Architects’ creativity can help arts organisations to diversify and maximise their revenue streams, writes Chris Dyson
Last week, Suffolk Council announced that it would completely cut £500k of core funding to the arts. The organisations affected responded by pointing out the limited impact that the savings would make to the local authority’s finances, representing “just 0.057%” of its annual revenue budget. They also highlighted the significant social, wellbeing and economic value of the arts to the area – benefits that can be hard to quantify, but a lifeline for so many.
Of course, there’s a distinction between capital programmes and investment in services. And this won’t mean the end of art or theatre in the region; arts organisations are sadly accustomed to working to a shoestring budget, but it will stifle opportunity and put many programmes at risk of closure. As architects working in the sector, and often collaborating with artists in our projects, the impact of service cuts on venues is concerning.
It is also frustrating, because given the opportunity, our profession has the expertise to help institutions become more self-sufficient by design. Some of our projects have demonstrated how modest investment in versatile buildings can support public and revenue-generating programmes, as well as helping grow small businesses and employment. Investment in spaces and services go hand in hand.
Our building in Crystal Palace Park for Bromley Council, which opened four years ago, is a flexible community space above a café. The broader scope of the project enabled an increase in rent, generating income to fund further improvements to the park. It has been popular. The ‘treetop’ space is used for fitness and baby classes, hired out, and currently programmed by a theatre producer to offer all kinds of children’s drama clubs, art fairs and performances.
One simple feature we designed to support this is a separate entrance, a raised walkway into the upper floor. The employment target for the café was four full-time jobs – at its opening, the café had created seven full-time and 20 part-time jobs.
In the same year this opened, we were appointed to design a new facility for Harrow Arts Centre in London. This formed part of a wider masterplan for the site by DK-CM. It’s an economical building, delivered within a £1.8m budget, containing flexible studios and rooms for hire to raise revenue and aid HAC’s transition from council to independent ownership. Key to the success of any such brief is meaningful engagement, so we designed the spaces envisaging the yoga classes, art clubs and celebrations that local people had asked for during public consultations.
In many ways, it’s a very simple design: two large teaching rooms on the ground floor, two top-lit teaching rooms and a small studio above, under a partially-glazed serrated roof with solar photovoltaics. We focused spending on the elements that would most impact everyday use, such as acoustic insultation between floors – a dance class upstairs won’t disrupt a life drawing session downstairs.
The site was once part of the Commercial Travellers’ School, which had a farm. Inspired by this, we designed an L-shaped plan around a ‘yard’ and clad the building in a red corrugated fibre cement more typically found on barn roofs. It’s a full timber structure; a low waste, low carbon alternative to structural steel that meant we didn’t need expensive foundations and could complete the build in under nine months. The next phase to come is the landscaping, part of the Centre’s wider rewilding plan.
These two new buildings, both delivered for councils, support the arts at a self-sustaining community level. Other practices have completed impressive buildings in a similar vein with economical means. Mae’s wonderful Sands End Community Centre for Hammersmith & Fulham Council springs to mind. It was designed as a democratic, flexible space that could help to “shrink the community’s wealth gap.”
A creative, pragmatic intervention in an existing arts venue can also make a huge difference to longer-term sustainability. Although funded differently, Manalo & White’s improvements to Towner Eastbourne have helped the gallery get more from its spaces; attract major exhibitions and increase visitor numbers, while serving the social needs of local, particularly elderly, residents.
As architects, we thrive on this creative challenge of doing more with less; creating more useful space for people, using less material, less energy. The problem, perhaps, is our visibility, assumption of cost rather than value, the opportunities to put our skills to use and, as one council after another declares dire financial straits, perceived risk in investment.
But the arts are more than a nice to have. When services are cut, so are opportunities and connections between people, which are ultimately far more expensive to repair.
Councils are facing impossible choices, and I hope that Suffolk is an exception, not the new rule. Rather than decimating arts budgets, we should be investing in cultural programmes, through both the capital projects and core services that give neighbourhoods identity and creative life.
Councils can start the fightback by engaging architects to find new, inventive ways to utilise spaces to grow revenue, combine functions, and to design and repurpose the places that can support communities for the long-term. In essence, use the creative industries to support the arts.
>> Also read: Dyson dishes up dinosaur-inspired café
Chris Dyson is founder of Chris Dyson Architects