Art For Macmillan: The Struggle To Get Those Vacant Properties and Popup

Words: Anton Dodders

Art For Macmillan Cancer Support uses empty retail properties as exhibition spaces in which to  showcase and sell work by artists, sculptors, crafters, photographers and designers based mainly in Merseyside and Lancashire but on occasions,  from other places like London and Moscow. My job as Regional Chair of Arts at Macmillan covering Merseyside and West Lancashire involves me awaiting positive responses from property agents regarding the availability of our next  premises. I will probably recommence emailing soon as our Summer Popup Gallery which later became the site for our Christmas Exhibition closed on Friday 14 February.  Eight and a half months occupation of a vacant shop was a record for Macmillan’s artists as we are normally permitted to use them for four months at most. In the weeks leading up to closure, people asked: “where are you going next?”

I answered: “Malaga and possibly Amsterdam on the way.”

“Oh, are you moving abroad?”

unnamed-4I explained that I was going on a drawing trip; by plane this time which is not as convenient as driving but a lot cheaper.  Going by car as I did last year, enables you to stop off wherever you like as long as you can find a parking space and gets you to planned drawing sites which can be in isolated areas quickly. Motorways are not great places to draw from especially if you park across them. The car also provides shelter from wind and rain and the windscreen wipers are incredible for keeping the view clear. However, the preliminary costs of going on such a journey by car which are required for things like insurance abroad; breakdown cover and your own breatheliser test kit- a legal requirement if travelling through France, are high.

Art For Macmillan also uses unoccupied properties  for poetry and music events which give aspiring and established local writers and musicians the opportunity  to test their work in front of live audiences.  Other activities include dance performances; when a suitably large premises is available and live art demonstrations  as long as the participants are not too unruly or messy.  We rely heavily upon the generosity of local business owners and management for the provision of such spaces and also walls on which to exhibit as our display areas are not limited to the properties we occupy. You will find work by artists who dedicate their time and skills to raising funds for Macmillan Cancer Support hanging in various cafes and restaurants throughout  the region as sometimes people who drop in for dinner  and coffee, also purchase art.

unnamed-5I first heard  the term “Pop-up” a few years ago when everybody started using  it and because many high street traders have moved to retail parks located slightly out of town, opportunities to exhibit  in them have increased.  There are, however, a number of obstacles. One is the imposition of business rates on the intended property. Unless a local government is willing to wave this, there is a requirement for either social enterprise or charitable status to overcome it. Having these entitles you to huge reductions on a retail property’s rateable value. It is then possible that the owner of such a premises may allow you to use it rent free in what is known as a beneficial occupation. The landlord is happy to have his or her business rates paid by you whilst the property is not being rented and then the charitable cause which your exhibitions, sales and other activities if any raise funds for, also benefits.  You may encounter other difficulties such as a requirement for building insurance  and service charges and who exactly to appeal to for reductions of these. Acquirement of  charitable status came to me as a result of hard work and was also inadvertant as after organising a number of  exhibitions and creative events in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support throughout 2010 and 2011, I was made the charity’s Regional Chair of Arts in June 2012.   Getting hold of vacant properties is still not easy  though, especially considering that my main interest lies in drawing and painting land, urban, sky and waterscapes in various media with the odd portrait commission included.  I am not adept at administration and the success of the processes I have used to make these projects work has surprised me.

unnamed-3Size of the premises is an important issue. A large premises requires many artworks to fill it and lots of contacting of exhibitors by various means, depending on their age. There are also larger costs incurred by things such as the formerly mentioned  business rates and also utilities for which we receive charitable reductions but which can still end up being quite high, depending on how good the lighting is. Many halogen spotlights may result in a fantastic looking show but they also cause high electricity bills. An initial analysis of the lighting and possibly even the heating, if it is decided that our budget will stretch that far, usually determines how much of a hanging fee to ask from exhibitors.

Following the acquirement of a premises, you then have to persuade artists to exhibit  there: never an easy task. Being situated in a highly visible location with great footfall and the common knowledge that  our exhibitions’ sales rates are quite high can help with this but there are no guarantees. I am extremely thankful to our regular exhibitors who also take on roles as crew  for realising that not only are the exhibitions  useful to them, they are for a very good cause.

unnamedArt For Macmillan is extremely grateful to everyone who has helped raise funds to provide care for those whose lives have been seriously affected by cancer.  Our  sincerest thanks goes to the community relations directorate at Southport Football Club especially Haydn Preece, without whom we would have no understanding of  publicity modes whatsoever; Oh You Pretty Things on Saint John’s Rd in Waterloo who held a magnificent event and fundraising activities there are ongoing; The Southport Writer’ Circle whose founders  Phil McNulty and Steve Beattie  created a great deal of interest for our cause within their group and gave incredible fundraising performances;  Southport Market’s management who very kindly donated the vacant stalls used for our demonstrations;  Southport Visiter for giving highly valuable support;  Tustin Developments based in Preston for the provision of our most recent premises; TDF Café and Bistro at Marble Place in Southport who provide permanent exhibition space and do not even take a commission from the sales of the work; Rennies Arts and Crafts Supplies in Ormskirk for exhibition space and again no commission taken which means more funds raised for Macmillan; the staff and management at Wayfarers Arcade- they have been wonderful and Sefton Council for utensil provision.

For full details of Art For Macmillan’s exhibitions and events look online:


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