A host of benefits - good broadband connectivity, cheap spaces and beautiful countryside - are working to lure creatives and innovative businesses to Wales. Veronica Simpson reports
Not so long ago Swansea High Street was voted Britain’s worst shopping thoroughfare – by its own local newspaper. But the bleak vista of closed storefronts, pound shops and betting parlours has slowly become peppered with life.
A few years back, the highly acclaimed Volcano Theatre company, having been a roaming entity since 1987, set up shop here. In 2013, Elysium Gallery – a collective providing artist studio and gallery space – became its upstairs neighbours, filling the three floors of this former call centre with a colourful chaos of paintings, textiles and sculpture. In 2016, their shared street front was decorated by cutting-edge (and Swansea-born) graffiti artist Pure Evil, with the face of Elizabeth Taylor – a Hollywood movie icon, for sure, but just as famous for her entanglements with Wales’ most famous thespian, Richard Burton. Coffee shops, vintage stores and a zombie video game venue followed.
‘After years of neglect, the city’s once-proud gateway is now bustling with a new-found underground cool, housing spaces for art, theatre, music and food,’ declared an April 2016 edition of the South Wales Evening Post. Last September, The Guardian newspaper arrived to run a full-page story on Swansea High Street’s renaissance, followed in November by a news team from BBC Wales.
FCB Centre for Student Life
It’s been a long time coming but, if Swansea is anything to go by, the feeling is that the tide has turned in Wales, with the quality of work and projects emerging as well as the number of people moving to Wales to set up their own creative businesses. Many of these are returnees: for example, art curator and former YBA associate Jane Simpson is a Welsh-born refugee from the Big Smoke of London, whose contacts book includes Sir Peter Blake, Gavin Turk, Rachel Whiteread and Molly Parkin, and their output regularly pops up in her Galerie Simpson space and on Swansea’s high street.
Although Cardiff has been enjoying its own separate renaissance since Wales’ 1999 devolution consolidated its role as the region’s business capital, Swansea has proved there’s more to it than two universities and tourism based around its own most famous son, Dylan Thomas. The catalyst for the recent change in Swansea is housing association, Coastal, which has invested around £30m (half of it, public funding) in buying up the high street’s empty call centre, vacant shops and nightclubs and animating the street via cheap rents, and a call out to the city’s creatives. It also paved the way for the new-build Tech Hub, nearby, with space for 20 digital start-ups, and currently employs about 300 people. Tech Hub founder Paul Harwood is a graduate of the University of Wales; he told the BBC: ‘Swansea is probably one of the best places in the world to start a business,’ thanks to low costs, access to fresh graduate talent from the two universities, and its friendly, enthusiastic community.’
However, Huw Williams, commercial manager at Coastal, reckons ‘We’re still in the foothills’. Another Welsh returnee, Williams had been running an economic development programme called the Welsh Music Foundation, inspired by the burgeoning mid-Nineties’ indie music scene in Wales (Super Furry Animals, Catatonia, et al) prior to joining forces with the housing association, around 2008. What he brought was a bigger vision about how a mixed-use proposal, with some inputs from creatives and innovative businesses, could help bring some traction to the company’s residential ambitions in Swansea. Says Williams: ‘I said you need more to hang any regeneration on more than just housing’. The initial recruitment of artists, galleries, tech start-ups ‘was just to make the area a nicer area to live in. The addition of creating good jobs, retaining graduates and providing spaces for artists has become important for what we’re doing as well.’
Artes Mundi, Cardiff
Williams reckons the high-street venture actually benefitted from the appalling state of the UK economy when Coastal bought the properties – because people who would otherwise have chosen a less desolate spot than Swansea High Street could be tempted with free space. ‘Over the past eight years we’ve built built on that and there’s other stuff springing up. Some new software companies have moved in – quite big companies, RAP international, Wolfestone Translation, and Inngot. This is in addition to the Tech Hub (launched in 2013 with six members and 275 sq m office space, and now has 100 members). When companies with 40-50 staff come here, that has quite a big effect on the local economy.’
One of Coastal’s first tenants, Elysium, is run by co-director Jonathan Powell, who shows me around, revealing the space it rents out to the local art college for its MA students, as well as introducing me to the maverick assortment of new and established artists who are settled there. Elysium has been going since 2006, when Powell was an art student himself. It started in another empty space, where ‘we were just interested in putting up a lot of art work’.
Swansea then was ‘in a terrible state’, says Powell. ‘A lot of buildings were waiting to be knocked down, derelict or empty. There were only about three shops along here, including an off-licence. A lot of people who came here had social problems, drug and drink problems. In 2007, it was voted Britain’s worst high street, after about 30 years of decline.’ Elysium found it easy enough to find cheap studio and gallery venues in Swansea, but hopped around from space to space until Coastal offered it something more permanent. As well as the high street studios, it has outposts on College Street, and in the old Baron’s nightclub, famous for the 1997 cult movie Twin Town. There are now 100 artists working in and around the area, thanks to the Elysium/Coastal partnership, making it the biggest provider of artists’ studios in Wales.
And there’s more in the pipeline for this recovering city: future developments for Swansea include Icon 21, a £50m 700-flat student tower on the high street, due to finish in 2018, which will bring a lot more business to the local pubs, cafés and theatres. More than 4,000 student flats are planned for the city, whose waterfront bristles with university buildings. In 2015, a £500m transformation of Swansea city centre was promised, including a 3,500 seat arena, and a new leisure and hospitality area called ‘city beach’. A BBC report also said that the council was working with BT on a project to develop the fastest broadband in Europe in the city, which will help its tech hub status no end.
Fifty Sisters: Jon McCormack (2012) Winner of Lumen Prize 2016 Still Image Award. It depicts a speculative plant form McCormack created from 50 1mx1m images of plant-forms, then algorithmically ‘grown’ from computer code. Each form bears the graphic elements of logos of oil companies – this one is inspired by the Esso logo
In terms of projects completed, another major landmark for the city, the Glynn Vivian Gallery, reopened in 2016 after a major £6m refurbishment that includes a contemporary lecture theatre, new café and shop space, and new education spaces provided by Powell Dobson, a practice with offices in Swansea, Cardiff and London. The city is clearly trying to get with the programme, maximising its existing assets – including a high-quality makeover for its Dylan Thomas museum, delivered by Real Studios, in 2014.
And there’s economic and creative life bubbling up outside of Swansea and Cardiff, the magnets of south Wales. Cardigan’s economy – boosted by the arrival of Howie’s, a cool, young mail-order fashion company whose owners, David and Clare Hieatt – former ad execs – took advantage of the closure of Dewhirst Jeans factory in 2001, and moved the manufacturing of their ethical jeans and T-shirts there. They subsequently sold Howie’s to US giant Timberland, but the couple has stayed on to launch another, higher-end jeans brand Hiut Denim, continuing to manufacture locally.
In Bangor, the oldest intact bishop’s palace in Wales has been converted into a new art gallery and museum, Bangor Storiel, completed in 2016 as part of a Gwynedd Council and Bangor University initiative to create a new cultural quarter in the city. And Elysium gallery’s Powell has been doing his bit to sprinkle the culturally led regeneration fairy dust a little further, helping to establish a series of pop-up creative spaces in Wrexham, north Wales, under the Undegun banner. He says: ‘Wrexham is… almost like Swansea was 10 years ago, really crippled by empty shops. It’s a beautiful place.’
Hyperplanes of Simultaneity (2015): Fabio Giampietro & Alessio de Vecchi. Samsung Gear VR Unity Lumen Prize Gold Award winner, this innovative work uses virtual reality to allow the viewer to appear to step into an actual painting of a towering cityscape
Powell says creative hubs are now popping up ‘all over the place’. As an ambassador for arts-led entrepreneurism, he’s given talks in Bridgend and Haverford West recently. He also cites an inspiring community-led venture in Cardigan, where the locals apparently got together to buy a derelict shopping centre and convert it into music studios and community space. But a lot more support still needs to go outside of Cardiff, he says – a cry that is taken up by many of those interviewed for this feature.
‘There’s a definite Wales vs Cardiff thing,’ he says. ‘Cardiff gets all the money, as always happens with capitals. I’m from Bangor myself, in north Wales, and I’m aware how bad it’s got up there. More needs to be done.’
Sarah Pace, who moved out of London a few years ago to set up creative arts consultancy Addo with Tracy Simpson, with offices in Pontypridd and Wrexham, is optimistic about the new mood and appetite for the arts in Wales. She says: ‘For a small country, there’s a lot going on in Wales, both in the urban centres and rural areas. Despite national and local government cuts in funding, I think Wales’ creative scene has fared better than in other parts of the UK. For example, the Welsh Government-led Creative Schools Scheme has its problems but shows an overwhelming philosophical and financial commitment at a national level to the arts and culture.’ This is backed up with the Welsh Government’s Tackling Poverty through Culture agenda, which Pace feels ‘is an acknowledgement of the importance of arts and creativity to people’s everyday lives.’
And what Wales does seem to have is a magnetic attraction, both for returning artists who have had enough of the more cut-throat, flashier urban metropolises, and also for creative businesses looking for a cost-effective but attractive base.
The Lumen Art Prize, for example – a global prize for the recognition and promotion of digital art – was launched from Wales in 2012 by former financial (tech) journalist and art lover Carla Rapoport, after she realised that, with a half decent internet connection from her husband’s family home in the Brecon Beacons, she could combine her twin passions for the Welsh countryside and digital art to help put this, then under-the-radar art form, on the map. She was welcomed with open arms.
Rapoport says: ‘Within six months of founding the Lumen Prize, we won support from the City of Cardiff’s Economic Development Team and our first Winners’ Prize Ceremony was held in Cardiff’s historic City Hall. This seed money – and the introductions provided by the city – allowed us to network into important art and creative groups in the city such as G39, ArcadeCardiff, OrchardMedia, and Cardiff Business Technology Centre. We have since found support with the Arts Council of Wales and Cadw, the Welsh Heritage organisation, for our show in Caerphilly Castle.’
Cardiff, thanks in part to the BBC setting up an outpost there, is home to a quarter of all Welsh creative industry jobs, with some 7,500 in the capital. According to a recent statement by Cabinet Member for education Sarah Merry, ‘The creative sector is one of the fastest growing in Wales, seeing employment increasing by 17.5 per cent between 2009 and 2014.’ Since then, the city has launched Contemporary Cardiff, a city-wide arts festival, run every autumn, which promotes Welsh artists. There’s also been the launch of Creative Cardiff, a networking initiative, from Cardiff University.
Nesta, the Government-funded innovation foundation, has a base there and launched its Digital Innovation Fund for the Arts in Wales in 2015, supporting arts organisations. Last year, it set up Y Lab, a partnership between Nesta and Cardiff University. The university is also driving improvements to the city’s fabric. It recently announced the winners of a major competition for new buildings within a new campus master plan by Moses Cameron Williams Architects.
Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (FCBS) won the prestigious £50m 'Centre for Student Life' project. Hawkins\Brown was chosen from a shortlist – understood to have included the formerly snubbed Cardiff Bay Opera House architect Zaha Hadid Architects – for a new Innovation Central building. And HOK was chosen for a Translational Research Facility, comprising the Cardiff Catalysis Institute and Institute for Compound Semiconductors. Both Hawkins\Brown’s and HOK’s winning schemes will be part of Cardiff’s new £300m innovation campus in the Cathays district.
Added to all this is the Welsh Government’s approval to lease part of Porth Teigre to Igloo/Box City, developer of Cardiff’s arts and music venue Tramshed, to create the UK’s most ambitious cultural quarters.