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Supporting local through art: Leith Collective

September 30, 2020

Leith’s Ocean Terminal is not your typical shopping mall. Tucked away at the northern end of Edinburgh, it’s home to more than the usual department stores, food outlets and a cinema. It also houses locally owned, independent businesses, such as Betty Bags, Bike Craft and Leith Collective. As the city eased out of lockdown, Amy spoke to Leith Collective’s owner and founder, Sara Thomson, to find out more.

The art gallery in an unlikely location 

“In the centre of town they charge artists a lot of money for exhibition space. There’s nowhere to go,” Sara explains. “So we thought, how can we develop a place where it costs makers nothing and where they can also sell their work?”

Now just along from M&S Food Hall on the first floor of Ocean Terminal, Leith Collective’s shop is run by a different artist or maker each day. The project grew arms and legs after Sara hit on an idea that was mutually beneficial to both the mall and local artists: to use un-let space to shoot photography and, later, to host exhibitions. 

Today, artists can use part of the shop as a creative space for free, so long as they also man the tills. Then when their work sells, Leith Collective takes a percentage commission. It’s calculated based on how many shifts the artist does in the shop; more shifts means a smaller commission.

For the artists, it’s worth it to have a literal shopfront. They can point social media followers to a physical exhibition space. There’s also the word of mouth that comes from Leith Collective’s position next to the entrance of the Royal Yacht Britannia, which was recently voted the UK’s best tourist attraction. Ocean Terminal’s free parking doesn’t hurt either. 

A role in the wider community

Leith Collective’s support in the local community goes beyond the artists who exhibit there. The Collective tries to hire people with mental health or other issues, to build their confidence and provide experience so that they can find long term employment. 

They also offer somewhere different to visit for anyone who may feel alone or isolated. For that reason, the gallery sees a lot of return customers. “They come to see what’s new and to have a chat. Because of the rotation of artists in store there’s always someone different to speak to,” Sara explains.

Lastly, Leith Collective also works with schools, youth, and community groups. In a normal year, they would host events, clubs and classes for all ages; from school parties who learn about re-use by creating robots out of rubbish, to more low key workshops, like crochet for older Leithers.

Making masks becomes a lifeline

Of course, this hasn’t been a normal year. A prime spot next to the Britannia isn’t worth so much if no one can visit. Furthermore, unlike many businesses during the pandemic, Leith Collective was unable to set up a web shop. Their inventory is too varied and changes too often. Then many of the makers found their ‘business’ was ineligible for government grants. 

Fortunately, Sara and her team had an idea. “We started making masks in March, before everyone was doing it. We delivered them all over Edinburgh, even outside the city and then across Europe.”

Since March, producing thousands of masks has kept 10 of Leith Collective’s makers’ small businesses going. It’s also supported the wider community. As well as selling the masks, the Collective delivered to people who were shielding; to homeless shelters; to kids in care; and to schools with children from low income backgrounds. 

How to get involved

If you want to support the work of Leith Collective, visiting the shop in Ocean Terminal is just one way to get involved. Each winter they also run a hugely successful coat exchange. Locals can drop off an old coat and anyone in need can come in and take it for free. 

Sara recalls how they were inundated last year. “We had well over 500 coats donated, mostly good quality. The less good quality ones we take to homeless shelters, where they’re used to bulk out thin mattresses. Nothing is wasted.”

As an artist, you can get involved by emailing info@leithcollective.com. The team will do their best to accommodate anyone for a three month trial. 

Looking ahead to what comes next

So with the country in a state of lockdown flux, what does the future hold for the Collective, its makers and their community? 

After a few busy weekends when the shop re-opened earlier in the summer, Sara feels there are lots of positives. “We've been lucky enough that people want to come in to see what we've got, because it changes on a daily or weekly basis. And the masks are here to stay. We’ve also introduced deliveries, because quite a few people wanted items posted. So we’ll continue to do that too.”

It’s clear that Leith Collective’s lockdown offering has strengthened their position in the community. Consequently, they’ve also seen their social following grow across Instagram, Twitter and Facebook

So next time you want to get a birthday present - or if you’re planning ahead for Christmas - take a look at what’s available from Leith Collective. You can phone the shop to ask about any items you’ve seen and they also take requests. “Because the makers do a lot of upcycling, they can often create an item with a special design,” Sara is keen to point out.

“But the best thing to do is visit in person, whilst we can. We love to form a human connection.”

Leith Collective can be found on the second floor of Ocean Terminal, next to Zizzi's. The shop is open 10am-6pm Monday to Saturday and 10am-5pm on Sunday. You can also visit online or get in touch via email info@theleithcollective.com and by phone on 07447 659999.

Article by

Amy B

Content marketer by day, drummer by night. Full time foodie, travel enthusiast and master of withering wit. Former Londoner turned long-time supporter of Edinburgh businesses.

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