Words : Cara Lawson
Photography : Warren Draper
A meandering stroll around our town centre will highlight just how many unoccupied commercial spaces Doncaster has in prime locations – locations that I expect were incredibly sought after during the High Streets heyday.
If we look at the larger picture it is easy to fathom why so many of our commercial spaces are inactive. The Guardian reports that the average high street in England and Wales has lost 40 shops in the past five years. News has broken that the mighty Debenhams is set to close another 28 stores. Clintons has gone into administration. Mothercare is to close 79 UK stores. Bonmarche has collapsed. Jamie Oliver’s empire has crumbled. The Woolpack venue in our market place can be purchased for £350,000. One in every four is now an online shopper.
What can the high street do against such odds? What can we tell our grandchildren in place of the memoirs our elders shared with us of the high streets brimming with life, butchers, bakers and cabinet makers?
It is time for our town centres to find a new purpose and stop fighting their losing battle against online retail, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors writes. Kingston Upon Hull’s city planning manager told the RIC that “People no longer come to the centre just for retail, they’re looking for more of an experience.” Former Wickes and Iceland chief executive Bill Grimsey suggests that there is no point clinging to a sentimental vision of the past and that we need start planning for a bold new world. Town centres need to be repopulated as community hubs that include housing, health and leisure, entertainment, education, arts, business/office space and some shops.
The New Fringe could be christened pioneers of such a movement. The group who are a visual arts group based in Doncaster are putting to use the former Atteys Solicitors building on Cleveland Street. They are using the building as an art and exhibition space, where members can demonstrate recent works or create in an environment where support and encouragement is plentiful. Founding members Kim and Sacha said of building, which has been unoccupied since 2012, “The position of the building is fantastic. It is in the Town Centre. It is very visual to passers-by on foot. People are beginning to notice and it is starting to get attention.”
The passionate pair go on to explain that the New Fringe has become a community for artists and creatives to have a place where they feel comfortable, can express themselves, get together, socialise and improve. The group encourages artists to come out of that shed or spare room.
The new space is quickly becoming a hub for this talented huddle. Sacha and Kim who are third year fine art and craft degree students, said: “This is the perfect solution to how empty spaces should be used in Doncaster. We are showing that there is a demand for spaces for creatives of Doncaster. We are showing that with passion and drive we can help each other and continue to develop arts and culture in Doncaster, and re-purpose a building.
In addition to providing a hub for our home grown artists the venue provides a fresh and invigorating pass time for the public, that is a far more composed way to spend a Saturday eve than hitting the credit card down the local. The New Fringe wants to engage with the public as much as possible through workshops and exhibitions. The public can attend the groups’ events and exhibitions with no administration fee to pay. On my visit I enjoyed deciphering through the dark and deep works of John Ledger. Through a dozen or so carefully selected works produced over the last ten years he allowed myself, the civic mayor who was in attendance and other bystanders the opportunity to reflect on the decade we have just passed. His large scale drawings through the merging of ecological, social and personal distress shout out for an exit. An exit from the times that have passed, and at the emergence of a new decade a meditation on how we should move forward.
Sadly at the time of going to press and a couple of days after John Ledgers exhibition The New Fringe receive notice that they need to vacate the former Attey’s building. Although The New Fringe now need to move on and have some challenges ahead, their story is by no means even halted. Whilst the dedicated team search for a new venue, they encourage artists to join the cause. Artists interested I a membership can contact Sacha or Kim via firstname.lastname@example.org, the rate is just £10 a year. I am eager to see what the next decade brings for the New Fringe and its members