The need for ‘money to play with’, the importance of new business models and the need to ‘cast’ the ultimate mix of functions and users. Invite twenty city makers to share their thoughts in a virtual conference, and they’ll give you an abundance of tips on nurturing successful cultural and creative hubs. Because what makes one space a success from day one, while another fails to get off the ground? What are the do’s and don’ts of success?
Culture and city
A city without a vibrant cultural life holds no appeal. Look closely at a city’s cultural and creative ecosystem, and you’ll see a broad, highly diverse field. Some cultural houses were launched as offshoots of city or provincial policy. Some creative hubs were the brainchild of cultural or creative entrepreneurs. And you’ll find everything in-between, including incubators and countless placemaking projects. Many of these venues are temporary. Sometimes with the intention of continuing them when the ‘real’ development begins, but all too often, they’re doomed to disappear.
In theory, what these places have one thing in common: they are meeting places for creative minds (in the broadest sense of the word), with a mix of functions. Places where cross-fertilization between the different users leads to new joint programming and the exchange of visitor and customer groups. According to the theory. But the success of these spaces varies enormously. How come?
The rise of culture houses
They’re known as culture house, art building or multifunctional center and are often brand new structures housing a library, theater, welfare facilities and a few other functions. It is a phenomenon that blew over from Scandinavia, where every city has its own ‘Kulturhuset’. Meanwhile, hundreds have also sprung up in the Netherlands. Often energized by city or provincial policy. Ideally, the ‘cohabitation’ of the various organizations should offer financial and social added value. But in practice, things aren’t that simple. Often conceived at the drawing board, the collaboration between the ‘roommates’ doesn’t get off to a flying start. The various parties are too involved in their own affairs, there’s no collective vision of the space, or they don’t see the added value of joint programming. And that while the policy ambitions and expectations of such a venue are sky-high.
Drivers of area development
If the culture houses are at one end of the spectrum, at the other are the countless temporary creative and cultural initiatives. Abandoned properties and vacant lots can be leased for a modest rent, on a short or longer term basis, as living-cum-workspaces for artists and creatives. Their creative endeavors generate a buzz, and attract new people, thus enhancing the area’s quality of life, its attractions and, thus, its monetary value. This type of placemaking has proved an extraordinarily successful strategy for many real estate owners, developers and city councils. So much so, that several companies have now built their business model around starting and running these kinds of temporary sites. Some places flourish and become part of the area development; others die a silent death.
Looking at this broad spectrum of places, what is the key to success? A quick overview of seven success factors.
- A smart mix of functions and users
Top of the list is the right mix of functions. Users that complement and strengthen each other. Being ‘roommates’ won’t cut it. There has to be programmatic cross-fertilization and the exchange of audience groups. Ideally, the mix of functions also strikes a good balance between commercial and non-commercial activities. That way, the ‘cash cows’ can absorb the lower returns from other functions.
Ultimately, the place revolves around people, so the trick is to bring the right mix of users together. Whether you call it ‘casting’, scouting or curating, be thorough and invest time and care in choosing the right mix of people. The ideal person to do this would be a ‘quartermaster’, or maybe the initial user. Although the advantage of the former is that he or she will make independent choices.
- Sharp positioning and profiling
Be bold about what the space stands for. Sharp profiling is the best way to attract the right partners. However, remember that by choosing one, you may exclude the other. But there’s no point trying to be all things to all men—it simply doesn’t work. Sharp positioning is key, because … ‘if you don’t choose, you won’t be chosen’. This positioning could be a growth model, an identity in the making, that grows along with the size and ambition of the site.
- Shared ownership and a common goal
Once you’ve found the partners, they must be willing to work together openly and constructively, and in terms of content. This also includes the city council, the developer and the real estate owner. Stakeholders must work together on the basis of shared ownership and shared motivation. They all need to appreciate the added value and be willing to invest in that collaboration. The stakeholders must share a collective ambition and be dedicated to achieving it. They need to have a sense of shared ownership and shared responsibility for ensuring the space is a success. This includes the alignment of mutual expectations, together with a collective vision of what the space is, and should, be. Not only during the project’s concept phase, but throughout its management. Which is why the parties need to draw up clear agreements with each other about the program and profiling, and the running of the space.
- Local support
A cultural or creative venue will only succeed if it’s tied to its environment, community, and city. It needs to match the area’s DNA and serve the needs of local people. A project won’t take root in a community unless you’re open to co-creating with the local citizens. In other words, there must be a sincere interest in the community and in the contributions of local people. Organize a meeting and ask for the community’s assistance. The long-term success of the space depends on securing this grass roots support. Which is the reason that we also address local urban issues and offer solutions.
- Sustainable business model: multiple value creation
A space can’t survive without a sustainable revenue model and healthy long-term management. Each stakeholder plays a role in this. Users can work with the real estate owner to identify ways of creating a healthy business model. Continuity relies on a secure basis of recurring revenue.
An art space requires several income streams: rent, ticket sales, catering, venue hire. Revenue models of this kind also often include direct or indirect subsidies and financial support derived from funds.
Culture’s revenue model is different to that of retail, catering or housing. The way to spark a conversation between these different stakeholders is through ‘multiple value creation’. In multiple value creation, economic, ecological and social values are in balance. ‘People, planet, profit’. Financial gain is socially fair and respects the environment and planet. And vice versa: the social added value also generates revenue. Creating value in all three areas isn’t the job of a single organization, it’s a task shared by the whole community: users, owner and government. Also, use a longer payback period as a basis, for example 25 years.
A realistic growth model provides the opportunity to start small, offers scope for experimentation and allows the space to grow organically. In other words, don’t start ‘too neatly’ and ‘too big’. Give the initiative the opportunity to evolve and be patient. You cannot force success. And remember, without a decent start-up budget, the project will remain a dream, so give the space a chance to get off the ground.
- An active community
The community—the tenants, users and visitors—are the venue’s true strength. They make the space, are the influencers and ambassadors. Ultimately, they need to feel responsible for the space. Which means giving them a say in programming and recruiting additional partners.
Keeping a community together takes constant effort. It won’t happen naturally. If you don’t have a community manager, it’ll be difficult to keep the various users and visitors connected in the long term. Many cultural venues rely on volunteers. Cherish their efforts and invest in volunteer training.
An important thing for city councils, developers or owners to consider, is daring to hand the reins over to the community. Let the uniqueness of the community you want to join, shine out, and be open to its way of working and entrepreneurship. Don’t try to get everything nailed down, leave space for things to unfold, and don’t worry. Again, this underlines the importance of flexibility. Long-term success is about being agile—responding swiftly to social change and new situations. Which is precisely where creative minds come into their own. So be sure to give the community a bit of ‘money to play with’ and encourage people to try out their own ideas and initiatives. Lengthy, complicated grant applications are creativity killers. This modest, ‘free’ budget is often a fantastic investment in pure innovation.
- Serving a need
Oddly enough, the seventh and final success factor is too often overlooked. And when it is, the policy ambitions and dreams of civil servants, directors or visionaries exceed the bounds of reality. The bottom line is this: a venue must respond to the needs of a user group. If the need is dormant, you might have to rouse it gently, but without sufficient critical mass, a space will fail. Identifying this need calls for research that digs deeper than consultations between potential partners. It means visiting the neighborhood and city, being observant, and asking people what they feel is lacking. Or you could launch a pilot project to test out different functions and programs. You’ll soon discover whether the space mobilizes sufficient people. And, of course, this strategy ties in perfectly with the transience of many placemaking initiatives.
And a piece of advice that seems blindingly obvious but often goes ignored: work with what’s already there. Carry out an area assessment—identify current initiatives and spaces, and how they can be strengthened. Hitting the ground running often proves way more effective than starting from scratch. Although in practice, starting from a totally blank canvas and dreaming up all kinds of schemes, apparently has its temptations.
So a sophisticated mix of functions, good collaboration between the partners, local support, a sustainable business model, a close-knit community and, above all, serving a need. Seven ingredients for a successful culture house or creative hub. But what are the don’ts? What are the pitfalls to be avoided at all costs?
The financial aspects can be a major headache. Such as, for instance, laying out the financial prerequisites too late in the game. By which stage, everyone’s excited about the venue and the programming, but an unbridgeable financial gap seems to exist between the developer or owner on the one hand and the future users on the other. Another deathblow: no secure financial basis, no sound long-term management, or too great a financial dependence on one user.
Expectations also often throw a spanner in the works. Not infrequently, administrators and policymakers have many, and high, expectations of the space. When that happens, a long wish list of policy goals that straddle numerous areas, is projected onto the venue, turning it into a kind of universal remedy or ‘cure-all’. Guaranteeing it to fail.
After all the points we’ve mentioned, wanting to go it alone sounds like an obvious blunder. Yet all too often, a project has a single enthusiastic advocate—a city council, a developer or a creative. This inspirator sells a fantastic idea, which generates a degree of enthusiasm, but no co-owners. Without a broad support contingent, the basis is too weak to sustain lasting success. Conversely, opening up the community to just anyone, is another fast track to failure. The result is a hodgepodge and a synergistic nightmare. And in the long term, who wants to be a part of that? In this context, the reasons for users relocating to a site, are hugely important. Parties primarily motivated by low rent are likely to feel little connection with the space and be unwilling to invest in it.
The community is the anchor that holds the venue together, but problems can arise here, too. Such as when the users have little in common, or don’t see the added value of collaboration. The same might occur if no one plays the role of community liaison, continually activating the local residents, recognizing opportunities and connecting people. And when that happens, the users are simply a bunch of people who share a space.
Another hazard is thinking in traditional models or trying to clone a successful example in a different place, sometimes using inspiring international examples as a blueprint. But what worked for A never works for B. No matter how exciting the project.
In short, work in a fully open collaboration and from a shared commitment to the success of the space. Take the seven success factors to heart and avoid the five pitfalls. And lastly:
Invest to make a space permanent
You project is successful, but now you have to leave. Creative centers often disappear when the ‘real’ development begins. Although it’s often not from want of trying, the various stakeholders frequently discover that the venue isn’t financially viable. A new financial infrastructure is needed to ensure these initiatives are more sustainable. One possible solution could be to set up a Stadmakersfonds, or ‘city makers fund’. This is what’s known as a revolving fund, in which city councils, developers, national, local and regional funds, cultural and creative organizations participate. The funding is a loan (it’s not a grant!) and flows back to the fund, so it can be re-used and loaned to other initiatives. It’s a tried and tested sustainable financing model. The fund helps to make the space permanent and guarantees the users continuity. A city maker’s fund is great for creative initiators and enhances the quality of life of neighborhoods and districts. Which is exactly what area developers are looking for.
A project in the Province of Utrecht was the first to be financed by the new Stadmakersfonds. The intention is to roll out this fund throughout the Netherlands in the near future. There is no shortage of city makers’ cases, but upscaling requires more investors to provide the loans. The question now is: Which financiers, municipalities, provinces, funds, investors, etc. will follow this example?
Most of the content featured in this article was collected during an online session in which twenty people involved in cultural houses and creative hubs took part: from theater director to developer and from initiator to researcher.