Creative Economies

Curating Culture: Places & Practices

Stringing together what was said about the more palpable topic of places of work and its connection to creative practices. Moving from small scale to large scale, and opening up questions of a future scale.

Small scale: studios, co-working spaces and hubs

A room of one’s own

Dr. Janet Merkel, Lecturer in Culture and Creative Industries at City University London, kicked off the conversation about creative work places. “Creativity happens in spaces and it also produces spaces and particular places”, she observed. Delving into the notion of the “studio”, she explained that this is the place where different kinds of knowledges come together. But it is also a safe place, where people can play around, experiment, and hide from evaluations and influences. In that regard, she quoted a sentence by Virginia Woolf: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”.

Later in the day, Jack Fortescue presented Acme, a housing association that rents out studios to artists at below-market prices. Founded in 1972, it originally offered short-life housing, making use of properties that were due to be demolished. Acme has since moved on to providing long-term rentals. They are now mostly leasing properties for long periods of time, or developing their own buildings. Over the years, Acme has supported over 7000 artists. And the waiting list is growing every year.

The collective studio

“There is less and less space per person”, Jack Fortescue said. Today there might be six artists sharing a space that used to be for only one. According to Fortescue, there are 35’000 graduates coming out of art colleges in London every year. In 2013 Acme set up the Associate Studio Program in collaboration with the University of Arts London. On the ground floor – below student housing – large, open-plan, shared studios are rented out to recent fine art graduates. And the young graduates don’t mind sharing, they actually revere it. “Sticking them into their own little box wasn’t what they wanted – at least not at first”, Fortescue said.

Giving the examples of Damien Hirst’s and Andy Warhol’s factories and Olafur Eliasson’s transdisciplinary studio, Janet Merkel also described a move away from the ideal of the artist working alone in a studio. In Eliasson’s laboratory for spatial research a team of 90 people from different backgrounds – scientists, designers, architects, and engineers – work collaboratively on projects. At the table, over their daily shared meal, things are discussed and debated. As Merkel pointed out this is a move away from the “creative individual” to “creative sociability”.

The rise of co-working spaces and hubs

We don’t want to work alone. And we like meeting other people. These sentiments are among the most common reasons people name when asked about why they go to co-working spaces, as Dr. Janet Merkel explained. Co-working spaces enable cross-disciplinary conversation and collaboration, give emotional support, and usually increase productivity. And most importantly, they offer temporary work spaces. You only rent a space when you really need one.

Technological advancements and the emergence of a DIY attitude have changed the way creative work is organized. This democratization of tools also made us more mobile and allows us to work in different spaces – or even arbitrary places. As Janet Merkel said, “we can take the work with us”. We can work on the train, the subway, in a public space, a park – or in a co-working space. These spaces have in a way become the new coffee shops.

The concept has been around for at least 10 years, Merkel relayed, and originally these spaces were self-organized and structured “bottom-up”. Throughout her talk Dr. Janet Merkel gave different examples, from the Ace Hotel Lobby in New York, Second Home in London, to the Soho House in Berlin. The rising number of such spaces worldwide illustrates that this is not a local but a global phenomenon.

Co-working spaces are increasingly curated – aesthetically and socially – as Merkel explained. Following a sort of meta-business plan of their own, they are also getting more and more selective in who actually can become a member. In that regard, she refered to a recent example: the NeueHouse in New York City. Designed for culture and creative industries, this space is far from bottom-up. Backed by real estate companies it is a combination of two ideas: creative work space + member’s club. As Merkel explained, NeueHouse offers a highly curated cultural program including concerts, screenings and readings. The equally extravagant entrance fees start at 600 $, and go up to 4000 $ for a permanent space. Other more familiar co-working spaces were much cheaper, she quickly added.

“A co-working space can become a hub”, Dr. Tarek Virani said in his presentation. Hubs are managed, curated or co-designed. “In policy a hub is usually considered being an old industrial building that houses different companies, usually in tech or creative and cultural industry”, he explained. Some of the key characteristics of hubs that he laid out are: they provide tailored services to creative SMEs – including business support – so hubs are not merely about collaboration. They are aimed at early stage creative SMEs. The people are the conduits of the place, they are the main facilitators. The best ones are sector specific. And they usually have a fee or membership.

The problem of affordability

For the most part of her talk, Dr. Janet Merkel conveniently disregarded the beginning of Woolf’s sentence: “A woman must have money…”. In the group discussion that followed her talk, one recent graduate said that she worked from her kitchen. I also raised the issue that co-working spaces are too expensive for graduates or young people starting out – at least they are in Zurich. They cost the same, if not more, as renting a regular spot in a shared studio space.

In contrast to that, Merkel actually said that co-working spaces matched the financial situation of freelancers. She also pointed out that creative work is mostly project-based, and increasingly functions on a freelance basis and self-employment. Seen positively, she allots the “flexibility” connected to these conditions to the enabling of creative processes. However, seen negatively, one could also say that this can be an indicator of more precarious working conditions.

This issue of affordability was, however, a central focus of Jack Fortescue’s talk about Acme. “Our cap is what an artist can pay,” he said. Their rents are 30% of what commercial creative operators would charge. Acme’s fee is 20 £ a week per artist. Furthermore, Acme also has its own residency and awards program. Since 1996, for instance, Acme has been giving out seven annual awards to fine art graduates from London art schools or universities. They get a rent-free studio, a cash bursary, mentoring and connections to galleries. With 80% of their tenants earning less than 15’000 £ a year, Acme provides a “relief from poverty”, as Fortescue put it.

Large scale: clusters, cities and beyond

Creative clustering

“The creative and cultural industries like to come together”, said Dr. Tarek Virani. They need each other to work as an economic force. They create “economies of collaboration” and “tend to cluster”. As he explained, clusters differ from hubs or co-working spaces in scale and formality. “They are larger than hubs, and they are usually formally unmanaged”. And while a hub might be sector-specific, a cluster is usually a mixed economy. In a video Virani made and screened during his talk, one protagonist said that he had been lobbying the UK government to pick up on what was happening in Shoreditch, because it was an ideal candidate for the kind of creative & technology cluster that was going to be of global importance. The same video also pointed to the dysfunctional property market in London, and its effect on the creative industries.

Forced out of the city

Affordable work spaces in the city are disappearing. As Jack Fortescue in that regard explained, the Arts Council is no longer funding artist studios. And this, even though the creative industries have taken over manufacturing in UK’s GDP. Not only artists, but also hubs and co-working spaces are closing down and moving further out.

Jack Fortescue described a “creative drift east” in London. Acme has recently opened a new purpose-built studio, High House Production Park. Located outside of London – in the “Hinterland” as Fortescue himself said – it illustrates Acme’s own problems with the property market. Looking for affordable properites, Acme is slowly forced out of the city. And with it its artists. Their reactions were similar to when, in 1992, Acme moved towards the East-End. It seemed too far out. But now that area has boomed and has itself become too expensive. The neighbourhood where this new Acme building is located might not look like much now, but as Fortescue explained, there are new homes, a large television and movie studio, and a college being built there. Once start-ups have gone through the incubator phase, where will they go next? It will probably be exactly that area.

This is a problem that can be observed globally. Virani mentioned how cultural producers are being forced out of New York City to go live in Chicago. He further said that Seoul was currently the place where office spaces are the most expensive in the world.

Fortescue called this the “snailshell-effect”: whenever there is a financial boom or bust, artists are forced to move further out of the city. While the network of cultural consumption stays, the cultural producers cannot. As Fortescue said, it is now these “donut” areas – the boroughs around city centers – that are the ones writing culture policies. They are reacting to the natural drift of creative people.

Innovation districts and property development

“[Millenials] want to be able to walk or cycle to work, and they also want a sense of ownership and a sense of place – and coffee shops”, said Jodie Eastwood when pointing out some of the reasons for an increase in the formation of so-called “Innovation districts”. The term was coined by Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner in 2012. And while it is a massive trend in the US, the idea has only just started to be explored in the UK. Katz and Wagner defined it as a “geographic area where leading-edge anchor institutions and companies cluster and connect with start-ups, business incubators and accelerators. They are also physically compact, transit-accessible, and technically-wired and offer mixed-use housing, office, and retail.”

According to Eastwood, the very area where the London Panel 2016 was taking place can be considered an innovation district. Covering 67 acres, the Kings Cross Development grew between the two train stations of Kings Cross and St. Pankras. Ian Freshwater, Project Director at Argent – the developer of the site –, explained that in the company’s bidding for the contract in 2001 they didn’t bring along elaborate plans, sketches and models, but only laid out 10 principles:

‘Principles for a human city’ (Argent, 2001):

  1. A robust open framework
  2. Deliver a lasting new place
  3. Promote accessibility
  4. Vibrant mix of uses
  5. Harness value of heritage
  6. Space should work for Kings Cross and for London
  7. Argent is committed to long-term success
  8. Engage and inspire
  9. Secure delivery
  10. Communicate clearly and openly

Kings Cross is planned to include 22 office buildings, 17 residential buildings, and 500’000 sq ft of shopping, hotel, culture, leisure and education. Central Saint Martins sits right in the middle of this large urban redevelopment project. During the Q&A Christoph Weckerle drew a parallel to Zurich. The Toni Areal – the building of the Zurich University of the Arts – is also part of a larger development project called “Zürich-West”. He thus brought up the question of what it is about an art school that makes it so valuable for a property developer. Ian Freshwater didn’t provide any answer to that.

A long-term interest and approach

Argent is not only the developer of the site, but also part-landowner. Granary Square, right outside of Central Saint Martin’s building, is thus the largest privately owned “public” space in London. With their focus on and investment in public realm infrastructure, Argent took on some of the duties that would usually be a City Council’s responsibility. “We have a long-term interest in the stewardship of this space,” Ian Freshwater said. While property developers generally leave once their job is done, Kings Cross is not about a quick turn-over for Argent. It is in their interest to make Kings Cross an attractive and valuable place, creating a “sense of ownership” in the people who live and work there.

This aspect of longevity shone through in other talks as well. Acme, for instance, doesn’t have a maximum cap on how long their artist-tenants can stay. They can keep renting the studio as long as they financially need to. That, however, means that there is not a lot of turn-over in tenants. “Our model is to expand”, Jack Fortescue explained. With the rise in property markets mentioned earlier, the challenge for Acme is to find flexible or long-term loan options. When they constructed their newest building they also future-proofed it: they made sure that walls could be knocked down or built in over time.

For both Argent and Acme it is thus also about staying agile and open to change. Seeing everything as a long-term process rather than a short-sighted fix, they have to constantly redefine their plans, concepts and strategies, and adapt to the changing conditions they operate under.

It’s about the connections

As Dr. Tarek Virani explained, we might be able to notice a cluster of activities in a city, but we don’t know the details about the connections nor the organizations. And yet, it is those connections that actually enable collaboration and innovation. Especially when the scale increases, mere proximity does not guarantee that there is an actual connection or conversation between the “inhabitants” of an area.

Jodie Eastwood runs the Kings Cross Knowledge Quarter – a partnership of 66 organisations that create and disseminate knowledge all located within the same area. This initiative wants to enable the institutions and organisations of Kings Cross to connect and collaborate. In 2014 they started with 35 members. Now they have 66. And soon 71. Among them are 7 higher education institutions, 17 cultural institutions, 21 museums & galleries, 29 archives and libraries, and 500 research institutions. The members come from different sectors and vary in size. Eastwood mentioned Google and the Guardian as two of the larger members.

Future scale: questions and difficulties going forward

Can it all really be planned?

During the final discussion, Mark Dunhill suggested to question the enthusiasm of planning. He feels that there is a danger with over-conceptualizing. Tarek Virani also questioned whether the web of connections established through the Knowledge Quarter is really what an innovation district is. With all the variety of its members, he doubted how connected the organisations really could become. Can an imposed connectivity ever become a genuine collaborative force? In an effort to plan innovation or creativity from the outside in, one forgets that such creative forces or places usually grow from the inside out. Even Jodie Eastwood herself pointed out in her talk that it was more interesting to look at the organic rather than the planned formation of innovation districts.

Simon Grand also underlined the importance of distinguishing between “ex ante” and “ex post”. Do we consider innovation or knowledge as a process or as a result? An artistic process is more organic. As Mark Dunhill argued, artists first do something and then they find out what it is and what to do next. Andy Pratt seemed to agree. According to him, technology and the sciences see innovation as a result that may change the world – as a magical box. While the arts and social sciences see it as a process – of which the outcome is not clear. And the two worlds don’t speak to one another effectively. And in policy making the technological perspective is the common assumption. However, the sciences are now looking to processes within arts and culture. While in reverse, art institutions are looking to scientific ways of knowledge production. Artificially putting the two worlds under one roof – as the Knowledge Quarter is trying to do – might not resolve this adversarial perspective and contradictory approach.

Is it really all the same thing?

Acme’s studios are only for artist. According to Jack Fortescue’s definition, the purpose of an artistic practice is non-commercial. Artist’s can’t go to a venture capitalist and make a proposal for an art piece hoping that they will fund it. “Art doesn’t have those broader profit-making margins”, he explained. Acme thus only focuses on a small percentage of the creative industry. But what happens to the rest? Don’t graduating design students looking to start their own small businesses need a place to start out from as well? Or young journalists setting out to be freelance writers? Or film makers creating their own movies?

Merkel’s talk also left open what kind of freelancers she was talking about. It may be good to see the creative industries as a larger whole – as the notion of the “Creative Economy” also suggests – including the “creative” tech sector, for instance. However, in some instances, disregarding the nuances and individualities between the different branches or segments of the creative industries seems like turning a blind eye on crucial differentiations.

As Merkel herself said, “We also know that creativity is culturally embedded, so there is no general notion of creativity, but there is creativity behind different fields or different disciplines”. Towards the end of the day, Simon Grand referred to the plurality within their concept: “Creative Economies”. The added-on “s” suggests a multiplicity, a heterogeneity. This is also what Grand felt was one of the key issues that became evident during this panel: “introducing the multiplicity of perspectives, approaches and models”.

Shall we call it curating?

Even though the symposium was called “Curating Culture” – the word “curating” actually fell not all that often. Other words were used just as frequently. “Facilitating” or “stewardship”, for instance. On Simon Grand’s impetus the day ended with a short discussion around the word “curating”. Andy Pratt explained why he used the word in the title of the panel. “It’s disruptive”, he said, “and it annoys people.” This comment was met with amused laughter in the room.“The problem is that we don’t have words to describe what we’re struggling to trying to do”, Pratt continued. Curation is an old word with a historic, and institutional connotation, while what this venture is after is an overarching, connective, institution-independent structural concept. However, today the word “curating” has a renewed, rejuvenated and expanded meaning. Pratt liked the storytelling-aspect of the word. “It’s about connecting objects or things together in a new way”. And that is exactly what this venture is thinking about and engaging in.

Christoph Weckerle added that curating to him was partly also about “dealing with uncertainty”. Pratt agreed with this observation and added that using the word “curating” would allow a term from the arts to enter into the discourse of business and not the other way around.

This interest of calling things by a name, of giving them a label, seems connected to a perspective of structure and planning. “Co-working”, “innovation”, “creativity” – things that happen naturally are turned into tag-words and planned processes. “SMEs”, “freelancers”, “millenials” – actual people are turned into categories and typologies that come with preconceptions and clichés.

Terminology is crucial to understanding and making sense of something. But it can limit and over-simplify something that may still need to still seen in all its complexity. If what this venture is after is a system that keeps redefining itself, then it might also have to rethink the vocabulary it uses as it goes along. The term “curation” seems appropriate now, but that doesn’t mean that one has to simply stick to it moving forward.


Hanna, Kat. “Spaces to Think: Innovation Districts and the Changing Geography of London’s Knowledge Economy.” Published by Centre for London, April 2016.

Katz, Bruce & Wagner Julie. “The Rise of Innovation Districts: A New Geography of Innovation in America.” Published on Brookings, May 2014.

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Corinne Gisel
Related Links
Instagram feed of the panel “Curating Culture”