The Parlour Showrooms sit on the edge of College Green, a prime spot of green space in the heart of Bristol, across which they face the 12th century beauty of Bristol Cathedral, and City Hall, which is home to Bristol City Council (BCC). The Showrooms are two adjacent unused shops which present exhibitions and experimental performance projects by established and emerging artists, and include political or socially engaged projects in each season. During the last year, the Showrooms has hosted 63 exhibitions, 110 events and 52 performances, and attracted 12,000 visitors, an impressive feat for two empty shops operating on a shoestring.
Above the Showrooms are The Parlour Studios; a rabbit warren of rooms which provide shared rehearsal and office space for theatre makers and producers. The location of the Parlour Showrooms has attracted artists and audiences alike, but how does this fledgling organisation, which offers reduced rates for new artists and community groups, finance this enviable spot on a busy shopping street, sandwiched between a Tesco and a musical instrument shop?
The answer lies with Capacity Bristol, a scheme which opens up council-owned buildings for creative use. Started in 2006 by Ruth Essex, who at the time was BCC’s Neighbourhood Arts Officer, this pioneering project took advantage of the increase in empty properties caused by the economic recession by offering free space for arts and charity projects to operate in. Using buildings in this way is known as ‘meanwhile use’, which is defined by the Department for Communities and Local Government as ‘the temporary occupation of empty town centre retail premises by non-commercial occupiers, who will be able to contribute to town centre vitality but who would otherwise be unable to afford normal commercial rents’.
Capacity Bristol revolutionised the cultural landscape of Bristol by supporting artists who would otherwise have struggled to find a space to work in. Alongside The Parlour, Capacity has helped some of Bristol’s most innovative arts projects including The Island, a huge multi-use arts facility housed in an old police station in the city centre; The Motorcycle Showroom, a gallery space and artist’s workshops, and Invisible Circus, who have recently curated Bristol’s first circus festival.
Tana Holmes is BCC’s Arts Development Officer: ‘Hundreds of artists and arts organisations have flourished within these spaces. [They have] a significant impact on Bristol’s economy, creating jobs and opportunities, and making Bristol a more interesting and desirable place to live and work.’
Brother and sister team Lucy and Barney Heywood are creative directors of theatre company Stand + Stare. They first discovered the building that now houses The Parlour whilst looking for a space for their immersive performance SS Arcadia. A friend told them that the building was empty, and Bristol council gave them a licence to use the building for three weeks as part of Mayfest, Bristol’s festival of contemporary theatre, which is now run from The Parlour.
‘We opened up the building, cleaned it up, did a lot to it and made it possible for people to come here for the show and then, when Mayfest was over, we gave the keys back,’ says Lucy. ‘A few months later we realised it was just sitting here empty, so we thought we’d see what was happening with it. We went to Ruth Essex who’d been trying to help artists in Bristol who were always coming to her saying “where can I do something, I want a gallery space”. She didn’t really have enough spaces to do that so she was really excited about the possibility of having the shops downstairs.’
Interval, a newly formed artist’s support network looking for a home, moved into the top floor, Stand + Stare occupied the second, the attic was used as a shared rehearsal space and Ruth Essex initially ran the shops, until three members of Interval took over.
Using empty spaces in this way benefits not only the temporary occupier, but also the surrounding businesses. A bustling occupied building increases footfall and improves the visual appearance of an area, as well as reducing the risk of vandalism and crime. Despite this, some landlords still require an incentive to allow their building to be used, which is provided by the Discretionary Business Rates Relief scheme. In the UK, if a property is left empty for more than six weeks the landlord is required to pay business tax after that period. However, if they allow an arts or community organisation to use the property temporarily, they can pass the business rates costs to that organisation, who can then claim a business rates relief percentage. In Bristol this is 100%, which has made possible many projects that otherwise would never have got off the ground.
‘If it didn’t exist, things would be very difficult,’ says Lucy. ‘There’s a statistic that says that most visual artists earn under £10,000 a year, so the idea of those people paying massive business rates when they’re not making a profit is impossible. Everyone at The Parlour wants to be able to pay their way and put back into the city. In the future the idea is that we build up a way that we can pay for a space and pay some of the business rates. We don’t just want to get everything for free.’
Barney argues that places like The Parlour are important for the future of the city: ‘You’ve got the Arnolfini and the Watershed and Spike Island which are much larger organisations but in order for them to have the local talent you need to have places where, when someone’s just finished university and hasn’t got much money, they can get going within the arts. It’s not an easy thing to make a living out of so the more schemes there are like that, the more those large institutions will ultimately benefit in the end.’
Unfortunately Capacity Bristol fell victim to budget cuts in 2012. ‘The Arts and Culture team suffered significant cuts to posts which resulted in the Neighbourhood Arts team being reduced from four posts to one,’ says Tana Holmes. ‘This meant there was no longer the resource to run the Capacity project in the same way.’
Despite the overwhelming success of The Parlour Showrooms and the creative output of the studios above, it was only ever meant to be a temporary arrangement, and in June of this year the council sold the building to a commercial tenant. The Parlour lodged a Community Asset Transfer bid, which can transfer a council-owned building from a commercial asset to a community asset, but the council turned it down. The residents of The Parlour and The Showrooms are committed to staying together as a supportive and co-operative community, and are currently looking for an alternative building. Despite the closure of Capacity, Bristol County Council are helping as much as they can, continuing to offer support and helping the arts sector develop its knowledge and understanding around the use of empty space, and how crucial it can be for the development of new arts organisations.
Stand + Stare’s Barney sums it up: ‘Places like the Watershed and the Arnolfini began as Community Asset Transfers, so whilst something like The Parlour may look small scale now, in twenty years time it might be one of the main destinations of the city. If it gets cut off too early, there’s not much hope for it, so we’re very grateful for being given a building and the opportunity to use it.’