Drawing on her passion and knowledge about the creative industries and experience gained previously working for Arts Council England and as an independent producer, Project Director Emma Wilcox is dedicated to making Creative Estuary’s ambitious vision a reality.
Her recent visit to Plymouth’s newest cultural and creative industries hub provided the perfect opportunity to gain valuable insight for Creative Estuary’s latest innovative venture.
Taking time to get out of the office is always a welcome boost and was especially welcome on my recent visit to Plymouth after this challenging period. The insightful trip provided the perfect opportunity to share best practice, witness how other establishments successfully deliver large scale investments that Creative Estuary hope to accomplish in the future and to learn how the cultural sector in Plymouth is funded and governed.
Latest cultural projects
First stop was a visit to Plymouth’s Market Hall, home to an awe-inspiring 15m immersive dome – the first of its kind in Europe – which opened to the public in July 2021 and which sits alongside flexible co-working and inspiring workspaces, large meeting rooms and event spaces as well as a café and bar. The development of the Market Hall is led by Real Ideas Organisation, working with Plymouth City Council and a number of key organisations and institutions in Plymouth and further afield. The project has repurposed a significant heritage building in the Devonport area of the city, which is undergoing significant regeneration and transformation, much like huge swathes of the estuary here in Essex and Kent.
It was interesting to consider how this project compares with Creative Estuary’s proposed ‘Docking Station’ development. Dating back to the 1860s, the Police Section House was once the home of the Dockyard Police Force. After a period of time housing the Metropolitan Police, it slowly fell out of use in the 1960s. A Grade II listed building, it has stood empty for many years but ambitious plans are now in place to sensitively open the building as a multi-use cultural and creative space. Creative Estuary is developing a model to transform the building, considered to be one of the Historic Dockyard Chatham’s most prominent yet unused listed buildings, into an innovative creative digital hub.
With both projects facing similar economic and community challenges, it was interesting to hear how the team behind Market Hall overcame these issues. One key takeaway from Plymouth’s Market Hall is how long and complex such a project is from concept to delivery, and the enormous value of partnerships.
What’s interesting, and challenging, is how hard it can be for the private sector to re-use and repurpose heritage buildings. The significant costs associated often create what is referred to as ‘conservation deficit’. When the lead organisation is a social enterprise, community or arts organisations, grant funding can help to bridge the gap and build social as well as commercial value into the outcomes.
Market Hall is good example of a mixed economy model, they have a public access café that they operate and a huge open kitchen where they plan to bring food-based social enterprise companies in, keeping the space vibrant and filled with activity.
Next up was a catch-up with Tracey Beeck, iMayflower Project Manager at Plymouth City Council. Plymouth was awarded a grant of nearly £3.5 million from the Cultural Development Fund (CDF) to deliver the iMayflower project, designed to build Plymouth’s creative industries and nurture creative people across the city.
The project involves working with partners across Plymouth who are developing digital technology, such as 3-D printing, virtual reality and immersive technology, to help the city expand its expertise in advanced manufacturing, robotics and digital making.
I was delighted to have the opportunity to talk to Tracey about the challenges and benefits of multi partnership working on complex projects such as Market Hall.
Tracey welcomed my view on the work in Plymouth and explained why it is important to take time out to share best practice and receive feedback.
She said: “It’s always so useful to get another perspective on what we’re doing here in Plymouth. It can be easy to take for granted achievements and activities so validation of these is useful and gives me a tremendous amount of pride in what we’ve delivered in my fantastic home city. Alongside this Emma brings a wealth of knowledge and experience and an excellent creative perspective, this has helped my thinking and has stimulated ideas for new approaches and opportunities within the programme.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t have the same opportunity as Emma to be involved from the start, Market Hall was already at the construction phase when iMayflower began. However, joining when I did, as the building developed, enabled me to understand how we may be able to use this incredible asset to support other aspects of the iMayflower programme.”
Along with Creative Estuary, Plymouth is one of the five areas to be awarded Cultural Development Fund money in order to boost local growth and productivity.
In addition to leading Creative Estuary, I lead the Peer Learning Network, across all of the five areas, which aims to enhance projects through peer evaluation and shared learning.
Visiting other locations and partners plays an important role in allowing us to share our ideas and ensure we don’t each reinvent the wheel! And by building up the connections and links nationally we can demonstrate impact, gain profile for our successes and help to make the case for further investment at this scale in this vital sector
What next? Well certainly more trips away from my desk and we’ve already planned a return trip to Plymouth with the Docking Station team. I had such a warm and generous welcome and so I can’t wait to go back. And closer to home we are just starting our project at High House Production Park, selecting architects to develop ambitious and forward-looking proposals for new artist workspace at this key creative hub in Purfleet with partners Second Floor Studios, meeting the demand for sustainable and affordable workspace in the Thames Estuary.