An art shop became a welcoming social hub

27 Aug 2018

Looking back on it, Jo Bambrough is not sure she would still be in Morecambe if people hadn’t leapt on the art exchange she started with two friends in the town in 2015.

“If people hadn’t bought into it once we started it, I probably wouldn’t be here,” she says from the shop floor of the Exchange. The gallery and cafe sits in Morecambe’s West End, part of the seaside town in Lancashire that has fallen into disrepair since its Victorian heyday.

It was a problem she never faced. The Exchange started in a tiny red terraced house on West Road, tucked in from the promenade where the elements have turned some of the more spectacular Victorian buildings a mossy shade of green.

On a wet day, the building gives off a welcoming glow. A bell greets each visitor as they come through the door and duck beneath a blanket pinned to a doorway, into the self-service cafe.

Bambrough, who hails from nearby Lancaster, and partners Beki Melrose and Melody Treasure wanted to create a place with an open door: somewhere for people to gather. They had planned to open studio space, but local artists said they would prefer a place to display and sell their work.

Soon people were gathering at the Exchange anyway. “People started coming in and not going home,” Bambrough says. “It became a bit of a social hub.”

So they partnered with the Writing Room, a workshop for writers in a neighbouring terrace, to acquire some more houses on the row. A small grant from Big Local, a lottery-funded partnership set up to encourage grass-roots activity, provided the means to knock through two of the terraces to create the adjoining cafe and shop. Bambrough received funding from a foundation for social entrepreneurs, to support her in the work.

Visitors often come to sit in the cafe. Some avail themselves of art materials and draw in pencil. Others work quietly on laptops, stopping to have a cup of tea. In the corner, prototyping workshops are organised.

Many others stay all day. So many, in fact, that the Exchange has quickly outgrown the row of terraces and has for the last year been negotiating for ownership of a church opposite – a great empty red-brick that has suffered two fires and has a crack running down one steeple.

That project – called “Steeple for the People” involves not only securing the space and getting rid of the damp, but conceiving a renovation plan for studios and arts spaces that will cost several million.

Steeple for the People is just one of the Exchange’s many ambitious projects – another involves taking over an empty department store a couple of streets away to create business units.

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