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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.”

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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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Thamesmead: How Peabody’s Southmere scheme is transforming Abbey Wood

Housing Association has 30-year plan to refresh a massive slice of London connected to Crossrail

An artist’s impression of Peabody’s Southmere Village

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A t present, the journey from Canary Wharf to Abbey Wood takes a little over 40 minutes.

The various Frankenstein options available involve much chopping and changing – the Jubilee line, the DLR, the 486 bus and Thameslink can all come into the equation. It’s anything but direct.

But, if the seers are to be believed, all that’s about to change. When Elizabeth line services start running (perhaps as early as March, if the optimists have it right), Abbey Wood is set to be the end of the line for Crossrail’s central and eastern section.

That will put it squarely in touch with a whole swathe of central London, which is currently much trickier to travel to. The Wharf itself is expected to be around 11 minutes’ ride on a single train.

Why does this matter? Effective transportation is the lifeblood of regeneration. In east London, this is best demonstrated by Canary Wharf itself, which struggled as a project until the Jubilee line extension arrived.

What such connections mean for residential areas is possibility – the ability to rapidly access different parts of the city and the things they offer makes living in an area a richer experience.

It’s also a two-way street. Visitors come back the other way, further enlivening a place and befitting its residents.

Peabody’s Matt Foulis at the Southmere marketing suite – image Matt Grayson

No wonder Matt Foulis of Peabody is smiling. London’s oldest housing association took over ownership of Thamesmead, served by Abbey Wood to the south, in 2014 and has a 30-year plan to regenerate the area.

But as project director, Matt’s enthusiasm isn’t drawn solely from the opportunities Crossrail will bring.

It’s because he already knows what the area has to offer and can see how it will continue to develop over the course of the next three decades.

“We are under way on a the delivery of around 20,000 homes at Thamesmead,” he said.

“We completed our first development – The Reach – a couple of years ago, we’ve just started on a site at Plumstead in partnership with Berkeley and we are currently delivering what we’re calling Southmere Village – phase one of our regeneration of south Thamesmead near Abbey Wood station.”

When completed, Southmere will see 1,600 homes built across four sites close to Crossrail, new public space in the form of Cygnet Square and The Nest – a library and community centre – as well as commercial space for shops, restaurants and bars.

The scheme offers a mixture of properties available for social rent or to buy either on a shared ownership basis or via private sale. Residential blocks Starling Court and Kestrel Court are due to complete in the coming months, with strong sales reported. 

A collection of one, two and three-bedroom shared ownership properties is set to launch at Crane Court on February 12.

An artist’s impression of Peabody’s Southmere Village

Matt said: “Our properties have sold really well – I think people are really buying into the wider vision for Thamesmead.

“Over the last two years in particular, everybody has woken up to the importance of green space and proximity to water and the impact they can have on your life, your health and your wellbeing.

“That’s what we have here – Thamesmead has five artificial lakes with Southmere the biggest and they’re connected by a network of canals.

“They were designed as a surface drainage system but it means we have these fantastic assets that people can enjoy, surrounded by really impressive green spaces.

“Peabody owns, operates and manages all of these areas so we’ve got overall control of everything that’s going on in the area and that has a real impact for not only the people we’re trying to bring to the area, but also existing residents.”

Beyond the infrastructure, Peabody is also working to boost the cultural capital of Thamesmead, perhaps best known for its Brutalist architecture.

This served as a backdrop to Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian cinematic nightmare A Clockwork Orange and, more recently, in the music video for The Libertines’ What Became Of The Likely Lads.

A show apartment at the development

Matt said: “We’ve got a huge programme that we’ve been operating for the last four or five years.

“That includes things like a regular one-day festival curated by local residents in Southmere Park, which attracted 6,500 visitors last year.

“People who may never have heard about the area or visited it are starting to hear about it and it’s starting to draw people in, which has been fantastic.

“We’ve also set up a culture forum so people living here can help shape what goes on locally.

“That’s grown and grown – we’ve supported theatre productions and a live performance of the film Beautiful Thing, which was made in Thamesmead a few years back.

“It’s these sort of things we want to do – grass-roots, community-led projects that are really accessible. 

“We’ve had dance troupes, drummers and gymnasts perform in housing estates – things that are visual and tangible that people from all backgrounds, young and old, can really enjoy.

“This year we have a project called Fields Of Everywhen, which will see two artists inflate and fly an enormous hot air balloon made from tapestries that capture the personal stories of local residents.

“They spent two years working on it and finding out what makes Thamesmead tick. These activities are being driven by Peabody and we’re here for the long term.

“We expect there to be around £10billion of investment in Thamesmead over the course of the 30-year plan.

“For example, with funding from the Greater London Authority, we’ve refurbished a building called the Lakeside Centre on Southemere Lake to provide artists’ studios, a cafe, a training kitchen and a nursery – that’s being operated by Bow Arts. 

“Next to that we’ll shortly be letting a contract to build a boating and sailing centre to be run by the YMCA, which has operated on the lake for 30 years.

“It’s about making sure we’re providing amenities for everybody to enjoy with activities like kayaking, sailing and paddleboarding. 

“Eventually we’d really like to open up the canal systems so people can use them to move around Thamesmead in addition to the cycle routes and pavements.”

The shared ownership properties set to be released at Crane Court offer prospective buyers open-plan living areas, balconies and floor-to-ceiling windows in distinctive brick-clad blocks within easy walking distance of Abbey Wood station.

“They will be fantastic places to live,” said Matt. “We’ve tried to maximise views over the lake and newly built Cygnet Square where people will have all the amenities they need on hand.

“There’s car parking in secure courtyards under the blocks with podium gardens that are communal but for residents only.

“There will also be an on-site concierge service with a residents’ lounge that people can use to work from if they choose.

“Combine that with the restaurants and cafes, which will be opening around the square later this year, and that will give people  a lot of flexibility if they’re not going into the office.

“I’ve already seen people logging into the Wi-fi on seats around the lake with their coffee and doing the first two hours while sitting by the water.”

When investing in property, there’s also the future to think of and Peabody has big plans for the wider area including an extensive development to the north west of Southmere along the banks of the Thames.

There it hopes to attract an extension to the DLR across the river from Gallions Reach, further boosting local connectivity – not a bad time to get in on the ground.

Prices for shared ownership properties at Crane Court start at £91,500 for 30% of a one-bed, based on a full market value of £305,000.

Two and three-beds start at £118,500 and £153,000 respectively for the same proportion, based on full market values of £395,000 and £510,000.

Read more: Estate agency Alex Neil hails booming market

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