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Bromley-By-Bow: How Bow Arts has found its forever home at Three Waters

Charity founder and CEO Marcel Baettig on the importance of providing space for artists

Bow Arts founder and CEO Marcel Baettig – image Matt Grayson

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BY LAURA ENFIELD

When the mini budget was announced last week, charities were left mostly empty-handed. It is a scenario Marcel Baettig, founder and CEO of Bow Arts, is well used to.

For the last 27 years, he has worked to generate the means to provide affordable workspaces and steady incomes for artists in Tower Hamlets.

Along the way, the charity has missed out on grants to help buy property, survive Covid and pay energy bills.

But it has thrived through a model that allows it to offer subsidised rents to artists and employment in creative projects for schools and community groups.

It has grown from supporting 50 artists to 500 and from one site – its headquarters in Bow Road – to operating in 15 locations spread across London.

Until now, it has only rented space.

But after more than two decades it has finally entered a new era with the purchase of its first building – on the ground floor of the Three Waters development at the meeting of the River Lea and Limehouse Cut canal.

“I’m absolutely thrilled,” said Marcel, a trained sculptor who established the charity in 1994.

“This secures our future. The aim has always been to use the income we generate from our buildings to support creative community services, like work in schools, public art galleries and different sorts of events. 

“We have been very unlucky with our timing.

“When we grew and property was affordable, there were grants around for organisations like ours to help buy buildings.

“But we were just a bit late and all the money had been given out.

“So we’ve had to be very steadfast, slowly save our pennies and get ourselves into a position where we could afford to buy something. 

“We’ve eventually managed to do that through the partnerships that we set up about five or six years ago with housing association Peabody.”

Nine months ago, it approached Bow Arts to create a permanent creative space on the ground floor of the scheme – a joint project with developer Mount Anvil – as part of its community contributions.

“We had been trying to buy something for a long time,” said Marcel.

“It’s the only way we can maintain low rents for artists and guarantee support for them in the future. If we have a landlord, they can put the rent up and then, so would we.”

The 57-year-old was inspired to set up Bow Arts after his own struggles as a sculptor.

He said: “I had quite a successful career but the trouble with this type of work is that it’s project-based and when you get to the end of that bubble, you have to start all over again.

“It might be six months before you get another commission if you’re lucky.

“So that was quite a hard way to live. 

“I just had the idea that if I could get a collective space, where there would be a group of people doing the same sorts of things, then we could control the rent by sharing it and share all the resources.

Bow Arts supports artists in east and south-east London – image Rob Harris

“I also happened to do quite a lot of education work in schools and with special needs groups – I knew artists had a lot of transferable skills.

“I thought it would be a way to get work and build up relationships in an area.”

He found an ally in Marc Schimmel, who had just supported Damien Hirst and helped kick off the Brit Art movement.

“He offered me Bow Road and helped me set up the charity – we were full within three months,” said Marcel.

“I’m the only failure, as I’m the one that hasn’t been able to go back to being an artist.”

The charity began saving for a deposit, but found it couldn’t keep pace with property prices no matter how fast it saved.

“We had finally saved £1million and my big fear was that we were going to lose all of that through the pandemic,” said Marcel.

“Luckily, we were able to hang on to it, which meant we just about had enough to get a mortgage and buy this property for £2.2million. 

“Where we get hit as a charity it is because none of our artists are higher earners – they are all below the VAT threshold so we’re not registered for VAT and we don’t charge VAT.

“But we have to pay it on the purchase – another £500,000 – and then the extra 20% for the fit-out. It is hard to make it affordable for artists.

“You’re constantly trying to work with the government or HMRC to find ways around it, but there is no provision to support the third sector in doing what it could do very well in this country. 

“It’s a real shame considering charities have taken on an awful lot of local services for councils over the past 10 years.

“A tax break would make a huge difference to us and so many other organisations.”

All of Bow Arts’ education work stopped during lockdown, but it was able to get some financial support from places like the Arts Council and the GLA to help artists keep renting their studios. 

Even so, it lost about 20% of its tenants and Marcel said the energy crisis had hit just as things were starting to bounce back. 

“None of the mainstream stuff ever comes to us because we’re a charity and it’s all targeted at businesses,” he said.

“We will try the best we can to get grants, but as artists, we’re used to not having a lot of money so we’ll just be putting on thick jumpers.”

The charity provides studio space for artists in London – image Rob Harris

Marcel said the charity had finally managed to achieve its goal of a permanent site now the property market was changing.

“People are asking themselves if they are going to get these prices for commercial space and what the alternatives are,” he said.

“Then there’s been a lot of interest in the creative sector and in this new area of business. 

“Over the last five years, there has been a real sea-change in London and awareness of the strength and the power of the creative economy. 

“There are a lot of empty buildings around and people have looked to organisations like ours who have many years experience in filling these buildings and keeping them full.”

Bow Arts’ low rents – which range from £100-£500 per month- have seen it stay 98% full since day one.

The charity creates a circular economy by ploughing at least 25% of that money into supplying services for the surrounding local area, such as arts programmes for schools and community groups.

It trains its artists to be the ones who deliver that work and they get paid for doing it.

The charity is overwhelmed by the demand for what it does, getting about 12,000 hits a month from artists looking for space. 

Marcel said it began building relationships with developers a few years ago to try to increase its supply of studios.

“We have worked with the GLA for many years because there is a creative workspace crisis in London with over 50% expected to be lost in the next few years,” he said.

“We started to form proper partnerships with organisations like Peabody, Notting Hill Genesis and Mount Anvil because they’re the guys that are building new places and we can work together to deliver creative workspaces.

“What has been quite incredible is the value added by building an artist community that works with local schools and organisations. 

“That has meant a lot of commercial landlords and local authorities have actually given us buildings at very reduced rates, so that we can actually develop this creative placemaking.”

Bow Arts first began working with Peabody in 2015 as a partner on its huge Thamesmead regeneration project.

The old Lakeside Centre was transformed into 40 artists’ studios, a community nursery, kitchens and a cafe.

Its plans for the 26,000sq ft of space at Three Waters will see it converted into 70 studios.

Marcel, pictured at Bow Arts’ Three Waters space – image Matt Grayson

Set to open in January, the launch will be celebrated with the award of the East London Art Prize, run by Bow Arts in conjunction with the V&A, UCL and the Whitechapel Gallery. 

“It has grown out of the East London Painting Prize and is all about encouraging new artists and promoting them, to bring as many into view as possible,” said Marcel. 

“We’ve had 670 applicants, which is phenomenal, and shows how many artists are out there.”

The shortlist will be announced at the opening of Three Waters with an exhibition of work held at the charity’s Nunnery Gallery in Bow.

The winner will get a cash prize, free workspace, an exhibition and support for two years until the prize is awarded again. 

“It is really hard for young artists in those early stages,” said Marcel.

“So an organisation like Bow Arts, which is absolutely committed to supporting them and maintaining affordable rent levels, is vital. 

“There’s so much talent out there and, as London pushes east, we’re opening up more markets for people who want to go into the creative sector.

“It’s become a very viable career.”

Bow Arts also supports the next generation of artists through its work with 100 schools across London. 

“We train artists very carefully to be able to deliver workshops, activities, commissions and things like that,” said Marcel. 

“Then we’ll develop long-term roles and partnerships with the individual schools and with consortium groups of schools to deliver a creative programme.

“A lot of the creativity has been taken out of the curriculum in mainstream schools. 

“We want to expand that operation and Three Waters means there will be permanent funding to support that work in Tower Hamlets and Newham, which will have a huge impact.

“There’s so much talent in the area.

“So many people from less privileged backgrounds just simply don’t know how to access the arts or even understand that there is a potential career for them there.

“We’re giving them those opportunities.”

Looking back, Marcel said it was strange how he’d changed alongside the charity, finding a new career without even realising.

“I would never have expected this if I’m very honest, as I always saw myself as an artist,” he said.

“I couldn’t have stayed as enthusiastic about it if it wasn’t such interesting work with interesting people. 

“I don’t just mean the creative community, it’s everyone we get to work with – developers, schools and the local community. 

“The support we’ve had and the interest from people has been really quite amazing. 

“So I have been distracted by this for the past 27 years and that time has really flown by.”

Read more: Discover east London firefighter Stephen Dudeney’s book

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- Laura Enfield is a regular contributor to Wharf Life, writing about a wide range of subjects across Docklands and east London 

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Royal Docks: How The Well Bean Co at Royal Albert Wharf is set to reopen

Founder Charlie Claydon tells us how he’s bringing the chocolate factory and cafe back after a fire

The Well Bean Co’s Charlie Claydon – image Matt Grayson

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The story of The Well Bean Co at Royal Albert Wharf starts with its founder’s social anxiety.

Suffering badly from an early age, Charlie Claydon struggled to make and sustain friendships. 

“By the time I was 15 or 16, I was not in a good place with my mental health,” he said. “I had considered taking my life – it was a really tough time. 

“I ended up getting into drugs and alcohol really badly at a young age, because it was my way of medicating myself.

“I didn’t know much about mental health at the time – it wasn’t really talked about in school then.

“So I went down that path, making things worse and worse for myself until I realised that enough was enough.

“My life was pretty bad, my relationships with my family and friends had broken down and that’s when I decided I needed to change direction.”

an opportunity

Charlie moved away from the village where he grew up, stopped drinking, smoking and taking drugs. He also found a job.

“I managed to get a position at a bank – the manager was a lovely lady and, even though I didn’t have the qualifications, she believed in me and gave me the job,” he said.

“Within six months I was stepping in as deputy assistant manager – she’d given me a chance, something I’d not experienced a lot before.

“A lot of people had said I wouldn’t amount to much and I’d started to believe that. I didn’t particularly like the financial world, but it was good money, I was good at it and I didn’t have many options open to me, so I kept working, moving into insurance and investments and doing some event management on the side.”

Eventually his career led him to London and a role with the Financial Ombudsman Service, based on the Isle Of Dogs. 

gut feeling

“I started off as an adjudicator – it was in the midst of the PPI scandal so they were employing lots of people from the industry,” said Charlie. “I was assessing cases and trying to figure out if people had been mis-sold policies.

“It was the first time where I had a job where I was helping people and doing something positive. 

“I quickly grew in the role and ended up becoming a lead adjudicator, making key decisions on cases, which was really exciting.”

At the same time, Charlie continued to struggle with anxiety, trying multiple strategies and remedies to cope.

“It was at this time he read an article about an entrepreneur who’d treated his bipolar disorder through diet.”

Long story short, Charlie tried a similar approach.

“I wasn’t really drinking or smoking, so I gave up coffee, sugar, wheat, and within a week I felt like a completely different person,” he said.

“It made sense to me – your brain and your gut are super connected, they’re both signalling each other all the time.

“I kept experimenting and then, I remember waking up for the first time and not feeling anxious in the morning.

“Suddenly I felt calm, I even wanted to go and hang out with people, having spent my whole life avoiding it. Over the years it has kept improving.”

shed heaven

Charlie’s focus on his diet and mental health became the foundation of the business he runs today.

“I was getting into plant-based food to help with my mood,” he said. “I was experimenting in the kitchen of the shared house I was living in – I’d never eaten plant-based food and it was tough to get my head around not having meat on my plate.

“Then I realised that I was also going to start missing things like chocolate, because it had dairy in it.

“At the time I couldn’t find anything on the market so I looked on YouTube to see how people made it, bought some ingredients and had a go.”

The experiment became a quest. Having failed to get great results with a bowl and spoon, Charlie continued on his mission to create quality vegan chocolate, buying machines to help with production. 

Eventually, to save his relationship with his house mates, he negotiated with his landlord to build a small shed in the garden and kept going.

Recipe after recipe followed and he eventually took some into work for his colleagues to try. Positive feedback sparked a change in direction.

Chocolate from The Well Bean Co – image Matt Grayson

chocolate factory

“When I realised that I was creating a product that was pretty delicious, I thought it could be a business,” said Charlie.

“I was already looking for a way out of the finance industry, because I wanted to do my own thing. 

“I was already volunteering and I thought I was going to be fully immersed in mental health but, actually being in that industry can be really hard, especially if you’re sharing your story the whole time.

“Having the chocolate was the balance – it was fun, so I thought I’d do a few markets and see how it went – people loved it. Because I’m impatient, I handed in my notice and decided to go for it.”

bench mark

Despite the concerns of family and former colleagues, Charlie sunk all the money he had into equipment and negotiated some table space in a cafe run by Bow Arts at Royal Albert Wharf.

The idea was that it would be a cheap option for his fledgling business and fun for customers coming in.

One table turned into two, then three, then four. Eventually Charlie wound up taking over the whole unit.

cafe community

“Then Covid hit and it was a really scary time,” he said. “We weren’t big enough for people to look for us online, and all the shops we were stocked in closed.

“We’d watched this balance sheet going up, we were really excited, we were doing very well, we’d put all our energy into it, we’d done markets, we were trying to branch out and we were having meetings with Selfridges.

“It was an exciting time, and then it all just stopped. The money just went overnight and it was a very tough time. All I could think was that I needed to save the business.”

The solution, it turned out, was for Charlie to take over the cafe, opening the doors during the pandemic to serve the local community.

Teaming up with actor Oscar Balmaseda – out of work due to Covid restrictions – the pair “fought like cats and dogs” as they served lines of hungry and thirsty locals, growing the business and working seven days a week.

In a year the business went from two to nine staff and Charlie had turned his thoughts back to chocolate as the pandemic receded.  

cruel flames

“It was time to get back to chocolate – we had two people and a production plan up on our whiteboards with a smart social media strategy in place,” he said.

“We’d just finished refurbishing the cafe and then two days later the fire happened.”

Disaster. In December in the run-up to Christmas a faulty new machine in the chocolate factory overheated one evening and caught fire.

Fortunately, the unit’s fire suppression systems kicked in limiting the spread of the fire, but smoke and water damage was extensive.

Worse still, the business was under-insured leaving a hole in its finances – a mistake made amid the chaos of the pandemic and the company’s rapid growth.

Charlie is working to reopen in March
Charlie is working to reopen in March – image Matt Grayson

back once again

However, the fire will not be the end for The Well Bean Co and its cafe. Ceilings, floors and surfaces have been scrubbed. Furniture has been cleaned, repaired or replaced.

The local community pitched in, raising money to help Charlie, and he and Oscar (who has also gone back to his regular job, performing in Mamma Mia! The Party! at The O2 in Greenwich) are busy getting the cafe and factory ready to re-reopen 

“We’re painting this huge building, we’ve got a new counter made of scrap wood and I’ve had to learn new trades I’ve never tried in my life before,” said Charlie.

“But that’s being an entrepreneur – you have to be savvy and learn loads of skills.

“Some things will be the same – we’ll still be serving our amazing hot chocolate that people travel miles for, but we’ve also taken the opportunity to change the menu.

“We’ll be doing plant-based lunch bowls, breakfast bowls and toasties – all super delicious and healthy.

“The factory hasn’t had its day yet, either – there are more plans we have for it – but I believe with a bit more love and attention, it can really soar.

“I want to say a huge thank you to the local community, because, when we had the fire it was devastating.

“This was because of the potential danger to the people who live above it, but also because my business was on fire, my livelihood, and I’d just finished refurbishing two days before.

“I didn’t want to come back. But the number of people who messaged me daily to say they’d help me rebuild made me realise people loved what we’d built and that it was worth bringing back.

“They raised an incredible amount of money to help me pay staff for a bit longer and, to this day we get people coming by saying how good it is that we’re reopening and offering help. The support has been amazing.”

Read more: How Tondo Pizza was founded around a passion for food

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Royal Docks: How puppet-maker Charlie Tymms creates magic through movement

The Royal Albert Wharf-based creative talks dinosaurs and intuitive working in the studio

Charlie Tymms with her T-Rex puppet
Charlie Tymms with her T-Rex puppet – image Matt Grayson

Royal Albert Wharf might look like a relatively ordinary residential area – brick clad oblongs arranged sensitively around both the waters of the dock and the older buildings in the area. But look behind the doors and windows of its lower floors and you’ll find a thriving community of artists and makers.

The presence of Bow Arts and Art In The Docks – which recently opened its artist-led project space at the development – ensures a rolling programme of public activities, helping the work spill out to a larger audience.

So when puppet maker Charlie Tymms, strapped and velcroed into her latest creation, steps out onto the quayside – tail whipping behind her – it only causes a minimal stir.

The beast is  one of a series of creatures she has made for The Dinosaur Show, a new production that enjoyed its maiden run at the Blue Orange Theatre in August. It’s also her first ever single-person puppet.

“He’s a really naughty character on stage and chases after the palaeontologist and nicks sweets out of her rucksack – he’s delightful,” said Charlie.

“While we were doing our research and development for this project – a really important part of the process – we had a puppeteer, the puppetry director, two producers and myself play around for three days with basic prototypes.

“It was really good fun because it quickly became The Dinosaur Show That Went Wrong

“We had the size of the theatre marked out on the floor and the sheer scale of the T-Rex – with its huge tail knocking things over – was where the part of the story about this one being really naughty came from.”

One of Charlie's sketches for the T-Rex
One of Charlie’s sketches for the T-Rex – image Matt Grayson

Collaboration has been a constant feature of Charlie’s career, which began when she was asked to do some scenic painting 25 years ago for her mum’s friend. She went on to work in set design and fell into her current area of expertise “by accident”.

“In terms of puppetry, which I now specialise in, I was asked to sculpt a full-size elephant – a massive polystyrene thing – with four people inside for the legs that could carry a small child on its back,” she said.

“It was for a Michael Morpurgo show called Running Wild and through that process I met this amazing puppet-maker called Nick Barnes, who is very well established. I’ve been making with him for years – almost as an apprentice – on loads and loads of projects. Then, through that, I’ve been gradually doing my own projects. 

“With Nick I’ve tended to be the sculptor and painter, while he designs all the armatures and mechanisms. 

“It’s a really nice process because everybody gets involved at some point – the puppeteers and the people producing the shows. I’ve gravitated towards collaborative projects because I like working with other people.”

Every project Charlie takes on is different but all her puppet creations involve translating an idea into a physical form that can be manipulated.

“For the T-Rex, I made the first model out of cheap plumbing pipes to try out the length of it and the harness,” she said.

“In the end the frame became more of a rigid structure as I decided on the best form of engineering for one puppeteer and the easiest way for them to control the dinosaur.

“I’m a very intuitive maker, so I don’t generally pre-design – I do it on the hoof but I do loads of anatomical research, so I’ve got hundreds of pictures of skeletons of T-Rexes – their skulls and anatomy – and loads of sketches.

“Then you start with the human and build it around them. In the end you want to ask the audience to believe that this thing has a life and a spirit.

“The puppeteers are amazing creatures in themselves, because they can bring things to life, but the maker can help the process enormously by where they position all the joints and where the strength needs to be to operate the puppet.

“So, with T-Rex the thighs are really important, because they’re just so massive – along with the head and the tail –  visually they are the anchor points.

“Then the audience can use their imagination to fill in the gaps. In this model, for example, there is no rib cage.”

Charlie demonstrates another puppet
Charlie demonstrates another puppet – image Matt Grayson

Those aged three and over watching The Dinosaur Show, will also have to use their imaginations when it comes to another of her puppets.

“We knew quite early on we wanted a large head of a brachiosaurus coming out and looking over the tree canopy, then craning into the audience,” said Charlie. 

“I wanted to make it really huge, but that would have been too terrifying so a head on a long neck is what we’ve ended up with. The children will be able to feed it leaves as it swings out.”

Charlie, who has produced owls for Harry Potter And The Cursed Child, been on puppet hospital duty for Wes Anderson’s Isle Of Dogs movie and created a Toto out of gingham scraps for Wizard Of Oz at the Chichester Festival, said watching her puppets in performance was always a mixture of anxiety and joy if the audience liked the show.

“With every job you learn a little bit more about how to do things in a better way, to solve problems,” she said. “It’s a very inventive life, which I love.

“Puppetry is definitely having a renaissance partly down to the success of His Dark Materials and especially War Horse, which put the puppet at the centre of the story.

“It was quite a radical statement for a theatre company to do that and it kind of lifted the genre.

“Then there’s Lyndie Wright of the Little Angel Theatre who’s a figurehead in our world and her daughter Sarah who set up the Curious School Of Puppetry a few years ago, that every year sees 12 puppeteers come out, which is having a real impact in terms of growth.

“Anyone interested in becoming a puppeteer should take a look at its website – curiouspuppetry.com.”

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