Stour Space on Fish Island began as an abandoned warehouse – ten years on it is a thriving creative venue with a packed programme of arts and community activities, and has been listed as an Asset of Community Value. We ask how Stour Space can safeguard its artistic soul in the heart of Fish Island’s redevelopment.
Stour Space sits on the bank of the River Lea, a rare remnant of Fish Island’s industrial heritage. The former warehouse, kitted out with three stories of upcycled material, is as open and airy as it is eclectic. Light spills down from homemade skylights over a jumble of gallery and studio space. Art covers the walls, and beneath a great glass-fronted mezzanine the cafe bustles along smelling of fresh coffee and sourdough bread.
It’s a luminous, bustling setup, but it has been a labour of love to get Stour Space to this point. When founders Neil McDonald and Rebecca Whyte moved in, the space was empty save for a smashed up car and a pile of number plates. That was part of the appeal; a clean slate. A single, expansive space in which to build a little world.
And they have. Stour Space has grown into a community bedrock. With Hackney Wick and Fish Island freshly anointed as one of London’s Creative Enterprise Zones (CEZ), Stour Space finds itself in a unique position. The CEZ offers a chance not only for Stour Space to survive, but for it to champion a fluid grassroots model on a national stage.
Stour Space was always meant to be fluid. McDonald designed the space to be open. Artistry didn’t have to be insular. Indeed, inspiration often comes from interacting with other creative people. It’s good for the muse, and the mind. Stour Space’s tumbling design was shaped around that principle.
McDonald and Whyte ‘moved in’ during January 2009 – hence the tenth anniversary – and secured a lease in July of the same year. Construction quickly became a kind of informal skillshare. As the build progressed, island residents started to pop their head in. Some asked if they could help. What you see today was built by locals for locals, a process that created a near-instant sense of community ownership.
Ten years on, the venue adapts to the activities of it hosts. On any given day it may transform into a yoga studio, a wedding venue, or something else entirely. The gallery itself ticks along showcasing work by artists near and far.
Association of value
An essential principle of the Stour Space model is association of value, which is to say it does a lot of things that don’t make money and pays for them with the things that do make money. Stour Space is a non-profit outfit, and it the money it makes profitable areas is used to subsidise activities that benefit the community.
Free events are regular at Stour Space, including free yoga and sketching sessions, and weekly pay-what-you-feel community dinners. The model also allows Stour Space to offer studio space at a far lower rate than it costs to run.
It’s all in the name at Stour Space. ‘Stour’ has a dual meaning of tumult and a cloud of particles. McDonald has always felt that appropriate. Artists are nothing if not a little turbulent, but there is a sense of unity at Stour Space, of diverse elements coming together to form a richer whole.
Taking grassroots national
Tales of cheap studio space and non-profit community hubs have a pretty reliable, not terribly happy ending. Stour Space is relatively unique in that the organisation looks a lot further than its own survival.
Creative hubs popping up when rent is cheap then disappearing when redevelopment comes knocking is not sustainable. Sustainable, affordable creative hubs require structural change, and to achieve that it’s not enough being one organisation fighting The Man.
Under the stewardship of directors Neil McDonald and Juliet Can, who joined in 2010, Stour Space has stepped up from Asset of Community Value to Community Development Trust, and from there has become a leading voice in the task of integrating new arrivals to Hackney Wick and Fish Island with the existing community.
Following the December announcement that Hackney Wick and Fish Island would be one of London’s first ever Creative Enterprise Zones, Stour Space now finds itself in a position to present grassroots community models on the national stage.
The building strikes quite a defiant pose these days, sitting as it does in the shadow of Fish Island redevelopment. As McDonald is the first to admit, at present the CEZ is little more than a line on a map. The task that lies ahead is ensuring everyone inside that line is protected in a way that is sustainable and cooperative.
Sitting at the intersection of redevelopment and sustainable creative community, Stour Space feels emblematic of a kind of crossroads. It has weathered a decade of Fish Island life, thrived in it, and in that time has become something of a safe harbour itself.
Whether people are there for a muffin or for studio space, a kinship is clear. As Hackney Wick and Fish Island prepare to define their CEZ status, one hopes there will be room for the Stour Space ethos.
What can locals do to help? Donations are always appreciated, but McDonald and Can are adamant that the best way to support Stour Space is simply to use it, to visit and make it your own. Drop by, grab a coffee. It just may be the first of many.
If you enjoyed this piece you may be interested in reading about the history of Fish Island
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