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Cultivating the High Street: Artists and Town Centres

From Andrew Gordon

High streets across Britain are fundamentally changing, and Dumfries is no exception. The combined impact of the economic downturn, out of town complexes and online shopping is leading to more and more town centre closures. The effect on Dumfries is unmistakable, from the closure of national chains stores, to long established family-owned businesses, each leaving behind empty husks in what once were regarded prime locations. With their empty displays these unwanted buildings contribute to a worrying sense that the town is in perpetual decline.


However there have also been signs of different life; the Electric Theatre Workshop has turned a disused shop into a space for practicing and performing theatre, as well as the central hub for winter festival, Big Burns Supper. Although shops have struggled, cafes and restaurants are continuing to generate business, prompting a number of new openings and refurbishments. These changes remind us that high streets have historically been places to “debate and meet”, as retail-consultant Mary Portas stated in her 2011 report for the UK Government. It is her opinion that high streets must return to this role as “multifunctional, social spaces” if they are to serve any purpose in the future, commerce forming just a part of their civic service rather than dictating it.


The Stove Network shares this vision – it aims to demonstrate that rethinking the way we use the vacant buildings on the high street can have a profound and beneficial impact on the local community. By opening it’s new accessible public arts space at 100 High Street, it will be placing creativity and risk taking right at the centre of local efforts to re-imagine Dumfries as a contemporary regional capital.


The retail chains that previously occupied these spaces were concerned with telling us what we want. The Stove will instead respond to what we need, a collaborative effort between artists and others in the town to cultivate a place that will serve us as citizens rather than consumers. This means including the public in the operation of the Stove itself and the Tuesday Drop-In sessions are one example. These weekly meetings will invite one and all to discuss the Stove’s operation, and to voice their own ideas about what it should be doing more of to contribute towards the regeneration of Dumfries town centre. The Charter14 event held during last year’s Guid Nychburris festival, asked Doonhamers to put forward their own ambitions for the town’s future as part of a new “People’s Charter”, and is another example of The Stove Network’s approach.


By offering ready access to art and the tools of its creation in the very centre of the town, the Stove stands to thoroughly involve the people of Dumfries in bringing about constructive change to the place we call hame, turning an otherwise forlorn relic of times gone by into a symbol for a new future for Dumfries – one conducted on our own terms. “High streets will thrive if we re-imagine them”, Mary Portas suggests, and what better way could there be to inspire new ways of thinking about the high street than through art?

All images are of Charter14, Guid Nychburris Day Festival June 2014. All images: Colin Tennant

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