Stephanie Lee and Ellen Shakespear met on a bus. At the time, both were graduate students at MIT; Lee was studying architecture and Shakespear was studying urban planning. Both were excited to be a part of their respective programs. But they were both frustrated by a campus culture they felt was “incredibly insular.”
The chance meeting led to an ongoing rapport, and a similar realized frustration about the evolution of urban space in and around Cambridge, Massachusetts, where MIT is based. For its part, the city of Cambridge has launched a “Vacant Storefront Initiative,” and an associated database and interactive map that catalogues empty storefronts in the municipality; the database currently lists 72 addresses of varying lease status. Cambridge isn’t alone; cities across the country have experienced increased vacancies in brick-and-mortar stores over the years. (In 2018, The Atlantic called the empty storefronts in New York “a dark omen for the future of cities,” citing rent hikes disproportionate to the growth of retail sales, the proliferation of online shopping, and the migration of businesses selling durable, nonperishable goods to the online sector.) “It was frustrating to see the city become muted,” says Lee. “We started to dream about what could be in an empty storefront.”
The duo workshopped solutions in class, and in its first iteration, developed a concept that would transform empty urban spaces (including and beyond storefronts) into places for creatives to meet up and share what they’re working on. Their professor encouraged them to stop thinking in hypotheticals. In 2018, Lee and Shakespear launched SpaceUs, a company that liaises with city officials, landlords, and prospective artists to broker the use of empty spaces for creative and community good, and host artist pop-ups, exhibitions, “cultural activations,” and more.
The company is now launching an online platform, designed by Brooklyn-based design agency School, to support their mission to “make spaces feel more specific and authentic, and make vacant spaces a destination.” In practical terms, the platform is designed to ease the artist barrier to finding space: Artists submit proposals online for free, then the SpaceUs team finds a space for approved concepts and helps oversee the project coming to life. Before the platform, the team accepted pitches in a variety of ways: through email, direct messages, an online form, and even verbally.
“We were excited to engage with people outside of our context and to see something more authentic to the community. Part of the platform is that we have a constantly open proposal—[artists can submit] any sort of project that they wanted to bring to life. People are constantly dreaming up ideas to bring to the public space,” says Lee. By taking advantage of previously underutilized or empty spaces, SpaceUs helps artists find a place to show their work. The landlord gets to activate an empty space, and the artist gets to show their work, no gallery required.
They’re not the only ones to solve for the urban planning problem of vacant storefronts. The state of Massachusetts has launched the Massachusetts Vacant Storefronts Program (MVSP), which allows municipalities to apply to designate a particular area as a “Certified Vacant Storefront District.” Prospective landlords can then apply for a tax credit if they occupy a space within that designated area. Another Boston nonprofit, CultureHouse, is similarly reutilizing vacant storefronts as social public spaces. Other cities have adopted similar initiatives.
SpaceUs has had seven activations to date, from a giant inflated beehive by artist Maria Molteni, inside a former substation, to a black feminist study hall in downtown Boston. (Their most recent activation, a hybrid shop and exhibition, at 467 Washington Street in downtown Boston, has been extended through mid-January.) SpaceUs is looking to expand to communities beyond the Boston area, and the team sees the online platform, which is open to anyone, as their “first direct effort” to do so.
For its part, SpaceUs keeps its doors open through a revenue share. When hired to host an activation, SpaceUs takes a commission or percentage of the budget for production costs. In a revenue-generating pop-up space, the revenue is split, with 80% of sales going to the artist, according to Lee. But the main objective of SpaceUs seems to be opening doors for others: The founders want to bridge “the gap that people feel when engaging with art that can manifest through stairs, or a train ride, or admissions fees,” says Shakespear; and wanted use of vacant spaces to “feel like patronage.”
In a uniquely 21st century analogy, Shakespear says they wanted “a way to connect in real life like you would in social media” and to create opportunities for local community engagement “in a way that’s more human.” The internet, and social media platforms like Instagram, have made it easy to find established artists. But they may not be based in your immediate area, and it doesn’t necessarily afford less-established artists a space to connect with their communities in person. With SpaceUs, artists and art appreciators can do just that. Because as it turns out, art has a way of turning up in unexpected places—like down the street, or maybe right outside your door.