immediate and obvious; adding vibrancy to a local area, making positive use of an otherwise wasted space, improving the cosmetic appearance which increases commercial letting potential – often the end result of a pop-up is that the shop is permanently let – in turn adding value to the local economy.  The very nature of pop-ups – temporary and unpredictable, is also a big challenge for policy makers to overcome.

My objective is to find resources discussing the topic of pop-ups, narrow down the key challenges that face policy makers working to incorporate pop-ups into cultural policy, and draw conclusions as to how the practice can be supported and made more sustainable to provide a lasting legacy for the cultural workers involved, members of the community and local authorities needing to see a return on their investment.

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