THE town centre's former Marks and Spencer unit has been transformed into a temporary gallery and studio space.

People walking past the building's window in Sankey Street might have seen artwork on display recently.

It is all part of a project by Manchester's Castlefield Gallery to breathe new life into commercial properties that are hard-to-let and have been vacant for a long time.

The former Warrington M&S has become Castlefield Gallery's third 'New Art Space' after similar pop-up schemes in Bolton and Wigan.

The space will be used as a testing ground for experimental and large-scale art and is currently home to 'School of the Damned' – a collective with members spread across Europe that meet in different cities each month.

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School of the Damned's exhibition called 'Coming Soon' features 14 works by 14 artists and will be in the window space in Sankey Street until December 13.

The exhibition is based on what visitors remember about the building from its M&S days.

Nicholas James, New Art Spaces coordinator, said: "Through New Art Spaces, Castlefield Gallery provides work and exhibition spaces at no or low cost in order to make them accessible to artists, supporting career and practice development and giving local, regional, national and international audiences an opportunity to engage with new artwork.

"As a small charity, Castlefield Gallery works with landlords to take on long-term vacant or hard-to-let properties in order to provide work and exhibition space for artists to develop and test out new artwork.

"As with all of our New Art Spaces properties, if the landlord secures a commercial tenant, we are given 30 days to vacate and return the property in the same condition we took it on.

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"Although it will invariably be in a much better condition – a benefit of our occupying a property means that it addresses any building dilapidation caused through it sitting empty.

Grace Collins is a member of School of the Damned who uses the space alongside Warrington artists, including former Contemporary Arts Festival winner Marie Jones.

They said: "It's brilliant, I've not been able to justify the expense of having a studio since graduating but the low cost of New Art Spaces means that artists have space to experiment, which is really important for creating new work.

"At the same time, it isn't lost on us that we have access to this amazing space to make art while affordable housing is inaccessible to most people and small businesses are going bust, so I hope the New Art Spaces model can inspire artists – and others – to re-imagine the ways that private spaces are used."

Another School of the Damned member Kitty McKay added: "I kept thinking about how full this space must’ve been on a busy Saturday afternoon – Warrington families buying Percy Pigs or new clothes or having lunch in the M&S cafe.

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"I was excited by the possibilities for using the building but, generally, I felt quite scared by the prospect of us ever being able to fill this space and do it proper justice, especially as it was such an important part of Warrington’s town centre for years."

Kitty also hopes the art simply cheers passers-by up after a year with its fair share of challenges and worries.

She said: "It’s so warming to think we can bring some cheer and creativity to Warrington and other towns feeling the hit from reduced funding and a lack of representation in terms of art and culture.

"We definitely wouldn’t have been able to do it without those who’ve offered up their communities to us."

Among the New Arts Spaces supporters is Culture Warrington, the charity behind Warrington Museum and Art Gallery, Parr Hall and Pyramid.

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Leah Biddle, cultural manager for Culture Warrington, is delighted to see the space finally open in the town centre after some delays caused by the coronavirus crisis.

She is now keen to explore opportunities to work with the group in the future.

Leah said: "Developing accessible arts and cultural opportunities in Warrington town centre is a key part of what we do at Culture Warrington, so to see this exciting new project come into fruition is fantastic news.

"We look forward to getting to know the team at School of the Damned a little better and hopefully working with them to deliver exciting new opportunities in the future while also presenting our own programmes within the New Arts Space."

Chapelford artist Marie Jones, a former winner of Warrington Contemporary Arts Festival open exhibition, is currently sharing the space with School of the Damned.

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She said: "I’ve been a massive fan of Castlefield Gallery New Art Spaces since first sharing a one with artist Sam Meech in Manchester’s Federation House back in about 2014.

"If I didn’t have access to space like this I probably wouldn’t work in the large scale that I do or it would take a lot longer.

"Having one in Warrington is very exciting. It brings a new community of artists together who would not otherwise likely work in the same space and opens up new ways of working in the town centre with access to large spaces that are usually hard to come by for artists.

"For the Warrington community, when the space is opened up to the public, they attract people who used to work in them or frequent them and this opens up new conversations between the public and the artists."

When School of the Damned wrap up their exhibition on December 13, next up for a window exhibition will be artist Sam Pearson.

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A Warrington Borough Council spokesman added: “We have an agreement in place with Manchester’s Castlefield Gallery to make use of the space while it is not being used for retail purposes. The gallery runs a programme called ‘New Art Spaces’ where they take over vacant retail or office units on a temporary basis, for as long as the space is empty, to create pop-up projects and galleries for artists.

“There are currently nine artists signed up to use the building, supported by the Castlefield Gallery and Culture Warrington, with the space providing a unique testing ground for experimental and large-scale creative projects.

“The artists can use the space at a low cost to create and display their work to the public. An exhibition by School of the Damned is currently on display, viewable from the window on Sankey Street, as public exhibitions are not possible at this time under the current coronavirus restrictions.

"Discussions are ongoing with M&S and Golden Square to bring the retail space back into use.”