East End arts regeneration pioneer joins Future of London

Bow Arts has a long track record of cultural regeneration – firstly in its own East End patch, and then at Royal Albert Wharf in Docklands. Now it becomes the first arts organisation to join Future of London.

Both organisations believe it’s a perfect fit. The arrival of Bow Arts supports Future of London’s objective of bringing fresh, diverse perspectives from the edge of the built environment sector into the debate.

As their name suggests, the social enterprise is firmly rooted in Bow. It’s an area that has nurtured several social enterprises such as the Bromley-by-Bow Centre, which has done pioneering work in community health, job skills and business start-ups.

The cultural contribution of Bow Arts started in 1994 with the redevelopment of two derelict buildings – a furniture warehouse and a former nunnery – into artist studios and what became the Nunnery Gallery.

“Artists are the research and development departments for a local community,” says Marcel Baettig, founder and chief executive. “Yet, because of the nature of their work, artists tend to be very independent. The very simple answer was to put artists and local businesses together to increase the value of what artist can offer, as well provide what they need to find work.”

Marcel believes in the intrinsic value of the art made in the studios. But he is also interested in the impact on the local economy. So he has no problem with art being used as a driver of economic regeneration.

“We have created a real circular economy. Artists are interested in being part of a local area and that is why they  invest their time and energy into it.”

“Artists find places to live and work that are affordable, and with them they bring skills and talent, commodities that they are willing to share with the those communities,” he adds.

Bow Arts started by helping a historic London neighbourhood find its feet again in the new economy. The question became whether artists could help establish a new community. The answer looks like a resounding yes.

Building a new Docklands community with culture

The evidence is provided by Bow Arts’ work in creating a new community at Royal Albert Wharf, a major development by Notting Hill Genesis right at the end of the Docklands Light Railway.

The developers have provided community spaces for residents to interact and socialise and they have provided artists with bespoke, affordable studios to get creative in. Bow Arts was given the job of bringing these places to life.

“By integrating artists with the real world, their amazing skills can change London. But artists are running out of warehouses so this Docklands development has provided new creative spaces.”

Marcel believes that artists were the pioneers who created the first green shoots of a new community that is now flourishing. In January, the Mayor of London visited Royal Albert Docks to mark the completion of Gallions 3B, the latest phase of housing completions by NHG and Countryside Partnerships.

Measuring the social value of placemaking

Marcel is proud of Bow Arts’ contribution to the Docklands placemaking. But he believes there needs to be a proper evaluation of the impact of arts before declaring it a complete success.

“So many reports that involve the arts are about a quality improvement in areas because of the art,” he says. “We wanted to understand what the value was and that’s what we’re trying to do with our impact report. It’s about how you create more value in an area.”

“We need long-term affordability to enable people to invest in their area.”

Bow Arts is talking the language of social value, which is very much on the minds of Future of London members. We believe that Bow Arts has some unique insights into creating social value through culture, and may be able to learn from members who have been wrestling with ways of measuring impact.

So, with his 30 years of community-building experience, what advice does Marcel have for Future of London members interested in culture as a driver of community and local economic development?

“Focus on affordability,” he says. “What we do requires housing affordability, studio affordability. We need long-term affordability to enable people to be successful so they can start to invest in their area.”

Welcome to Future of London, Marcel, and we look forward to reading that social impact report!

Find out more about membership of Future of London here.