Durham’s ‘artistic ecology’ under one single roof


Founded in 2008, Empty Shop set out to provide an accessible platform for artists of all levels and backgrounds to produce exhibitions and engage with art within Durham. Nine years on, they have taken this effort one step further with the creation of TESTT Space, a new visual arts hub with galleries, studios, screening facilities, workshop space, a dark-room and a black box studio. Located just above Durham Bus Station, the space already has eleven local artists in residence but is now setting up a dedicated student artists’ studio. Members of the studio will be able to access the space at fixed times each day, including evenings and weekends. Membership costs £25 per term and includes a host of benefits including basic materials, go-and-see visits to local galleries, and an end of year exhibition. We sat down with Nick Maylan, Empty Shop’s co-founder, to learn more about the artistic venture.

What inspired the creation of this visual arts space for Empty Shop?

Empty Shop was originally a visual arts focused organisation – setting up pop-up galleries in Durham from 2009 onwards. Recently, as our venue HQ has become busier with events, the exhibitions and studios have been less of a focus. TESTT Space is about re-establishing our commitment to visual art in the city, and providing much-needed support to networks of artists in the area. At the same time we were looking to develop this sort of visual arts space, we were [also] developing our partnership with the University’s ‘Culture Durham’ department.

What do you hope this space will achieve?

Our ambition is to provide a space where Durham’s visual arts ecology can exist under a single roof. We have eleven professional artists holding studios, photographers establishing a dark room and regional curators programming and producing exhibitions! We also provide space where community groups and collectives can make and present work – as well as galleries for emerging and established artists. It’s important to value and support artists at all stages of their career and create opportunities where people can learn from each other. Of course, any breakdown of Durham’s creative community wouldn’t be complete without recognising the role students can, and do, play in the city. At Empty Shop HQ we see a really healthy mix of student and local audiences coming together – TESTT Space will hopefully oversee this happening at the creative stage of the process too. TESTT Space is a short-term solution to the problem, though. We’re keen to learn from everything that happens there – and build an evidence base for something much longer-term in the city.

Do you think the creation of a visual arts space is unique to Empty Shop? If so, how?

Nationally and regionally there’s a lot of visual arts provision, but Durham has historically not had a huge amount – and certainly not affordable, shared space. There are the studios down at Fowler’s Yard, and we previously had a studio set up upstairs at HQ, but TESTT Space is a massive step up – in terms of size but also in terms of ambition and the level of provision. We’re the first organisation – to my knowledge – to attempt to bring everything together under one roof in this way: an entire arts ecology that exists in one space and hopefully produces something greater than the sum of its parts!

How do you hope to cater to both the student and local population?

We find that creativity and culture is one of the best ways to help break down the perception of a ‘town and gown’ divide in Durham. When people go to a gig or a play they don’t define themselves as student or local – they define themselves as people who love music or theatre. We want the members of TESTT Space to recognise each other as artists first and foremost. Having said that, it’s important to recognise and cater to difference. The way we do that is to listen to what people tell us they need and create an overarching framework that works for the majority of people but which is flexible enough to adapt to an individual or groups’ needs. At the studios that means that professional artists tend to want a mix of their own dedicated space where they focus on their practice. For the student artists we work with, its more about a shared space you can tap into on an as-and-when basis – and fit in around the various pressures of uni life. We hope that by offering both in one space there’s loads of scope for crossover, interaction and even collaboration. What’s really exciting is that this is very much in keeping with the ambitions of the University’s Culture Durham department who we’ve partnered with to develop TESTT Space.

How can students utilise your studio space for theatre compared to other spaces like the Assembly Rooms, Black Box Studio spaces, or even just around college?

One of the resources we offer at TESTT Space is a black box studio that is suitable for devising and sharing original theatre. Our focus is very much on contemporary culture – artists and writers who are alive and still making work and who try to make a contribution to their art form. This means that we’re not going to be hosting much existing work bar the odd adaptation or fringe-style show. Instead we’ll be working with groups like Buttered Toast and Wrong Tree – as well as local practitioners of course – to produce an environment that the theatre-makers can really make their own.

If you’re interested in booking a space, email testtculture@gmail.com or visit this site to find out more. Applications must be submitted by Sunday 15th October.

Image: Matt O’Brien, via Empty Shop.org

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