Can art save our high streets? In Yorkshire, it’s already happening

Stilt walkers stalk the pavement and a flashmob suddenly appears from behind a row of neon mannequin legs within a former department store: the high street in Keighley, West Yorkshire, may have lost some major retail players in recent years, but it’s anything but dead. 

Visitors to Keighley were told to “expect the unexpected” via a series of free events as they browsed businesses and explored an arts trail during the ‘K-Town’ weekend at the end of March. 

It was the latest project by Keighley Creative, a volunteer-led arts organisation, which is based in the former Sunwin House department store in the town. 

“A lot has been said recently about how art has the potential to save our high streets, so we feel immensely proud to be one of the first to be actually doing that,” says Emma Rochford from the project. “And not in a city, but in a northern town with real community values.” 

After taking on the former shop as a meanwhile space in 2017, the team has already opened up a gallery, a project and education space, and several artist studios, as well as running the Keighley Arts and Film Festival. 

Following the success of the K-Town weekend, the team wants to develop their plans and has received funding (through the government’s Towns Fund) for a permanent home. On the wishlist is an exhibition space, a cafe, up to 50 studios, a mini-cinema and a “cluster of boutique retail and food spaces”. 

As Keighley Creative’s manager and creative producer Gemma Hobbs puts it: “Creativity, community, collaboration. Together these can help save our high streets.”

This article is the latest in our ‘reinventing the high street’ series. Over the coming weeks Positive News will be shining a light on the people, places and projects that are breathing new life into the UK’s town and city centres as many retail giants abandon them.

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