Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Opportunity knocks

No one in their right mind would suggest that an economic collapse was just what we needed, but sometimes, tough times do throw up opportunities we don’t hear when the bulls are roaring. I remember back in the 1970s, New York was a very different city to the one we know now. It had a gritty edge and the sense that anything could happen if you stepped beyond the lights. As the economy of the city collapsed and bankruptcy loomed, businesses folded or moved on to more congenial locations, leaving behind vast tracts of abandoned buildings and empty store fronts. One by one they were reoccupied, and very often by artists.

Downtown, the Bowery and SoHo exploded in a buzz of creativity. The subway, if you had the nerve to go down there, was a living gallery of graffiti art featuring the poignantly funny chalk drawings of Keith Haring on blacked out notice boards. As each train roared into the station, it was like watching a rainbow rocket past. Above ground, artists like Haring took advantage of empty stores and cheap rents to start their own enterprises. Haring called his the Pop Shop and it gave me the same charge of energy and enthusiasm I had seen and lived with in 1960s London.

I am certain we will see this same spirit blossom in the present crisis. One person’s empty space is someone else’s chance of a lifetime. This is certainly happening in London, a city that has been savagely hit by the current downturn. A number of artists have grabbed at empty shop fronts to create temporary exhibitions. It’s the pop-up store concept in a different guise – opinionated, focused, passionate, committed. It’s also an opportunity for local Councils to return some space to creative people to use as studios, sound recording suites, and practice rooms. Good times have the unfortunate effect of squeezing these essential creative resources out of the centre of cities. Let’s welcome them back. Our ability to see opportunity rather than threat, and work to our strengths rather than succumb to our weaknesses is the way to get through these tough times. Best of all, it will inspire into the optimism we need to sustain us on the other side that we call the future.

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