How to set up a venue

How to set up a venue

By Stevie Martin 06/08/13

Setting up an arts venue can be a minefield when you don’t know what you’re doing. Thankfully, Stevie Martin spoke to two experts who’ve done all the hard work so you don’t have to... 

Find out who owns the space

Roland Smith, Artistic Director and co-founder of Theatre Delicatessen - about to move into their fourth pop-up venue - is a pro at picking unusual spaces for immersive experiences. “Our ideal situation is to find a building, bought for redevelopment, that’s lying empty. You could also cold call companies to see whether they’ve got anything in their portfolio.”

Sometimes, however, you can just stumble onto gold. David Lockwood, co-founder of The Bike Shed Theatre in Exeter found an abandoned Chinese restaurant owned by the shop above it. “Once you know who owns a building, you can find out how it’s licensed and whether they’re happy to rent it to you.”


Save money on the rates by becoming a charity

All companies pay business rates on the buildings they own, even if it’s lying empty. “You pay per square metre of the building you're using but, as a charity, we’re able to apply to the local council to get a business rate relief,” says Roland. That relief covers up to 80% of the rate, so it’s a lot more cost effective. It also works out as cheaper for the company who own the building, so it’s in their interest to help you out.

When you register your theatre company at Companies House, become a not-for-profit to get these benefits. It’s especially useful for pop-ups, but permanent arts venues can benefit as well.  


Check the license carefully, and maybe start with a temporary one

“Get in touch with the local council for this,” says David. “The websites are often confusing, but there’s a Licensing, Planning and Building Control section. Chat to them.”


Know your building regulations 

Contact the local fire brigade and the council to make sure everything is okay with the space. It’s also worth investing in a book called Technical Standards for Places of Entertainment

“It’s about £50 on Amazon but totally worth it,” says Roland. “It’s the guide that will tell you how wide the fire doors need to be, how many audience members you can fit in a space etc.”

David found it useful to register as, predominantly, a bar that hosts theatre events as opposed to the other way around: “It means you don’t get pulled apart by the council as much as if you were registering as a theatre first and foremost.”


Sort out the electrics 

“The place was already wired up when we moved in, thankfully, but when we went permanent it turned out it wasn’t done properly,” David says. “If I could go back, I’d have sorted it out right at the start!” 


You don’t need a stage

“It’s best not to have one at all,” advises David. “Especially if you're making a new arts venue; it’s a great way of keeping your options open in terms of the sort of work you can put on.”


Get someone else to deal with box office

David also uses Spectrix - they essentially set up everything for you in return for 5.4% of the profits or a set monthly fee.



“Target those who love the arts, and provide a menu - for this amount of money, you can get a young theatre company into this space and they’ll be doing x, y and z,” says David.


Have a bar 

Never underestimate the importance of a bar: “We’re surrounded by pubs that close at 11pm, so we stay open until 2am on Friday and Saturday.” 

Roland advises buying through Bookers Wholesale: “Even if you’re just selling bottles of Peroni from a secondhand fridge, it’ll make you money.” The person running the bar will need a personal license - it involves a day or so’s worth of training, but you can’t sell drinks without it. 


Build word of mouth

Having associate artists really helps with this - an audience will come from the people you let in the door.

Roland tries to get as many different artists as possible using the space (from filming to rehearsals to productions), so as to create a “trickle-down” effect: “We have many associate artists who use the spaces and tell their friends,” says Roland. “The audiences they attract will have their own projects, so they see the space in action and come to us afterwards.”

Bike Shed however, have a strong mailing list and a knack for “hammering” social media. He also advises to cover the basics and make sure you’re in every listings publication imaginable. 


Put on good stuff

Both agree that, ultimately, the quality of the art comes first. That’s what’ll get you noticed.



More from IdeasMag...

... How to run an artist-led space

... Setting up a company: The lowdown


image by mallix via Flickr under a creative commons license.

Closing Update

17395 Page views

Most popular
Our past collaborators