From stopping smoking to cutting down on the booze, New Year's resolutions are often about giving up something that you love. No wonder we all suffer from a bad case of the January blues. But here at Living North, we think it would be much better to start the new year with a can-do attitude and a bucket list of things you're going to achieve. So when we heard about an organisation in Durham who are leading contemporary art events and helping people achieve their life-long dreams, we thought we’d better check it out.
Formed in 2008, Empty Shop was the brainchild of friends and art enthusiasts Nick Malyan and Carlo Viglianisi. A project manager by trade, Nick has worked with a number of leading North East arts organisations, including New Writing North, Northern Stage and Sage Gateshead. Carlo, by contrast, is an artist and photographer, who won Young British Cartoonist of the Year in 2006.
‘Carlo and I met when I was 18 and he was in his early 20s and we drank in the same pub, The Angel in Durham City,’ Nick explains. ‘Durham is a small place, and if you’re interested in alternative cultures you end up bumping into each other. We both did the usual thing – as soon as we were 18 we left Durham because we thought there wasn’t anything for us here. In 2008 we both found ourselves back for what we thought would be maybe six months and Empty Shop has kept us here ever since.’
Kicking around ideas in the pub, Nick and Carlo realised that if they wanted a space for contemporary culture in Durham, they were going to have to create it themselves. ‘We started putting on a couple of exhibitions in unusual spaces – a bit Guerrilla art-style,’ Nick tells us. ‘We used the cellar of an off licence, the laundry room of a hotel... places that we could get access to without formally advertising. That was where we started to make a connection around the way that you interpret space and how you display art within a given space.’
They soon hit upon the idea of presenting art in empty buildings and disused shops – hence the name. Not only would they be repurposing these spaces and give them life once more, but the space challenged artists to think about the way in which they presented their work. With permission from the landlord, they opened up a disused shop for a couple of months to experiment with different types of art exhibition. Attracting 150 visitors on their opening night, their audience rapidly grew.
By 2010 their offering and audience had grown so much that Nick and Carlo were forced to move Empty Shop to a larger premises spread over two floors on Framwellgate Bridge. ‘It was the upstairs of a Greggs,’ Nick laughs. ‘We turned it into an exhibition space, art studios and on-going provision for Durham’s artistic community.’
Gigs, performances, exhibitions – the range of events on offer at Empty Shop is extremely wide ranging. Ultimately, Nick and Carlo offer their space to anybody who has a good idea and the drive to make it happen.
‘One of the first events we did was an Easter event for families called Really Good Friday,’ Nick tells us. ‘We hit on the idea of a portrait quiz – like the picture round of a pub quiz, but with original portraits. Anybody could submit their portrait as long as it was a picture of a celebrity, and then people had to guess which portrait was which celebrity. The person who got the most right got to take the portrait of their choice home with them. It set the tone for a fun and irreverent way of opening up an arts space.’
Since then they’ve hosted an alternative jazz bar for the BRASS festival, a pop-up record shop, a British tapas restaurant at the Bishop Auckland Food Festival, and are currently working with a group of refugees in the area to showcase the best of Syrian culture from music to photography. Empty Shop truly is a platform for creativity in any shape it takes. ‘It’s about creating a home for contemporary culture in Durham,’ Nick says, ‘and offering an alternative to the Cathedral and heritage-based city that everybody knows and loves.’
Collaboration is key. Nick and Carlo actively encourage people to approach them with ideas for alternative events and will provide them with the support they need to realise their vision.
‘We can provide as much or as little help as people want,’ Nick says. ‘We can simply provide a space and the required number of tables and chairs or we can sit down with them to help. We had two artists come here with an idea for their first ever exhibition a few months ago. They had a number of framed pieces of artwork, but they didn’t know how to hang a picture. Because we were able to help them at a very practical level, we were also able to help them creatively and encourage them to think a bit more about how they wanted to show their work. If people go away with a new perspective or a new skill then we’ve done our job.’
So if you think you’ve got a good idea, get in touch and Nick and Carlo will endeavour to make it happen. Likewise if you have an empty space that you’d like to see inhabited by some of the region’s most talented creatives, Empty Shop are able to help. ‘Artists bring a space to life in a way that you’d not previously imagined,’ Nick declares. Perhaps your old corner shop could become a cabaret-style bar, there could be tea dances in the local garage or heavy metal in an empty barn – come on people, Durham is your oyster.
Empty Shop HQ
35c Framwellgate Bridge,
Durham DH1 4SJ