Imagine the picture-postcard city of Durham: buried behind the bustle of its spindly streets, most would expect to find an arts scene as rich as the heritage of the place itself. But for quite some time, the absence of one all-encompassing cultural hub would stunt the growth of the artistically inclined, forcing them to move elsewhere.
8 years, 500 events and several memorable parties later, Nick Malyan and Carlo Viglianisi are continuing to ensure that this is a thing of the past from the comfort of their intimate city centre Headquarters. The two artists are founders of Empty Shop – an innovative project that utilises redundant spaces across county Durham for pop-up arts events.
Their latest endeavour? A multi-purpose arts space situated above the dishevelled façade of North Road bus station. Despite the slightly unappealing backdrop, it’s positively drenched in promise: on entering, a brief hike up the winding staircase leads to a gloriously large exhibition space, cushioned by a number of individual studios and (though it currently resembles a slightly cramped bathroom) a photography darkroom. Whilst it currently seems a little bare, Nick assures me that they have exciting plans for the lofty room.
“The main space will exhibit work from established artists who can’t necessarily find anywhere else in Durham to exhibit. Then, directly alongside that, we’ll have space for emerging artists, so you get that juxtaposition – having a relationship between the up-and-coming and the already established is really important.”
Having had the keys for just a few short weeks, word of the project has already spread like wildfire. “in terms of the studio spaces, they filled up instantly.” Laughs Carlo. “We could have filled them a couple of times over, actually – there’s clearly a need for it!”
Taking inspiration from their artistic contemporaries, they aim to make this space available to anyone, on any budget. “In our old space, the top floor when we first moved in was affordable studio space, much like Newbridge Project and Northern Charter.” Carlo explains. “Accessibility in that sense, in terms of being affordable, has always been fundamental to what we do.”
Nick also chimes in: “You can’t be an arts organisation that works for artists if you price artists out.”
As proof of this, he gestures towards the open door of a large, miscellaneous room. There are no fixed plans for it: rather, it functions as a community space – an artistic haven for anyone to use. “We want the whole scale.” Says Nick. “community art, from people who just want to paint, draw, make, to professionals, or people at the very start of their artistic career.”
“It’s also important to provide for every level.” Adds Carlo. “Especially whilst we’re developing an interest in Durham culturally, and creating a case for contemporary art to exist here – there isn’t a huge amount of space for that, so we wanted to make one.”
As the regeneration of Durham’s shopping centre chugs along, Nick and Carlo will surely see to it that their beloved arts scene flourishes accordingly.
“There’s some amazing artists coming out of Durham – but they’re under-resourced, so what we’ve been doing from day one is finding ways to give them a platform, some space, and an audience as well.
“We’ve kind of become a bit of a hub, purely because we exist, and do a lot of work with lots of different people. We’re facilitators, helpful people – that sentiment is central to what we do.”