FEATURE: Commercial Union House | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Starting something new is scary. It might mean trekking in unknown territory, or mingling with unfamiliar faces. Working in any creative sector especially can seem the most daunting; everyone appears to know exactly what they’re doing and why. But it’s important that everyone starts somewhere, and those who look like they’re having a great time doing artistic jobs often have a support network around them, helping them through every step. Finding these networks, however, can be the tricky bit. 

That’s where the folks behind Orbis, based in Commercial Union House in Newcastle’s city centre, come into play. They’re responsible for the smooth running of eight floors of the old office block situated just across from the Tyneside Cinema, and provide a whole host of services and activities for creatives in the North East. The community built within these walls has allowed for exponential growth of those who reside within; the communication facilitated by having so many minds in such close proximity allows for projects and opportunities to develop which may not have been able to happen without it. 

At the start, many years ago, Orbis and Commercial Union House had hardly any recognition,” co-director of Orbis and Ampersand Inventions’ Jonpaul Kirvan explains. “However, we now have a building bursting at the seams with an incredible supportive community that will reach out and give support to those that need help to rebuild after this global pandemic. I have always reminded myself no matter how dark it gets, no matter how tangled and confused you get, just be kind! It’s that simple.”

The businesses found inside Commercial Union House have done an excellent job of adapting the spaces to fit a wide variety of purposes. Vane Gallery occupies the first floor, operating as an exhibition gallery for any and every type of art you could imagine. They’ve showcased local artists’ creations on the reg, but also feature national and international artists to bring exceptional cultural experiences to the region. And did I mention all exhibitions and activities are absolutely free to the public? 

Floor two houses Arcadea – a charity which works tirelessly to bring disability-friendly programmes to the region. Their goal is to up inclusivity in arts and culture by highlighting the need for accessibility in all walks of life, and delivering events, workshops and education which abide by their mission.

I have always reminded myself no matter how dark it gets, no matter how tangled and confused you get, just be kind! It’s that simple

There’s plenty of room at Space Six on their semi-sprung floors for rehearsals and choreography. Chances are if you’ve seen any indie shows in Newcastle, the performers will have used Space Six at some point for their work. Besides providing rehearsal space at an affordable (and therefore inclusive) rate, Space Six also includes workspaces for budding artists to get some admin done, chat to peers and maybe even collaborate on projects. 

B&D Studios and Ampersand Inventions make up floors three, four and six, providing the bulk of the creative spaces available to local artists. Regardless of your speciality, you’re bound to find somewhere suitable for your needs here. B&D Studios houses a number of movers and makers on their floor, including a record shop, Tint Brow Bar, and a gallery space which is widely available for use. (This lot helped me out a bunch during my own MA course when I needed a funky place to film a project – so heaven only knows all the ways they’re able to facilitate whatever idea is bouncing around in your noggin.)

Ampersand Inventions, meanwhile, has more going on than you could possibly fathom. Boasting nearly 50 workspaces over two floors suited to a wide range of purposes, Ampersand Inventions proudly do all they can to cultivate a flourishing community right in the centre of Newcastle. 

Kirvan continues: “Spanning over eight years, my role as a director at Ampersand Inventions is to manage a multi-functional space that provides a creative and supportive environment for experimental and participatory events, not-for-profit organisations, charities, students and artists. This has been developed further by creating ‘departments’ (including for fashion, printmaking and an experimental process-based gallery) and providing studio members and their businesses with continuing professional development.”

Usually by day, creatives can flit from office to studio at their leisure. Members from Explore Lifelong Learning, which promotes curiosity and education for everyone wherever they are in life, meet here for lectures and classes. But by night, things might get a bit busier thanks to their roster of events which take place on their floors. Frequent F*ck Up Nights feature talks from now-successful businesspeople about their lives’ oopsies, and how they learnt from past mistakes. Or perhaps there’s a show, gig, or gallery opening taking place

At the moment though, things have slowed down at Commercial Union House. Their closed doors unfortunately mean many projects have gone on pause, classes are currently cancelled and things are an awful lot more quiet. At least there’s a couple things that can move online: the F*ck Up Nights will still be dotted about, albeit as virtual versions accessed via Zoom. And, with any luck, Orbis will be able to spring back on their feet once lockdown lifts and it is safe to do so. However, it might take a little help from their friends, as Kirvan explains: “After lockdown I hope to set up Orbis Union, a fringe steering group that will help connect communities together through creative projects. The team will consist of the many creatives that reside in Commercial Union House and our connected supporters. We currently have no funding, we have no magic wand, however, we have an incredible connection towards the true value of community!”

To support Orbis and Commercial Union House you can donate via their website

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