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Relearning Place: REpurpose Think Piece by Nick Malyan.

Posted on 20 March 2023

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Relearning Place: Think Pieces are a series of online blogs which will take one of our event series themes from this year’s WEdesign series, Relearning Place, as a starting point and offers an external voice and provocation on this theme. In our final edition of Relearning Place: Think Pieces, Nick Malyan offers his personal journey of repurposing spaces and places for arts and culture in County Durham. Nick’s Think Piece also focuses on Redhills, which is about to undergo a major renewal and will be repurposed as a centre for heritage, culture and education.

Repurposing Redhills: Cultural organising as place-based practice

As a 14-year-old aspiring musician, I wouldn’t have had a clue what the term ‘adaptive reuse’ might possibly mean. What I did know, however, was that there wasn’t a single music venue in my small hometown where bands under the age of 18 could perform. If you wanted to do something creative, you had to, well, get creative – but just as importantly, you had to get organised. 

Most of the formative cultural experiences of my youth, therefore, took place in methodist churches, leisure centres and cricket clubs. Small grants from local councillors and support from very patient adults enabled us to transform echoey, faded halls into loud, sweaty gig venues. Then as now, in small towns across the UK, if you want something to exist, you have to create it out of the materials available to you. 

Empty Shop CIC

I took this lesson to heart. I fell into a career in the arts, programming events into a laundry list of unusual and quirky spaces (including both a laundry and launderette) and in 2008 co-founded Empty Shop CIC – a grassroots arts organisation that started out doing pop-ups but now does collaborative placemaking. 

The central premise of everything I did then remains the case now – it is people who bring purpose to the place.  

25 years after organising my first gigs, I now find myself the steward of a Grade II listed miners’ hall described by Historic England as one of the nations’ 100 “Irreplaceable Places”. 

Redhills – Durham Miners’ Hall

Redhills is the stunning historic home of the Durham Miners’ Association – a trade union that once represented what was among the best-paid, most powerful working-class people on the planet. As a demonstration of this power, they built their own ‘Pitman’s Parliament’. A democratic hub with a seat for each coalfield community opened in 1915, four years before many miners were given the vote. 

Redhills was where industry matters were debated and decided upon by those directly affected and where well-being above ground was considered almost as important as safety below ground. It was a place where workers came together to organise and create things that wouldn’t otherwise be available to their communities – healthcare, housing, reading rooms, sports grounds and welfare halls with stages for performance in each one.

The Pitman’s Parliament

Now, a generation after the last pits have closed, Redhills is about to undergo a major renewal. Instead of being a trade union headquarters, it will be repurposed as a centre for heritage, culture and education. The plans for the building result from extensive, years-long consultation processes that have helped us understand something vital; Whatever the new function of the building, something of the original purpose must remain at its heart.

Redhills will continue to be a centre for organising. The Pitman’s Parliament will come to life with the sounds of debate once again, hosting conferences, talks and lectures. Our cultural programme will be co-produced in partnership with the communities whose forebears paid for it to be built. 

Most poignantly, we’ll also be establishing our own youth programmes – setting up our own youth music projects yes, but also creating our own youth parliament. Redhills will provide the training and opportunities that ensure future generations of young people in County Durham learn to organise creatively for themselves.

Explore more about Redhills via the website here.

About the Author

Nick Malyan is the CEO of Redhills: Durham Miners Hall. The Grade II Listed ‘Pitman’s Parliament’ was the democratic heart of the former Durham coalfield and is being transformed as a centre for cultural democracy and community organising. Nick was appointed as CEO of the Redhills charity in 2022 having developed the multi-million pound, lottery funded scheme for the renewal and revitalisation of the hall. 

Born and raised in a working-class Durham community, Nick’s track record as an arts leader is rooted in grassroots cultural development and programmes which transform people’s access to culture. Prior to becoming CEO Nick was co-founder of Empty Shop CIC, a DIY placemaking organisation that featured as a case study in Culture on our High Streets, Arts & Place Shaping Evidence Review published by the Arts Council of England in 2020. 

Nick has also worked in project management and consultancy roles with leading regional arts organisations. Connect with Nick via his Instagram, Twitter or through LinkedIn.

About the WEdesign 2022/23 Series: Relearning Place

Relearning Place is The Glass-House 2022/23 WEdesign series which combines free, interactive events and co-design activities taking place in person in Glasgow, Sheffield, London and Newcastle, with a range of online events and think pieces. 

WEdesign is kindly supported by the Ove Arup Foundation.

More information about our upcoming events and details about how you can book can be found here.