Leadership in the Independent Sector

A short reflection as part of Shifting Cultures, the NECP 2021 Annual Forum

Empty Shop CIC
3 min readMar 12, 2021

The following is a 5 minute reflection was prepared for a panel discussion on leadership in the independent sector. The discussion was part of Shifting Cultures, the 2021 edition of North East Cultural Partnership’s annual forum. We understand that the full video of panel — and other discussions from the forum — will soon be available on the NECP website.

Hi, my name is Nick. As with many of you I do lots of different things and wear different hats in the cultural sector, one of which is being a Director of Empty Shop alongside Carlo Viglianisi who is here in the audience.

We’re a small, independent, unfunded organisation

As you might guess Empty Shop started out as a “pop up” before the word pop up was a thing. Carlo is an artist, he was using an old wine shop to make his work having graduated and found a clinical lack of affordable space for his practice at that time.

We decided to work together to open that space up to others who also desperately lacked space. That was in 2008 and here we are having popped up initially, now somehow staying up.

We’ve used more than 50 spaces to do projects with amazing artists and partner organisations. Programming very little of it ourselves and primarily focusing on creating platforms for others.

We also change what we do a lot. Pop up galleries and restaurants, studio spaces, festivals, — we also consultancy, lecturing with FE and HE colleges and mentoring schemes at the moment. All sorts. Because being “independent” means making our own decisions about what we do.

For us, independence is a form of leadership. We want to create space for artists yes but we also want to be an example to others to show what you can do with little resources but using existing infrastructure and a commitment to making things happen.

For us, leading by example means protecting our independence whilst still somehow keeping on going.

Staying small.

Staying unfunded.

Sometimes it means saying no when we should say yes and sometimes saying yes when we should say no.

It means making decisions that protect our own resilience so we can keep going.

It means being intentional about our ability to work on instinct. Embracing the emergent nature of what we do as a two person organisation that is deliberately open to change.

Independent Leadership Panel Discussion

Within those 55 spaces we have used them for a range of time periods — the longest being 8 and a half years and the shortest 40 minutes.

We’re pretty comfortable with a shifting dynamic where converging on one particular model or way of working is short lived and divergence and emergence are the norm.

I feel like that’s something a lot of our larger organisations have had to grow into in the past year. And I feel like today, is about those independent voices like ours stepping up to share the benefit of that experience — once again, the independents are leading by example. This time however, we’re being noticed.

The difference during covid has been the degree of willingness of the big players to listen and learn, if only out of necessity.

And that’s what I would like those leaders who organised this session today to carry that ability with them into the future as part of the “new normal.”t

Thanks for your time.



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.