How to Measure Success in a World of Profit and Prizes

Empty Shop CIC
4 min readFeb 28, 2018

Empty Shop was an idea born out of frustration. It was a platform created to fill a void. A head-on attack on the creative boredom that dominated our teenage years growing up in a city without culture. An experience frustratingly amplified following our return to Durham after our inevitable escapes to university.

What we thought was a 6 month project became a snowballing idea; It was never a ‘business’, it was never a career.

Coming from a very hands on arts background, and with a desire to do ‘stuff’, money wasn’t a driving force. The success was measured by how good a time people had — if the windows were steamy it was a good night; if the walls were sweating, it was a class night.

Fast forward 9 years and 3 of us work on this full time. That’s an interesting achievement in itself for an organisation that actively avoids funding and focuses on sustainability over profitability. That longevity buys you a certain amount of credibility with ‘the establishment’. People and organisations who looked at us with a sort of horrified fascination at the beginning now acknowledge some of our achievements.

This stuff doesn’t really impress us that much. We are far more taken with the sheer volume of artists that we have provided platforms for. The thousands of events that have happened because of the spaces we have opened up. The audiences we have cultivated and watched in amazement as they merged and crossed over. The effect that those opportunities have on people and how those experiences travel with them far and wide. The fact that all of those people wanted to work with us.

In a town that feels like a (contemporary) cultural wasteland the very fact this stuff exists is great. The fact it previously existed underground waiting for the opportunity to bloom is fascinating. Who knew?

But as we approach our tenth year it poses a question. Who values our work and why? How do you place a value on all of the above in unavoidably commercial and target driven worlds?

As Empty Shop becomes more and more established — if only by its continued, stubborn existence — opportunities and our growing expertise place us in the running to play an increasing role in Durham’s cultural offer, at a number of levels. We’re around the table with organisations and individuals now who we simply have never had access to before.

The question is why? Our continuing existence shouldn’t be enough to afford us influence and opportunity.

We have used 42 spaces in 9 years but let’s take one prominent example. Empty Shop HQ is our city centre venue. It held 182 events last year alone, an average of 3.5 a week. We have operated the space for 8 years as of this month. In that time we have seen three landlords and a host of neighbouring businesses come and go. As you’d imagine there’s a long history of frustrating conversations with those landlords in which we outline what we do and how important our work is to Durham. All of this falls on deaf or disinterested ears as we wait for the inevitable questions about bottom line and suggestions to open longer hours, charge more etc. This happens every single time.

What we consider to be huge successes are completely irrelevant to the commercial retail world and in most cases, the wider world. We are considered to be ‘playing’ at business because we don’t follow conventional business models and value an open source rather than competitive approach. We actually talk to our community before we make decisions.

Other dominant players might not push a financial agenda per se, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want a transactional relationship. Some organisations exist in bubbles dominated by prizes, awards and competitions, against which our successes are seemingly left dead in the water. Others operate in hierarchical structures where the need for control and appetite for the oxygen of publicity kill any potential for collaboration.

When definitions of success are so radically different and deeply entrenched what hope is there for a positive relationship? How can you ever be ‘successful’ if most people don’t understand or recognise your measurements of success?

Almost a decade in we’re starting to find some of the answers. In part you have to play the game and blow your own trumpet. At the same time, more importantly, you need to educate people about the things you value and lead by example. Thankfully, our community, our user base and the people we work with get it. More than that they are part of it and of course they’re the ones that really count.

Nevertheless, our ventures into these other ‘worlds’ are happening and it will be fascinating to see how it all pans out. One thing is certain, changing perceptions always takes time.

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Empty Shop CIC

Art // Regeneration // Collaboration. Empty Shop CIC is a not-for-profit arts organisation and practice-based consultancy from the North East of England.