Goodbye HQ?

The Comfort of the Known vs The Shock of the New

Change is tough. It’s a complex balancing act — common sense, emotional investment, expectation, advice, dependency, desire. The comfort of the known vs the shock the new.

So how are you meant to know when it’s time to move on?

As an organisation we have always trusted our gut. Change has always been a source of excitement rather than anxiety. Our instincts — supplemented by conversations with trusted friends and colleagues — guide us into taking risks (or not). The vast majority of the time we welcome the challenge head on.

Now, some way into our 8th year at Empty Shop HQ, we’re trusting our gut once again.

We’re not going anywhere but we have decided to take a break and re-evaluate a bit.

As a building HQ has always responded to the community and city. At the same time it’s also evolved with the organisation.

HQ originally emerged from a need for continuity in between empty shops “popping up” in town. Back then we were exclusively a contemporary art organisation. We’d done 2 spaces, 13 shows and worked with dozens of artists. It made sense to set something up with more of a fixed offer. So Empty Shop HQ version 1 was an visual arts hub with gallery and studio space. It ran like this for 3 years between 2010 and 2013 and was our first vision for an inclusive space in Durham City centre with that consistent offer.

Empty Shop HQ illustration by Matt O’Brien

It was a fascinating process. Staying still for a while made us much more visible. More and more people looked us — and HQ — out in search of something. They weren’t just artists and photographers but musicians, theatre-makers and poets.

With all of these groups increasingly knocking on our door desperate for space we decided to take a risk and made the call to stay put for a few more years but change things up.

HQ Version 2 was an extension of this, a broader cultural venue that allowed to us to extend our vision and methodology to create a wider platform. We got a license and started hosting gigs, plays, film nights and more. That was five and a half years ago and it’s grown year on year In 2017 we hosted 182 events — that’s an average of 3.5 events a week or one every other day.

That’s amazing but it’s also pretty intense. Exhausting at times, in fact.

On the face of it HQ is thriving — the demand has never been greater. The reality however is that whenever something looks from the outside to be at its peak, it’s actually beginning to stagnate.

As you’d imagine delivering a space and programme like this long term requires a lot of organisational capacity. We’ve had a good run at HQ throughout V.2 and we’ve put a lot of elbow grease into delivering a vision of a safe, inclusive environment where culture can flourish. We also genuinely care about the things that happen at HQ which means never letting an event fail and huge amounts of emotional labour.

Don’t get us wrong, we wanted this and we have loved every second, it’s a huge privilege to be involved in this but we are well aware that going at this pace isn’t sustainable. Knowing when to stop is tricky but really important to get right.

Honestly, it’s time for a break and maybe even a change. We genuinely don’t know yet what that means other than scheduling in some time to do other things. Including having a serious think about what’s next for HQ and crucially, avoiding burn out.

So, things change. And right now we simply don’t have the capacity to put the time and energy into HQ. A lot of our resources are needed elsewhere in order for Empty Shop to continue to evolve and respond to new challenges.

In the short term, HQ will drop down to a skeleton framework of events. Only those which have been pre booked will be honored, we will not be taking any more. In real terms this means a small handful of events that will take us as far as June when we deliver DJAZZ: The Durham City Jazz Festival. That will in all probability be the last hurrah for HQ V.2.

We’re not going anywhere and will continue to occupy the building but we will go quiet while we carefully decide what HQ V.3 looks like.

As ever we’ll keep talking to you and consulting with our community and user groups. We’re open to ideas — so if you would like to pitch us one feel free! — but for now you have a handful of opportunities to attend HQ in its current guise. We hope to see you there over the coming months.

In the meantime we’ll continue to do

  • TESTT Space — Studios & exhibitions
  • The Redhills Appeal— Supporting Durham Miners Association to save and restore the Miners Hall
  • DJAZZ:The Durham City Jazz Festival — coming soon!
  • Loads of other stuff, obviously

So, yes change can be tough, but it can also be invigorating.

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