We Are The 25%: The Creative Quarter Launches

Words: Al Needham
Illustrations: Rob White
Sunday 16 December 2012
reading time: min, words

The Creative Quarter: another regeneration project, an attempt to catapult Nottingham into the big league of British cities, a massive hand-out for the city’s arty sorts, or the last attempt to drag the city out of its chain-shop morass? Toby Reid, Director of BioCity and Creative Quarter committee member, reveals the people who will be tasked with shaping the destiny of The Lace Market over the next decade - and don’t look now, but one of them could be you...


There's already been a lot of talk about the Creative Quarter, but what is it, exactly?

It stems from an initiative called the City Deal, where eight Core Cities were invited to give a pitch for funding and resources from central government, one of whom was Nottingham. The people at the City Council responsible for Nottingham's pitch had to think about what to do with the money, and what was needed in the city - be it infrastructure, tourism, a new shopping centre, whatever. Fortunately, BioCity were consulted in the decision-making process, and I saw an opportunity to implement some of the lessons we've learned about bringing high-tech, high-growth industries to Nottingham. These companies are vital because they provide good jobs, bring good money with them, and are sticky - unlike your call centres, they don't uproot and move away after a couple of years.

So where does the creative industry fit in?
The idea has been inspired by the success of cities like Austin, Texas and Boulder, Colorado - places that have big, high-tech scenes that have a lot of venture capital going into them, but are complimented by an arts, lifestyle and social scene that has real artistic and intellectual credibility, because that's what attracts your gaming developers and scientists and graduates to a city. They don't want to work on an industrial estate; they want to be somewhere that has interesting gigs on a Tuesday night, a stand-up club on a Wednesday, a thriving arts scene, and all that stuff. We want the Lace Market to be that place. We already know what Nottingham is doing creatively; here is an opportunity to develop both industries hand-in-hand. And while the bulk of the money will be going to the tech side of things, there will be a sum put aside to encourage local creative industry.

Who's behind it, and presumably ultimately in charge of the purse-strings?
Well, this is still being worked out. There will be an oversight board for the entire project that is yet to be constituted as well as a Creative Quarter company whose task will be how to improve the environment locally to make it a more interesting and dynamic place to be.

So how will it work?
The company will have a team consisting of private sector people with creative connections, and people will be able to make bids to that team for projects. So if you wanted to put on an annual music festival, or set up a fringe event for GameCity, or a networking session for techies, you can come to the Creative Quarter and say "This is what I'm planning to do, this is how I plan to sustain it, and this is what I need". And whatever that is - help with licensing from the Council, apprentices to help build some stalls - we‘ll try to facilitate all that. While you provide the creativity and enthusiasm to drive it.

So it's not going to be 'I want to do this, lob us a few grand...'
Obviously at this early stage, I don't want to turn anyone off, but no, we're not going to hand out money to companies who are struggling, just because they work in the creative sector. People who have bright ideas that are going to be financially sustainable in the long run, that can further the stated objectives of the Creative Quarter - they're the people who we'll be looking to support. So you can't say; "I need ten grand for this" - you need to say; "I want to launch a project, It'll be great for the Creative Quarter, it'll do X, Y and Z - would you like to help make it with me?"

So what if someone said; "I've got this brilliant idea for something that could happen in the Creative Quarter, and people would love it, but I can't see any way of turning a pound off it - can you advise or help me?"
Well, in that case, if it had sufficient merit, we might say; "OK, we'll help you get it going for a year or two and help you find sponsorship" or "We can help, and we'll take a cut when you get off the ground". We will be open to suggestions.

But it's not going to be an Arts Council-type deal.
Exactly. We want an enterprise and entrepreneurial spirit right across the board. I mean, look at LeftLion; you're a business, you know how it works. It's not always easy, you're constantly aware of the commercial realities, and yet you still stay true to what you believe in. I think everyone needs to be like that; when we start to run business support events and marketing masterclasses, I want the guy from the dry cleaners to be there alongside the tech companies.

The usual problem with things like this is that whenever there are funds and resources on offer, they all too easily end up in the hands of people who already know how to play the game.
That's usually the case, but this time the qualifying criteria will be different; it'll be about making an area more attractive for tourists and businesses alike, based on its artistic and intellectual credibility.

Will there be a weighting of certain disciplines over others, where the board will look at the overall picture and say, for example, "There's enough music events - we need to do something more literature-based, now"?
Everything will be on a case-by-case basis. If it can help put us on the map, if it can raise our profile nationally as a creative place to live and work, and if it can improve the environment, then we'll give it consideration.

Nottingham's been notoriously bad at celebrating itself since time immemorial. What's that about?
I think the problem is that there's too many small pockets of excellence happening in Nottingham, that don't have a collective and rallying umbrella brand that pulls all these pockets together to give it the recognition it deserves. And I think the Creative Quarter can be that. Creatively, things are really bubbling up in Nottingham to the extent that it can't be ignored; I've been in meetings where solicitors in their fifties have been talking about Dog Is Dead, for example. Similarly, there are some amazing companies in Nottingham who are creating things that have been taken up around the world, but if you talk to anyone in Nottingham about them, they have no idea. We're doing a terrible job of promoting ourselves. That needs to change.

Nottingham seems to us to be in a perpetual identity crisis; it's tried to be a tourist town, and a shopping mecca...
...but that's not sticky money that comes in the area and stays in the area. Yes, you'll get people coming in to buy their big-brand items, but they walk straight back out again. Meanwhile, I could show you tech companies that started with five people a few years ago, who now employ 75.

So is the Creative Quarter going to be more than just another change of clothes for the city?
I hope so, because this time it'll be aimed at sectors of industry that generate long-term wealth, that not only bind new people to the city but encourage kids to get into those industries. The exciting thing for me is that we're not lying about anything when we say that Nottingham is a centre of creativity; if we can only concentrate that ability onto a part of the city, we'll have an area that companies will want to relocate to.

For years, Nottingham has been a place that you have to leave to pursue a creative career. Will that ever change?
I think that's a definite goal. If you look at somewhere like Salford: yes, they've got the BBC now, but people are now seeing that as a potential destination to pursue careers in media, and the idea that you can actually do things outside London is now taking root. I think we can do the same thing here, especially when you factor in cost of living and quality of life compared to the south-east. People have always been sucked down to London, either for their intellectual vanity or because that's where the work has traditionally been, but in today's world I think you can have both of those in Nottingham.

This is all well and good, but what about the vast majority of local people who still feel that places like Nottingham Contemporary are 'not for them' and aren't even aware that events as massive as WEYA are happening on their own doorstep? Will there be an attempt to reach out to them?
I think there should be. But the idea behind the Creative Quarter will be to create a microcosm of the aspirations of the city, and you've gotta start somewhere. If we put a little bit in this area and a little bit in that area, it would only dissipate very quickly and you wouldn't get that concentration of talent; you wouldn't get people sparking off each other. Obviously, all that will spill out in time.

So if we said; "We've got this great idea for a project that would get people in Top Valley engaging with local artists", the Creative Quarter wouldn't be interested?
Actually, we might say, "OK, go and do your project, and come back when its done and we'll help you exhibit it in the Creative Quarter"

Even though all this creativity is bubbling up, it's fair to say that compared to ten or even five years ago, the city centre and the Lace Market in particular is on its arse at the moment.
Well, yes. I mean, we were supposed to meet up for this interview over a coffee in Hockley at 5pm on a Monday, and we couldn't find anywhere that was open. Can you imagine that happening in Shoreditch?

Obviously, a regeneration of the Lace Market is going to have a knock-on effect.
Totally. We need a nightlife around here that will attract people to come here and stay here. And you can't do that with just 'three shots for £1.50' - it has to be event-driven, it has to be interesting, and it can't be just a weekend thing.

You'll be soliciting ideas from people over the next year, but there must be creative companies and individuals out there who you'd like to get on board...
I don't want to alienate anyone by naming names, so let's say the people who are doing something different, something interesting, something quirky, something unique - those are the ones we want. They might be super high-quality, or they're niche, or they're finding a new way to do things.

When will you know if the Creative Quarter has worked? Is there a timescale, or tangible goals?
The exact aims and goals are yet to be decided, but loosely - higher occupancy across the area in commercial, retail and residential. If it doesn't suck people into the Lace Market area and give Nottingham greater national recognition, then it's not worked. The early test for me will be whether those already here take ownership of it and starting referencing their presence in the Creative Quarter on their website and in their marketing. If we get that buy-in from those already here then we’ll be off on the right track.

So what's the catch?
The downside is - if all of this is successful - is that in the long term rents might go up and the creatives will be forced out to cheaper areas. But if that means that somewhere like Sneinton suddenly has a creative community that does interesting things that attracts attention, surely that's better than what we have at the moment.

So what message would the Creative Quarter like to pass on to the people who are hoping to benefit from it?
That the Creative Quarter will belong to the people who already live and work here. We can bring a bit to the table, but the bulk of it will be driven by the people who already have ideas about how they'd like to see this part of the city develop over the next year or so. So far, it's been nurtured by a small committee of volunteers, but it very quickly has to gain momentum and be picked up and owned and driven by others, because if it's left to a handful of people to push, it's not going to go anywhere.



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