Nick James, 31, is a creative entrepreneur on a mission to create affordable studio space for artists in the north of England. He opened the Mushroom Works in Newcastle in 2005, then the Brick Works in 2007. He talks city councils, regional development agencies and the importance of building a community. You can also check out our funding microsite for a full list of funding organisations...
I’m a furniture designer, and about six years ago, I was looking for affordable studio space but couldn’t find any, so I started on this journey to create the Mushroom Works.
I bought a disused warehouse in Newcastle and converted it into 12 studio spaces and a small gallery, where artists can sell their work to the public. To make that happen, I pulled together £210,000 of funding. Some of it was my own – I went to the bank and for some reason they lent me the money. I also had £30,000 of support from Arts Council England and £15,000 from Newcastle City Council through their regeneration team. I showed my commitment to the project before I even requested funding – I bought the building myself.
The Mushroom Works was full even before the builders started refurbishment work. We have all sorts of artists here – from jewellers and painters to illustrators and milliners. It’s so important that it’s a diverse range – people can really benefit from being around each other.
By 2006, I had 30 people on a waiting list for space in the building, so I found another building in the creative east end of Newcastle. Because I had a track record, I was able to access about £150,000 for it from regional development agency One North East, who wouldn’t even take my call when I was setting up the Mushroom Works. I also raised about £180,000 from the bank, and the Brick Works [below] opened in 2007.
We then became a community interest company (CIC), which is halfway between a limited company and a charity. We do whatever we can to benefit the community – in our case, the creative practitioners we provide with affordable studios. It reassures funders that it’s not just me putting money in my pocket. CICs keep any money generated within the company and can get around state aid rules on government funding, as well as the red tape generated by charity status.
There’s still demand for projects like this – I’m in the process of buying a church and creating a space for Gateshead Council – but it’s an ongoing process. It’ll cost about £600,000; I’ve secured half of that from One North East through the European Development Fund, which is a continuing funding stream from Europe that our government can’t meddle with. I’ve also requested some from the Arts Council and from Gateshead Council.
In 13 years time, when all my mortgages are paid off, I can actually start making a difference with my work. I want not to have to rely on other funders and be able to rely solely on the business. I want to send people to work on the other side of the world for three months, to give someone a studio for six months for free. But that’s the big picture and a long way off. I hope we’ll get there.
You should be ambitious. When I first started out, it took me quite a while to get the guts to buy my first property – and now I’m on my fourth! At the start, I didn’t dare think I could create a community and a place where people can love and cherish and really thrive, I just thought I’d give people a chance by giving them cheap rent. If you’d told me in 2005 that we’d create a culturally significant organisation within the north of England in two years time, and that I’d now be driving a project worth more than £500,000, I wouldn’t have believed you. Dream big.
Nick James was talking to Miriam Zendle.
Read our articles about theatre funding, film funding and crowdfunding.