By Simon Fearn
It’s a rainy Thursday afternoon when Carlo Viglianisi and Nick Malyan lead me into a disused office block at the end of North road. It’s been empty for almost a decade; soon Viglianisi and Malyan will turn it into Empty Shop’s second venue, the only contemporary arts studio and gallery space in central Durham.
It’s been eight years since the pair founded Empty Shop. Viglianisi, a freelance photographer and graphics designer, was using an empty shop as a studio space (hence the name). Viglianisi and Malyan, events managers and independent producers returning to Durham and at a loose end, opened the shop up as an exhibition space. They only envisioned the project lasting for three months or so, but they were overwhelmed by the response.
Since then Empty Shop has existed in 22 different venues, but most of us will know them from Empty Shop HQ, an arts and cultural venue that hosts fringe theatre, spoken word, live music, film screenings and occasionally pop-up record stores – in 2015 alone they hosted 168 events. Tucked off Framwellgate Bridge, HQ seems almost afraid of drawing attention to itself, with a non-descript sign and a doorbell to gain entry.
This intimate space plays host to regional talent like Shields, Bridie Jackson and Richard Dawson, along with big international names like Chicago rapper Serengeti. “Musicians will do European tours with three dates in the UK: London, Bristol and Empty Shop,” says an incredulous Viglianisi. “Things like that shouldn’t happen.”
“Every year we’ve had a larger and more diverse program than the year before, and we hope that will always be that case,” Malyan adds. Case in point: as part of the latest Book Festival, Empty Shop hosted “a literary-themed silent disco with a bookshop in the corner” with Forum Books.
Malyan’s favourite event, however, was a collaboration with City of Sanctuary aimed at refugees in the North East: a concert from the National Orchestra of Syria who were fresh from a tour with Damon Albarn. They played to “a packed audience full of people who wouldn’t have been able to experience that kind of orchestra in their own country, but were experiencing it in Durham city, thousands of miles from where they grew up.”
Impressive as all this is, Empty Shop is much more than just an arts venue. Malyan and Viglianisi realised in the early days that the organisation needed to do more than just provide a platform: “artists needed support in other ways such as advice and time to think. They didn’t just need space where they could hang a picture on a wall. If we can provide a space where people can reflect and think about their creativity and talk to us you can develop a relationship that’s about more than the hire of a room.”
The pair’s focus on artistic development and collaboration has certainly fared well for students in the past. Dave Spencer was the first student to utilise the venue for student theatre with Another Soup’s Jungle Book in 2012; he’s gone on to direct and produce theatre on a national level. “People who might not consider themselves as artists might discover that they can be,” says Viglianisi. “People at very early stages of their career see it as a really good testing ground.”
Having celebrated the eight year anniversary of their project, the two men feel it’s time to take stock. “It’s time for us to think and reflect,” says Viglianisi. “Talk to people and look at Durham’s cultural ecology as well as our own place within that.” Off the back of this, Empty Shop has unveiled a flurry of innovations – 2017 is looking to be a year of unprecedented growth.
These new developments include The Empty Shop Think Tank (TESTT), a research and development tool with ties to the Arts Council, Durham University, Durham County Council, Culture Durham, ARC Stockton, New Writing North, and more. It aims to examine Durham’s cultural output generally, with Empty Shop becoming “a natural hub” for various different artistic enterprises.
In this context the new visual arts space on North Road becomes much more than just a second venue, but the final piece in a puzzle that will cement Viglianisi and Malyan’s dreams of Empty Shop as a community resource for Durham artists and performers.
“We want to preserve HQ as an amazing space for performers and audiences, but we also need to make sure we offer something for visual artists as well,” Malyan explains. The new venue dwarfs HQ, with three large open plan spaces that will most likely become galleries, along with a number of smaller office rooms they hope to turn into studios. Malyan is confident they’ll have half a dozen studio spaces up and running within a couple of weeks.
One of these rooms they hope to turn, with the support of the Culture Durham (the University’s cultural venues, collections and engagement department) into a dedicated studio space for Durham students. Not only is studio space incredibly scarce for student artists, but Viglianisi and Malyan – eager as ever to encourage collaboration – stress the advantages for students of being surrounded by local professionals. “You can benefit by working in an environment where you can always see other people’s work, and talk to them and seek advice,” says Malyan.
Empty Shop has always been about more than just the art and Viglianisi and Malyan are increasingly looking outward. Events at HQ already have a 60% local, 40% student audience – a rare bridge of the town and gown divide, and the new North Road space looks to form an even tighter-knit artistic community made up of both students and locals. Malyan tells me that a long term ambition is to encourage more students to stay in the area after graduation, a by-product he hopes of them forging stronger ties with local creatives.
The future looks bright, and the next few months will be a time of rapid change for Malyan and Viglianisi, hopefully taking them places they haven’t even thought of. “A large part of Empty Shop is being very fluid,” Viglianisi explains. “There’s intentionally been no clear direction because it becomes more fascinating to see where you go.” No doubt they’ll continue to expand, however, looking beyond their own organisation to ensure Durham’s cultural output is as strong as it can be.
Empty Shop needs you! Carlo and Nick are looking for student volunteers to help make the North Road venue fit for purpose, along with student artists who are interested in becoming part of the studio project. Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to get involved!