Lorraine Cox, Creative Assets Manager for Creative Estuary, is on a mission to share the good news about Creative Estuary’s plans to create a world class hub for the creative industries.
Developing contacts with local government, estate agents and asset managers in the private sector, Lorraine is passionate about establishing relationships with the local community, bringing people on board to maximise the opportunities for growth.
Tell us about your role
I don’t really have a typical working day. What I’m doing is persuading people to come together to secure space for the creative and cultural industries. Sometimes I’m doing a cold call to someone or an email introduction to try and spark a conversation because I know they have control or influence over a building.
For me, it’s all about working to develop relationships that can turn into partnerships to benefit creative people and create better access to spaces.
Largely working with local government, estate agents and asset managers in the private sector. I’ve done a lot of leg work getting to know everybody – what they do, what they think, and who could be on board with us with a bit more of persuasion. Some may not agree to join in with the Creative Estuary vision until they see their neighbours getting on with it. I’m looking for the early adopters, like Basildon Council who are working with us to shape a creative digital cluster in the town centre or Gravesham Council who have ambitions for a creative civic quarter and more creative workspace in the town centre.
What did you do before you joined Creative Estuary?
My previous contract was as Head of Cultural Strategy for Peabody Housing in Thamesmead. I absolutely loved it. In many ways that was similar, in that I was making space for creativity. I got to work with creative people to secure workspace, commission artists and set-up of a huge festival. We were able to secure funds from Arts Council England, with additional match from Peabody and Orbit Housing to the tune of £1.6m for a Creative People and Places programme; this is ground-breaking for an area that hasn’t had much cultural investment before. That’s how partnerships make a difference, you do it together with local people and creatives.
Why are you so passionate? Where did this passion come from?
Being from proper working-class Midlands roots, the arts and culture sector weren’t considered a good bet for employment when I was at school. That’s not true now of course, as our sector is showing excellent signs of recovery £104bn GVA 2021. Anyway, one evening at the age of 13yrs, whilst walking home from visiting a friend in Malvern, I looked up and there was a whole row of windows lit up and inside people were painting on easels and I thought I’d love to do that!
I wasn’t allowed to do art ‘O’ level because “you can’t get a job with that”, so I was told by all. I was good at art and when ‘A’ levels came round I begged again to be allowed to do Art. The art teacher took me under his wing and said if you can pass the ‘O’ by Christmas he’d put you on the ‘A’ course. I did it and didn’t look back.
Art college was my heaven. Then I went to work at IKON gallery Birmingham; off to work in a couple of galleries in the USA for awhile; then a public art agency and, then the career just grew. Back in those early days at Birmingham School of Art I set-up a new initiative called Artists in Public. There were 60 of us, artists. We took over four empty buildings on ‘peppercorn’ rents and set-up studios. So, this passion to find space for creativity started a long time ago for me, as I set up artist exhibitions and installations in empty buildings across Birmingham. We took over the railway station forecourt too, and, put artists and performers onto inner-city trains to engage with the commuters. That was so thrilling!
Going from a 15-year-old who questioned the school careers officer who told me, “You could work in a shop” to working in galleries abroad and later commissioning artists and, working with local people around the country and in London, is proof that we must have ambition and drive to work in the Creative & Cultural industries. Through this work we can really make a difference to people’s everyday lives using creativity as the catalyst for positive change. There are so many transferable skills and experiences you pick up working in our sector too eg. planning, fundraising, budget management, product and service development, and delivering to the public. In fact, figures from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport revealed the industries in our sector contributed £118bn to UK GVA (gross value) in 2019. That doesn’t surprise me, the supply chains of SMEs and freelancers are growing all the time.
What would you say to someone thinking of working in the Creative Estuary?
This is a huge question. We have seven strands of work that range from ideas labs through to the Re:Generation 2031, for which I am signed up to as a mentor for young people. There’s such a range of opportunities here. What we’re doing is building relationships and partnerships across the Estuary to grow the creative and cultural industries. It’s our job to create the best conditions for people to find a way to make their creativity their living, or to grow their existing creative business. And so I’d say if you want to improve your local area, make a difference to people’s lives, and learn every day – pick the Creative & Cultural industries.
What’s been your greatest impact with Creative Estuary so far?
Having breakthroughs with organisations to develop relationships that are powerful and ultimately have an impact on the area and help grow the creative and cultural industries locally.
For instance, we are working with highly skilled and committed creative people in Southend who are working at high level in their creative fields. One of the projects is to bring an old department store into use as a creative and community hub to bring much needed life to the high street in Southend City. Creative people use a lot of their sweat as well as their skills to make these things happen. It was really cute to be told recently, “you’re a breath of fresh air” with “great energy” and “don’t stop.” It is good to be part of these growing creative partnerships in the Estuary. It feels like we are breaking new ground and helping people to improve their area.
Being the person in the room to steer ideas and conversations. Often in busy and complex situations, being there to raise the question and ask, “What if we did it this way?”. I spend a lot of time asking people to work with us to overcome perceived and real barriers to growth.
Can you talk to me about the Kursaal building? I believe this is one of your projects to bring assets (building, land) into use for creative industries?
One of the biggest projects I’ve worked on is the Kursaal Palace. It’s a fabulous Grade II Listed seaside palace on the Eastern Esplanade facing City Beach and the Estuary; you can see the Kursaal dome for miles. A jewel in the crown for Southend.
I’ve been working with some fantastic Southend residents, people at the top their creative careers who are working around the world, and the country, in music, theatre, writing, design, film, and more. Residents have been campaigning to save the Kursaal for public and creative use. Working with important historic buildings like the Kursaal can be a bumpy ride sometimes, in terms of finding a way to bring it into use. One of the key issues is about supporting the ideas of creatives and residents to develop their plan, and helping them to manage and build relationships with all those that have a stake in the building. There are also challenges around bringing a partnership together that could reduce risks and produce a good plan of action that others might invest in too. One thing is for sure, people in Southend love the Kursaal because for generations they danced, sang, performed, met their loved ones, and had fun by the sea. Local people often say, ‘where the dome is, home is’.
The Kursaal Palace is a measure of the health of this new City. If we don’t look after our past, then we run the risk of losing it, and ourselves. Let’s face it when heritage is gone, you can’t make another one. Kursaal, and all that it means to seaside heritage and the people of Southend is unique, I’m sure some towns/cities would give their ‘hind-teeth’ (Midlands phrase, meaning something of great value) for one just like it!
It’s my job to take this emotion and translate it into demand and work out how to navigate any barriers and be the helping hand to untangle that.
Often there’s a role to play in transforming people’s way of thinking. It’s natural for people to say, ‘We can’t do that with that building because it’ll take millions to sort out.’ It’s my job to help people see the bigger picture and the potential partners and investors. Looked at another way around, every empty building that remains empty is a cost, can be a cause of reputational damage and brings in no income. I help people to see that now is the time to accept that by putting creative people into under used buildings we can bring these spaces back into use and that’s a great start to build on.
It’s all about minimising capital expenditure and maximising opportunity. We know that creative people put their sweat, capital and energy into getting a building up and running. More can be done to help them with rate and rent relief. Doing this creates a buzz for local people, rejuvenates spaces and boosts the local economy. Developers for leisure and housing want to see that buzz too.
Recently Medway Council stepped into negotiations with the owner of the former Debenham’s store in Chatham’s high street because it was an empty blight in the town since January 2020. The Council were brave in the negotiations and even thought about obtain the site. They came to an agreement and bought the building. I am currently working with the Council to turn this into an area for creative mixed use and small businesses start-up space. This approach will bring creatives and other entrepreneurs and community leaders on to the high street to help diversify the offer for local people. Again, it’s about helping local authorities to realise the options that are available, support their ambition and vision, and avoid leaving premises dormant.
I’d urge anyone reading this looking for a career path or a reason to develop their creativity, come join us in the Estuary there are loads of opportunities.