Creative regeneration case study: Creative Mile, Brentford Art Trail
Creative Mile is an annual open studios event in Brentford (2021-2022), initiated and managed by local artists, with support from Hounslow’s Creative Enterprise Zone and Creative People and Places Hounslow. This detailed case study captures the growth of this event and outlines the major opportunities and challenges it faces moving forward.
Creative Mile is an annual open studios event in Brentford (2021-2022), initiated and managed by local artists, with support from Hounslow’s Creative Enterprise Zone and Creative People and Places programme.
The weekend long open studio style festival has developed strongly over two years and has developed a strategic vision for 2022 – 2027. Meeting the exhibition needs of locally based visual artists, Creative Mile has the capacity to become an important part of the cultural offer within the borough of Hounslow. It is deeply rooted in the life of Brentford: the Creative Mile concept was and continues to be from, by and with local artists.
This gives it strength: the creators of the event are committed - they live and work here, they shaped the event in line with their own, and their communities’, needs. Local partnerships are strong and there is commitment for it to continue.
The regeneration of Brentford offers opportunities to explore other venues, and to add new elements to the trail. It cannot stay the same because many of the current venues will not physically exist in the future. Hounslow’s Creative Enterprise Zone and Creative People and Places programme have been exploring the issues of the maintenance of existing studio and presentation space, working with locally based artists to identify needs. These two projects working together, linking with other stakeholders in the area, could be a formidable force.
Obstacles to its continued success
There remain obstacles to its continued success:
- Sourcing adequate funding to recruit a producer, fundraiser and administrator, in order to execute the Creative Mile vision and continue to command new levels of ambition amongst participating artists and venues
- Maintaining the quality of production in a challenging funding environment
- Innovating in a physically changing landscape (Brentford regeneration projects).
In 2018, Hounslow was awarded Greater London Authority’s Creative Enterprise Zone (CEZ) funding, a Mayoral initiative to designate areas of London where artists and creative businesses can find permanent affordable space to work; are supported to start-up and grow; and where local people are helped to learn creative sector skills and access pathways to employment.
Hounslow’s objectives include:
- The support and potential development of shared and open community spaces, enabling local talent to be showcased
- No net loss of shared and open community spaces within the zone
- A minimum four Open Studio type events or exhibitions/showcases per year featuring local talent
Also in 2018, Brentford artists Mr Mr Pearce and Sarah Stanley shared ideas about an open studios’ initiative, based on the format of a walking trail in Brentford, within Hounslow’s Creative Enterprise Zone. With no resources to take on an ambitious project of this size at the time this seemed like an insurmountable challenge.
Sarah Stanley noted the importance of artist involvement in the delivery of open studios, reflecting on her experiences at Johnson's Island, the artist community that she helped to set up:
There’s a direct correlation between how much effort people put into (open studios events) and attendance levels. It works best when everyone gets involved in inviting all their friends and relatives, sending emails out, leafleting their streets, etc. So we need to use the artist community to advertise… You have to really prepare well to get the most out of it, know your audience and know what you want to achieve.
With the work of the CEZ emerging and a CEZ funded Creative Network Coordinator (CNC) role in place to support the delivery of open studios as per the objectives noted above, a vision for an Art Trail in Brentford evolved.
Vision and planning
The vision was to host open studios, giving artists exposure opportunities based on the following values:
- Art is at the heart of the event
- Everyone is welcome
- It is not for profit
- It encourages self-expression
- It is an environmentally aware event
Beginning in December 2020, a group of artists and other stakeholders developed an operational plan for the newly named Creative Mile. A series of consultations and a working group took on the challenge of developing a brand and aims for 2021:
- To showcase the creativity of Brentford
- To provide a platform for artists to show their work, build an audience, and promote and sell work
- To create a local event that connects residents and the creative community as we come out of a national lockdown
- To provide opportunities for artists across Hounslow which is open to all art forms
- To build the Trail into a regular festival with scope for further development
Administration and management of the event was coordinated by the CNC, allowing the artists to focus on creating spaces for people to visit. Hounslow’s CEZ, Creative Enterprise West (CrEW) contributed cash funds towards the project and this was supplemented by artist participation fees and a grant from the Welcome Back fund.
In addition to the in-kind support contributed through the time of local artists and stakeholders, the project benefited from the role of the CNC, and the wider Creative People & Places Hounslow (CPP Hounslow) team that the CNC sits within.
CPP Hounslow is part of Arts Council England’s national investment in engaging new audiences in the arts, in areas where there is little or no access to arts and culture. In Hounslow, the approach has been to work from the grass roots up with the vision of creating a confident, colourful and creative Hounslow.
Watermans leads the Creative People & Places consortium in Hounslow.
Creative Network West is a network of creatives in Hounslow and is part of CPP Hounslow’s capacity building initiative that develops local artists and arts groups, and therefore arts provision, across the borough with the aim that Hounslow’s town centres will be thriving cultural spaces and Hounslow will be known for its innovation and creativity and its excellence in outdoor arts and festivals.
Brilliantly organised, it fostered a fantastic sense of community, of mutual support and dialogue across a diverse community. At a time of transition for Brentford it was thrilling to be part of something that put us on the map. Venue manager comment.
Love art! I love local artists! If we don’t value them, how will they survive?! Local and love art. WE NEED IT! Visitor feedback.
Legal entity and sustainability
After a successful initial event in 2021, with the majority of funding coming from CrEW and with support from the CPP Hounslow team, Creative Mile was at a turning point. It needed to fundraise but had no structure in place to do so. In addition, due funding arrangements, the CNC post was temporarily vacant.
This presented issues which can be summarised as:
- With a CNC no longer in place, who would manage the sizable administration of the project?
- Who or what entity would be legally and fiscally responsible?
- And what would the above mean for the future and sustainability of an annual Creative Mile?
After exploring options, Mr Mr Pearce took on the task of setting up a Community Interest Company (CIC) for the Creative Mile. CPP Hounslow offered business advice through The Real Business Club.
Mr Mr Pearce has the following reflections on the setting up of the CIC:
- Without having a CIC the festival would not have been able to continue
- It allowed for clarification of roles and expectations
- It gave Creative Mile, its artists and stakeholders freedom and autonomy, control to make decisions and the ability to be clear about how best to spend time and money
- The presence of an organised legal entity CIC helps to raise Creative Mile’s credibility and profile.
- Workload and responsibility were increased for Mr Mr Pearce due to the administration of setting up the CIC, business bank account, managing finances and legal obligations
It is estimated that each Creative Mile attracted approximately 3,000 visitors over the weekend, with some venues reporting up to 1,700 visitors. For the individual venues this is more visitors than they would normally expect. Redlees Studios typically get 450 visitors for their open studios, compared with 1,700 for this event and Johnsons Island typically get 600 visitors over an open studio weekend, compared to 1,700. Watermans reported 1287 visitors across Saturday and Sunday in 2022, which was double the visitor number in 2021.
Creative Mile has provided employment to local people. The Event Producer employed in 2022 was recruited locally, having been a volunteer at the 2021 event. Social media interns worked the weekend of the events, creating content to promote the event. They also undertook research and coordinated pre-event social media messaging, in liaison with artists.
The event developed a supportive ecosystem for artists at the same time increasing awareness of artists and makers.
Creative Mile is an affordable opportunity for participating artists to exhibit and showcase their work to a large public audience over the 3 days of the event. Participating artists' work was promoted on the Creative Mile website and through social channels. In addition:
- Local businesses benefited from increased trade
- Local museums and art centres benefited from increased visitor numbers and increased profile through the marketing campaign
- Many of the artists sold their work. Most of the artworks sold were typically around the £100 price point however one artwork sold for £1500, clearly demonstrating that some visitors had attended the event with the intention of buying art.
Creative Mile has been successful in its objectives in both years, in spite of facing major obstacles in advance of the 2022 event.
Creative Mile has raised the profile of the creative community both in Brentford and across the borough, and attracted local audiences. Over two years it has deepened relationships with local authority, community organisations, local businesses and charities to create a vision for the future of Brentford with creativity at its heart and established a CIC. Local businesses have been actively involved in Creative Mile, supporting and sponsoring the event in 2022.
Feedback from the visitors was very positive in both years:
A nice day of culture and art, to see new art and inspiration.
We love seeing the studios and different art. For enjoyment. For ideas. For uplift.
Feedback from the venues and local businesses was very positive, the following all come from 2022:
The event was busier than last year, with the visitor numbers up by almost 20% on the previous year. The artist Instagram Takeover was amazing…the Johnson’s Island artists' enjoyed the takeover aspect, appreciating the opportunity and found it fun. Kim Brown, Johnson’s Island
The museum was busier than last year. The marketing was great and the brand was strong. We really enjoyed being part of the event. Noeleen O’Gorman, Audience Development Manager, Musical Museum
I think it is a great event and want to offer full support going forward. Merlin McCormack, Duke of London
Opportunities and challenges
- The budget was significantly reduced this year which, at times, put pressure on the viability of the event
- For the organisers this was a distraction from the planning and delivery of the event
- The initial uncertainty of how the project would be managed delayed the start of planning of the event itself
- Increasing the cohesion of the event by addressing geographical gaps in the trail
- To involve new stakeholders with interest in the Brentford area.
- Regeneration in Brentford is happening quickly with various sites in the central area having heavy building activity. Some current Creative Mile venues will no longer exist as the building work develops. This gives Creative Mile an opportunity to exploit these changes, and to advocate for the maintenance and extension of studio space and exhibition/performance venues. Indeed the very existence of Creative Mile and Creative Mile CIC is actively demonstrating this need. The benefits to Brentford of the Creative Mile artists and associated activity has amply demonstrated what creative hubs can offer both local residents and businesses. Creative Mile attracted 3000 estimated visitors in both years in what was described by audiences as a ‘buzz’ and a ‘Brentford vibe’.
While new venues must be found due to regeneration, this presents opportunities for refreshing and reinvigorating the event. Introducing new venues will bring new perspectives and present different opportunities for use and interpretation of new spaces (for example the potential relocation of the Duke of London to the multi-storey car park on the High street). This will continue to link in to the ongoing work of CrEW and the Creative Network West in advocating and campaigning for rehearsal and presentation spaces for creative and cultural activity.
Thank you to Mr Mr Pearce and Sarah Stanley for their help with this case study.
All photographs © Cristina Schek