With 40 locations across the country offering free space to local creatives, Hypha Studios is on a mission to regenerate high streets through art and culture-themed community events. In addition to supporting artists, Hypha’s model has proven popular with commercial property owners looking for ways to keep their assets in use, attract footfall, and connect with communities.
On April 24th, 2023, we brought together the founder of Hypha Studios, Camilla Cole, with artist Anna Fearon, landowner Nicola Blake, and art curator Eliza Bonham Carter to discuss the opportunities and challenges of transforming vacant high street units into temporary studios for the capital’s space-poor artistic community.
Hypha Studios emerged as an idea during the pandemic, prompted by the dual problem of increasing high street vacancies and deteriorating conditions for artists and creatives.
Founded by Camilla Cole, herself an experienced contemporary art curator, the non-profit organisation was set up with two core objectives: one, to help landowners keep their assets alive through an injection of local creativity; and two, to help artists unlock new bounds of creativity by unlocking vacant units, free of charge.
This mission resonated with Nicola Blake, owner of several commercial units across the country. By offering Hypha one of its first spaces, the model soon proved its worth.
“It was harder, to begin with, but then when I got a case study under my belt, more and more people took a chance. (…) As a result of having one case study, more people said, this is a great idea. It’s a win-win-win. And it sort of caught fire, as it were.”
Camilla Cole, Hypha Studios
Acting as a mediator (or, as Camilla put it, ‘peaceful diplomat’) between landowners and artists, Hypha Studios has set up a model that breaks down traditional barriers standing in the way of collaboration. By providing a standard approach and quality guarantee, they have made the idea of short-term lets tenable to landlords and the application process accessible to artists.
The process looks something like this:
- Landlords confirm when and where they have an empty unit and negotiate the overall lease terms with Hypha.
- Hypha sends out an open call for local artists, be they visual artists, curators, musicians, actors, dancers, or choreographers.
- A local cultural partner is usually enlisted to advise on the selection of artists. Candidates that have a strong connection to the site and may face significant disadvantages to accessing space in any other way are generally prioritised. Candidates are also required to outline how they will give back to the local community, for example through the hosting of a workshop.
- Successful candidates are invited to sign a lease agreement for a rent-free space under the agreed terms and conditions.
- By providing social media support and networking opportunities, Hypha is also invested in making each tenancy count.
Anna Fearon is an example of an artist who caught sight of Hypha’s open call and made a successful application. In 2022, she took up residency on the high street in Catford, Lewisham, a 10-minute walk from home.
“As an artist or creative, you are constantly looking for different opportunities, whether it be funding, resources, or spaces (…) What was good [about Hypha] is that the application is quite simple. (…) It’s easy and didn’t feel like too much of a chore.”
Anna Fearon, Artist
Anna Fearon and Eliza Bonham Carter both spoke about the many ways that Hypha Studios can benefit creative communities.
For Anna, the residency was an opportunity to explore a new creative medium (photography), making use of the unit’s darkroom, and a great way to build a local network. Throughout the lease, she shared the space with two other tenants, while the next-door unit was used as an exhibition space for a rotation of artists. In her own words, this concentration of people formed a ‘really nice symbiosis’ that naturally spilled into the high street and coloured the surrounding community.
As Hypha’s cultural partner in Mayfair and a curator at the Royal Academy Schools, Eliza is well aware of the financial obstacles that can stifle emerging artists. For her, both the free space, colocation effects, and community angle are key components of Hypha’s offer.
“… to bring artists into the high street opens up the opportunity for the public to engage and become curious about art (…) For lots of creative young children who aren’t particularly well served by the education system at the moment, these experiences can be really transformative.”
Eliza Bonham Carter, RA Schools
As a landlord, Nicola Blake may be somewhat unique. It is, after all, not many property owners who would jump at the opportunity to lease their space for free. And yet, according to Nicola, the partnership with Hypha was a bit of a ‘no-brainer’. Put simply, ‘if you have an empty shop unit, either it sits there dark, or you can animate it.’ And often the cost of vacancy will far outweigh the cost of, say, inviting artists to use the space free of charge.
“Having somebody in the space means that there are fewer insurance problems and a lower risk of break-ins. (…) [Furthermore], about 90% of properties get paying tenants in after [a Hypha Studio tenancy], so it’s a good way to catalyse energy in a certain location.”
Camilla Cole, Hypha Studios
Animation, such as workshops and exhibitions, comes with increased footfall, dwell times, and audience diversity. These effects may benefit surrounding tenants by increasing their customer base and improving the broader range of experiences in the town centre. Overall, not a bad trade-off.
Hypha Studios have shown that it’s not always the numbers that matter, but the wider impact being made; social capital can be an incredibly effective tool for driving regeneration. If you consider all the career opportunities created, money saved, communities established, or even changing perceptions of art, Hypha Studios has had a marked effect that may be just as important as the 1.5 million pounds quantifying the space they’ve given away. As Camilla said, “There are lots of different value adds we can bring in exchange for free space.”
Ingredients for success
- The project was launched off the back of Camilla’s hard work and a bit of risk-taking on the part of the first property partners.
- The accessibility of the set-up saves effort and time for both landlords and creatives.
- Hypha Studios is unique in its curatorial approach, focusing on context and social impact.
- Landlords come forward to collaborate with an understanding of the management benefits and added value that Hypha might bring.
If you are a landlord with a space or an artist in need of space, you can find out more about how to partner with Hypha Studio on www.hyphastudios.com.
About the contributors
Amanprit Arnold, GLA: Amanprit is an experienced international Urban Strategist and Real Estate Insight/Research professional. She has delivered urban advisory services and participated in city-building practices in both the non-profit and public sectors, where she has worked on realising a wide range of projects and scales, from city-wide research projects to energy infrastructure planning and delivery policy innovation.
Camilla Cole, Founder: Camilla is an experienced contemporary art curator dedicated to championing leading emerging artistic talent in the UK and internationally. Hypha Studios was born through Camilla’s awareness of the large amount of interesting yet vacant spaces which are available, with the potential to curate exhibitions in non-gallery contexts. As a sole practitioner, she found it hard to engage landlords, but by setting up a charity that offers “quality control” of both the art and use of the space, she was able to bring together emerging artists, councils, property owners and cultural institutions in mutually beneficial collaborations.
Anna Fearon, Artist: Anna Fearon is a Photographer, Director & Writer living in South London. Her work centres on exploring identity, telling nuanced stories exploring Black and queer identity. Starting out as a photographer, her practice has broadened into film, working on short films and music videos. She is a previous artist in residence with Hypha Studios, supported by Arts Council England, during which she presented her solo exhibition Colour + Movement. She also facilitates film workshops for young people and community-focused projects. She is currently in the early stage of development for her first feature film.
Eliza Bonham Carter, Cultural Partner: For over twenty years, Eliza Bonham Carter has been a noteworthy contributor to arts education; from her early days as a Senior Lecturer in Fine Art at De Montfort University in 1993 and Head of Fine Art at the University of Reading in 2003, to her current position as Curator & Director of the Royal Academy Schools, since 2006. After graduating in Fine Art from the Royal College of Art, Eliza exhibited widely and has work showcased in both private and public collections. Eliza is Vice Chair of Camden Art Centre and recently stepped down from the Council of the British School at Rome where she was also previously a member of the Faculty of Fine Art.
Nicola Blake, Landlord: Nicola Blake has a wide-ranging arts background, with a BA in History of Art from the University of Sussex and an MA in Contemporary Art from Sotheby’s Institute of Art. In her professional life, Nicola works with London and Associated Properties PLC, and as a Company Director of several private property companies, using innovative arts-based projects to stimulate shopping centres, arcades, and public spaces. Outside of work, Nicola is a Trustee of the Contemporary Art Society and patron of several arts charities including Camden Art Centre, Art Angel and the Royal Academy.