P2P Story: Ffangai meets Many Studios

Ian, Director of Ffangai in Wales went to Scotland in August 2017 to meet Many Studios through the European Creative Hubs Network and the Peer-to-Peer Scheme (P2P). This is his article about the experience of exchanging knowledge, creative hub to creative hub.

Some of Scotland:
European Creative Hub Network Peer-2-Peer Programme Report

I am Ian Cooke-Tapia, practicing freelance illustrator, creative writer and entrepreneur working on a start-up company by the name of Ffangai. Ffangai’s goal is to establish a collaborative work space and hub for Small-Medium Enterprise (SMEs) at a disused industrial unit in the Tremofra District of Cardiff, Wales. At the time of my visit to the host hub, Many Studios, in Glasgow, the acquisition process of the industrial unit has been slowed down due to mine and my team’s ignorance in matters of business strategies, sustainability and marketing. Let the anti- business philosophy of art schools be praised. Even with the lack of space, Ffangai had started to participate with the wider creative hub-community in Cardiff through the Cardiff Creative network by involving ourselves in discussions and conversations. I am also part of the Inc. Space, creative business incubation unit at Cardiff Metropolitan University, and taking part of a business accelerator program in the same institution. At the time of visit, Ffangai was facing issues regarding visualisation (How do you turn an industrial unit into a creative hub?), monetization (how do you keep a healthy income stream so the hub can function and bring back to the community?), and legality (What are the legal hurdles to jump over when starting a space such as this?). It was the latter question that convinced me to visit Many Studios.

Being an organization working in the UK, Ffangai needs an understanding of the legal and Industry contexts that can only be acquired through experience. And while, in practical terms, a visit to local hub The Sustainable Studio might’ve allowed for conversations focusing more on the Welsh – or rather, the local Capital Region context, we figured that an organization working across the Isle might offer a very different set of answers to our questions. Variety is a spice, isn’t it? Research done on Many Studios painted them as an organization working in a similar way to what Ffangai was originally working towards setting up: artist studios. Communication between the hubs pre-visit established that what we at Ffangai were interested in was to see as many examples of creative work spaces, creative hubs, collaborative projects, arts organizations and community- oriented organizations as possible. Our ignorance in management structures, in the ethos and codes that make hubs work, as well as what sort of business models can be emulated, were the main driver for our visit. Ffangai wasn’t the only visiting hub, however, and the presence of representatives from Room 100 from Split, Croatia and iZone from Kiev, Ukraine, coloured some of these visits. The resulting amalgamation of individual needs provided an honest variety of spaces to visit and a myriad of conversations within the small to high tier arts organizations.

Our host creative hub, Many Studios is a community interest company and social enterprise working from The Barras, in Calton, east Glasgow. Inhabiting a redeveloped industrial unit in the historic Barras Market, Many Studios can be interpreted as standing for a regeneration project in some ways, as well as a bridge between cultures. As a business, they offer individual studio units, nit studios, some with closed doors, others with open doors, as well as day-use co-working desks; in their two-floor space they house freelance artists, small companies and creative businesses. Many Studios also has two shop-front-style galleries. Natalia Palombo, Many Studios’ managing director, acts as a curator for the latter under her personal interest in African contemporary arts and creative outcomes in the processes of regeneration. The very presence of the hub in a poverty-stricken area with histories of sectarianism, gang violence, as well as possessing the lowest male life expectancy in Scotland creates an unexpected bridge; it sits within an area (the Barras Market) that is very much owned by the local community as a bridge over a moat through which visiting artists (at the time of the visit, two Lahore-based artists were finishing a residency program at Many Studios) can contribute and incite local culture.

The core aspect of the five days spent with the host studio included the three visiting hubs connecting with spaces in Glasgow and Edinburgh and participating in conversations on themes of sustainability, internationality as means of finding funding, the effects of hubs on local economies, the effects of hubs as drivers of community involvement, serendipitous encounters, the role of hubs as generators of labour and productivity, the difference bureaucratic and social mechanisms of hubs working in different nations. In Edinburgh we visited Code Base, a tech-based creative hub; The Biscuit Factory, artist studios, SME incubator, and event space; Custom House, coworking space, in which The Tool Library, a social enterprise for generational and racial community integration, can be found. In Glasgow, we visited MakLab, a maker space shop-front and education hub; Glasgow Collective, SME work space, shop-front provider, and apple-tree ponderer; Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA), experimental performance art platform, gallery and event space; and Cryptic Nights, an experimental contemporary arts organization based at CCA. Other themes that came from these meetings were questions of sustainability; differing models of operation, especially between CICs and Ltds; the role of creative organizations in a support role for its tenants and members; the very physical and economic effects of creative spaces in local communities, both as agents of redevelopment (gentrification) and in improvement of human factor; the recognition of for-profit organizations as social enterprises in everything but legal name; how to invite locals to inhabit spaces that are built for them but, due to many factors, appear uninviting to them; organic business growth; the fact that not two similar-looking spaces are or can operate under the same rules; and conversations about how similar organizations can work very differently across borders due to the local context.

For Ffangai, all of these conversations have been utterly beneficial at different stages of our development, both present and future. As stated above, when Ffangai visited we were having problems visualizing the physical space as a representation of both business model and community commitment; as such it was our visit to The Biscuit Factory that was the most useful to us. The Biscuit Factory is a private enterprise that’s taken over a disused industrial space, slowly redeveloped it, and, in the words of director and owner Alan, contributed £1.5 million to the local economy. The Biscuit Factory diversifies its income with holding events, hosting London-based companies, offering studio and work spaces to local artists and SMEs, as well as being a centre for pop-up community spaces. This variety allows them great flexibility for their long-term sustainability, which in turns allows them to better support their tenants and their space, and by proxy the community.

The start-up nature of Ffangai meant, in essence, that we could and cannot yet offer much in not just to our host hub and the other visiting hubs, but to those who opened their doors and welcomed us into the secret hearths of their organizations. However, the ideas have been sowed and much-needed inspiration was had. Ffangai’s resolve to create not just another creative hub in the City of Cardiff, but to create a unique space that looks locally and internationally, has been strengthened. We cannot collaborate right now, but contact information has been exchanged and hands shaken. Until Ffangai has experience, credibility and resources, it can offer very little outside of its list of contacts and members’ expertise.

Due to this visit, however, I was inspired to start a conversation Panama-based creative hub and documentary film school ACAMPADOC to start working on an exchange program of some kind between the arts and tech industries. Details pending further conversations.

The ways in which participation in this peer-2-peer program could be quantified, but, as Zhou Enlai said about the French Revolution: “it is too soon to tell”.

Photo by The Creative Exchange on Unsplash