TESTT : Trial & Error

Empty Shop CIC
9 min readJul 15, 2019

Originally presented at Experimental Research in Space at Baltic 39, 2 May 2019

This article was presented verbally as part of Baltic39’s Reorganising Cultural Institutions conference. As such this is the source material of the presentation , including speaker notes, rather than a verbatim record.

(INTRO) Hello, my name is Nick Malyan, I’m one of the Co-Directors of Empty Shop CIC. The name comes from our beginnings in a literal ‘empty shop’- what was meant to be a 6 month, pop up gallery project in 2009.

This was before the term ‘pop-up’ was even popularised. 10 years later and somehow here I still am, a Director of a CIC which has transformed 40 odd spaces and gets asked to speak at things like this.

Our starting point was the visual arts — my co-founder Carlo was an artist in search of space. Space to make and exhibit work. He found somewhere and we decided together to open it up to other artists in the same boat. It turned out there were a lot of them, which gave us our starting point.

From visual arts we now seemingly do a bit of everything.

Maybe too much of everything…


Ask anyone what Empty Shop does and you’ll get a different answer. That’s frustrating at times but hopefully also an endorsement that whatever we turn our hand to, we do a good job with.

Most of what we do tends to be judged a ‘success’ by some standard or other.

At the moment, we do

  • A jazz festival
  • Practice based consultancy
  • Network development and events
  • We offer studios and pop up gallery space
  • And we even do the odd talk or lecture.

What we do has diversified considerably from the art in an empty shop days.

Today I want to talk about that issue of success. And more importantly failure — and how we measure those things.

There was an article in AN last year by an artist called Kevin Hunt. Kevin was writing about the success of an artist led space being judged on longevity and growth. And how he felt there was an increasing value in stopping.

His point was that it’s positive for a project to be time limited. It is healthy to stop.

It was refreshing to hear what was essentially a post-growth argument made in this context.

It chimed with our experience of Empty Shop HQ — our bar and venue. Something most people see as our biggest success — because it was popular and lasted 5 years.

We decided to close HQ because it was a drain on the company’s main resource i.e. our time. There wasn’t a way to prolong our running of that space without it inevitably becoming ‘just another bar’.

So we closed it down. For us that represented success.

It had served its purpose in galvanising a community of interesting folks from the area but through our jazz festival and relationships we were able to distribute a lot of our events to other businesses — delis, bookshops and other bars.

Spreading the love or whatever.

But for most people that closure was a failure. Some people who only ever knew that side of what we do think we no longer exist at all. The ultimate failure.

It was a decision however that came naturally to us.

It was instinctive.

We were once accused (or observed let’s say) by an arts and business consultant of ‘pathologising the emergent’.

He was a smart bloke who knew us well. The accuracy of the comment stung for a little while but we’ve internalised it enough by now to understand the good and the bad.

He was referencing something I call the emergent cycle but which is known by different names in facilitation and design theory contexts.

The Divergence of options in thinking. The emergence of themes or possible answers. And finally, Convergence around a solution, agreement or way of being.

Convergence tends to produce longevity, growth, success. It sort of makes sense. Emergence is sometimes referred to as ‘the groan zone’.

Now I’d understood the verb — patholigising — as something of a perception issue. Seeing something as abnormal to the point it becomes seen as a problem.

In this case he was using it to mean our relationship with the emergent was maybe becoming a barrier to our business planning… we were embracing the emergent to the point of it becoming abnormal — or a pathology.

It was hard for people to see our success because of our failure to converge into a shape they understood for an extended period of time.

— -

As I say, it stung.

I think now both Carlo and I would say however that our instinctive embracing of the emergent is in many ways our greatest asset.

In some conversations ‘pathologising the emergent’ is almost our badge of honour. In others it goes down as well as disclosing any other addiction…

Grim, accepting nods.

I’m exaggerating a bit, but not that much.

— -

Anyway, so this consultant, he was working with us on this R&D programme that was meant to be a bit of a step change for the organisation. I think people in the sector assumed it was the beginning of our pathway to those three sacred letters: N — P — O

We called it TESTT — The Empty Shop Think Tank. It was a wanky name for what we had assumed needed to be a wanky process. consultants, go and see’s, being mentored, hosting focus groups, exploring associate delivery models etc. We’d roped some big wigs in too, which had drawn appreciative but curious glances.

But there was thing that kept coming back. Everytime we knew something worked it felt like it could easily become a weight around our neck. The dreaded ‘proper job.’

We wrote business plans. We identified models galore. We had loads of options to take up.

But the process started to take on a familiar sort of pattern. Each time, we ripped it up and started again.

— —

Enter TESTT Space

— — -

Before this R&D phase we’d been looking for space for studios for a while. People were always asking for gallery space too so we were on the hunt.

So about halfway through this R&D process a new space we’d been trying to get for a while suddenly became available. This huge, former open plan office in the centre of Durham. We’d spent three years trying to get a lease on it and failed because it kept hitting a blockage in the council which I won’t bore you with. Then one day, due to some internal shifting about within the local authority somehow things started moving. Moving actually quite quickly.

— -

Something we’d kind of kept on the back burner in the faint hope of doing something with was suddenly in play in a very real way.

We’d chased it for so long and here it was.

Now or never.

We’d need to start generating the rent pretty quickly so we’d best get cracking.

It suddenly felt very natural to get back to thinking with our hands and heads at the same time.

— —

We started thinking about how to make it work. We’d done studios before quite successfully. We’d done about a dozen pop up galleries.

We knew what we wanted to do.

We knew how we had done these things before. But not how we’d do it this time.

Repeating ourselves doesn’t come easy to us. We tend to do something, see where it’s going and quickly move on.

Pattern recognition. Learning quickly. Adapting.

Divergence, Emergence. Convergence.

As with all spaces, it started out as a blank canvass.

A 4500 square feet canvas with three open plan levels and a dozen offices of various sizes.

You can do what you want with a space like that, more or less.

So long as you find a way to cover your overheads and generate a bit of good feeling you can basically do what you like. That’s our experience anyway…

So this was an opportunity to put some of the thinking we’d been doing into practice.

Time to bust out a model or two.

We looked at the space and assessed what could work there. And yeah, as ever we came up with interesting ways of making that space work.

We got the keys on the last day of February 2017 and had our first show in April.

Over the next six months we launched

  • Studios for a dozen artists
  • 3 distinct gallery spaces catering to artists at each stage of their career i.e. early stage, emerging and established.
  • A show a month for 14 months, including a 10 month programme of guest curated exhibitions.
  • A student art studio for Durham University students, delivered in partnership with the university’s then culture team
  • Residency space for University of the Arts London students and graduates
  • Black box space for performance, film screening and events
  • A dark room for local photographers

Each of these things worked to a greater or lesser extent.

— —

At the same time we did all this wanted to explore some of the theory see how we could integrate it.

We were thinking about Eudaimonia machines — David Dewaine’s concept of the linear space that produces the best conditions for ‘deep work’.

There was Alex Coles’s post-studio-studio — the transdiciplinary space bringing together art, design, architecture and more.

We were the subject of some research by academics from Northumbria and Durham.

But ultimately there something that didn’t work about any of these models and also the space itself.

It was — and is — a gut feeling more than anything else.

The space just cried out for more — but more what? Eventually we settled on it.

We needed more people and less visitors.

We needed deep engagement not transactional relationships.

As with HQ, our version of success wasn’t really clicking with the version of those who typically define it.

So we made changes.

We’ve ditched the galleries. We’ve ditched black box. We’ve ditched the pretensions of being part of the scene.

On the face of it, we’re doing less than ever. We’ve disappeared again, a bit like we did with HQ.

But in doing this we’ve allowed the right feeling and solutions for the space and the people to emerge.

We’ve almost doubled the number of studio holders. People who use the space and have a deep connection.

For a little while we’re now in a state of convergence.

But soon we’ll be diverging again — ditching the student studio shortly.

And in a year we’ll move out of the building all together and start from scratch somewhere else.

We’ll do something different again. We may even build a Eduaimonia machine.

The right things, will once again emerge.

So, as a business and as a space — maybe we’re not as guilty of pathologising the emergent as much as we thought.

We’ve just got good at going through the entire cycle really quickly.

We understand that for Empty Shop convergence and success don’t look like they do for others.

Which means the success and failure of what we do is actually just a bi-product of whatever we do.

Our successes emerge from each go-round of our inherently experimental cycle. So do our failures. Same difference.




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.