Jo and I met back in 1990 through an artists group brokered by the curator of Keele University’s gallery. This group was short lived but morphed into Stoke-on-Trent Artists Co-operative – comprised mainly of fine art graduates from, the then, North Staffs Polytechnic.
For quite a long time the Co-op did little more than meet in pubs in the Shelton area of Stoke, drink pints of mild and smoke roll-ups……oh yes…..and bemoan the fact that there were no purpose built, beautifully appointed, free studio spaces in which fine art graduates could create their wonderful, but little understood, work.
We did manage to get a grant from the city council for £250 and with this we were able to establish a bona fide legal co-operative (which I suspect still formally exists).
Having done that though it was back down the pub for another good moan.
Then into our midst came a rather straight talking Yorkshireman called Ian. He joined the Co-op but very quickly became fed up with all this “the world owes us a living” talk.
“I don’t think you really want studios”, he said. “I don’t think you really want to produce art work. If you did you’d do something about it!”
‘Shocked and affronted of Shelton’ complained that he just didn’t understand. There were no grants to fund studios. There should be publicly funded art space. The Council didn’t value art….society didn’t value art. It was an outrage. It wasn’t us….it was them!
A few of us met with Ian to hear him out. He argued that we should start small. We should work out what each of us could afford to pay each week for a studio. Then we should look for some space…..an empty industrial unit, say, and make the owner an offer. Surprisingly quickly we found an empty second floor space in an old silk mill in Leek.
We did secure a small amount of funding to buy a load of 5 x 8 chip board panels and we scrounged some white paint. In the course of a week we transformed the cold, dark, dirty and empty mill into cold, dark and dirty studios. Weeks later a beautifully top lit top floor became free (when a dodgy gym did a moonlit flit). We dismantled our panels and moved upstairs.
For the next 4 or 5 years we ran an entirely self-sufficient studio space which generated a small monthly surplus to fund PR for our frequent and increasingly ambitious exhibitions.
All this was pre-internet so we seem to have left almost no digital footprint.
Well it strikes me that there certain similarities between the fine art graduates in Stoke in the early 90s and a lot of the social entrepreneurial scene today. Bright young things full of ideas and expectations. In the 90s it was beer, roll ups and Filofaxes. Today it’s flat whites, Graze and iPhones. In the 90s it was looking to Councils and government quangos to provide the funding to turn dreams into realities. Now it’s getting hold of cash from UnLtd, Big Lottery or Nesta that is all that stands in the way of these exciting ventures that will make the world a better place.
But being an entrepreneur isn’t about sitting around in a trendy Hub at a kidney shaped orange ‘work station’ drinking expensive coffee and DMing other like minded graduates from your Apple Air laptop.
Starting a new business – social or otherwise – means having a half decent idea and then putting it to the test……..oh and lots of hard graft.
I love Stephen Fear’s essential tips for business start ups. He started with nothing – launching his oven cleaning start-up from a shared council flat bedroom, a phone box and a friends lock up. His mantra is to spend as little as possible, avoid any overheads, make do with what you’ve got. Focus on what you can do for your potential customer than fancy kit or flash offices…..
“Stick with your old banger or use public transport rather than taking on a car lease.”
If you think you’ve had a great idea and months or years later it is still only a great idea, then perhaps it wasn’t quite so good after all.
Or perhaps you just aren’t an entrepreneur after all.