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Interview: Rob Howie-Smith

25 June 13 interview: Penny Reeve

A man literally opening doors for the creative and small business communities of Nottingham by repopulating derelict buildings.

Where did the interest in restoring dilapidated old buildings come from?
In the mid-nineties I did a restoration of the original Nottingham Playhouse, which is now Spanky van Dykes. That was what gave birth to my interest in spaces; what they look like and their history. It’s also a massive gap in the market - there are loads of derelict spaces, and so much stuff that artists can do with those spaces but no one’s really worked out how to do it.
But you have. Do you go in there and start working and then speak to the landlords?
That would be squatting, I go in there with permission, I talk to the landlords first.
You don’t do this illegally, then?
No, I’ve found out the legal way to do it. Having a fifteen year background and thirty-odd buildings behind me, I’m not playing anymore and that seriousness is bound to show. When I finish my PhD I’ll know what I’m talking about even more. I want to make use of empty spaces for people that need them and so far the landlords I’ve dealt with have been sympathetic to what we’re trying to create. It’s my ethics that keep it all as a social enterprise, affordable and workable for people in the community.
Is the enterprise personally financed?
Yeah. I’m not funded, I don’t like funding.
Are you a bit like a modern day Robin Hood?
I work with property owners and try to make creative spaces for poor artists - I guess I’m taking buildings from the rich and giving them to the poor. If anything, I’m just one of the Merry Men. There’s lots of Merry Men. I’d love to see more of the Robin Hood emblem featured in our city, but I guess the authorities think it could be tacky if it’s done wrong. Or perhaps they don’t have the creative imagination to implement it.
How long do you rent spaces to people for?
I work with the individual, there’s no rule. If you need space for a day, you get space for a day. Normally, if you make money then I’ll ask for a little bit of it, but if you’re not making money then - if I can - I’ll let you have it for free.
Why is it so important for people to have these spaces?
Everyone wants to have a go at starting a business or a collective. But how can they possibly afford the rent, the rates, the fitting out of an area, the thousands of pounds it costs to knock a space around to get what you want? There is no real help out there for start-ups or self-employment unless you’ve got money, take out a loan, or tick box upon box on application forms.
What made you so passionate about the project?
In all the spaces I’m dealing with there are businesses starting up or continuing and being able to access space to improve themselves, and that has a knock on effect. You can help one person, and if they are doing it right they can help twenty people, and so on. That’s the utopia of the world that I picture, rather than the oppressed one we’re in now where we have no idea how to make things happen. There’s a loan fund that’s been set up but is that really what people want? I’ve supported a lot of businesses and in the future I hope to support many more. It’s about giving people hope.
You’ve done a lot of work outside of Nottingham too...
The first project I did was a cinema in Hampstead Heath and the 491 Gallery which still exists as a community art space. Then we did some education spaces in Canterbury and a project in Brighton. Then we went up to Liverpool, chipped away and did about twenty more buildings over a period of about eight years. When all that was in full flow, I came back to Nottingham.
You’re doing a PhD on urban regeneration at the moment, is that what brought the Nottingham project about?
To the extent that the PhD is in urban regeneration and the creative community. I’m trying to document what I do, fit it into society and prove to the authorities that there’s a legitimate way to move forward.
Will you continue after you’ve finished studying?
At the moment I honestly don’t know, none of us really know what’s round the corner. I’m going to keep on with the buildings that I’ve set up for three to five years, in line with the PhD. Most of the buildings I take over are temporary, they have targeted development so I’m unsure of the longevity. I haven’t worked out what the future is and I struggle to survive as most people might. I don’t know how long I’m going to keep doing this, but I’ll keep trying to.
Out of the four buildings you’ve refurbished in Nottingham, which is your favourite?
I don’t love the buildings specifically, it’s the progress. I like the City Gallery because it’s warm in the winter. And I like The Corner because it’s almost purposefully built as an expansion for the people that started in Station Street. For example, Arrate Martin who teaches Spanish employs three people now and has a full agenda of Spanish classes throughout the week. She started out with a little £5 one-to-one in a little tiny room in Station Street. I was so chuffed that someone who started out with nothing was almost purposefully being built a space for her expansion.
Are you involved at all in the Creative Quarter?
I’ve got a building there, The Corner on Stoney Street, and I’d like to think I’ve helped to play a part in stirring things up. I’ve now got a building that creates footfall around The Lace Market, with art out on the streets, on the walls and stuff like that.
What do you hope that the Creative Quarter can do for Nottingham?
There’s a criticism that, from a regeneration point of view, we still have a lot of derelict areas that were promised to be regenerated fifteen or twenty years ago, so it might help to address those areas, like Sneinton Lanes. But we’ve got some great things happening and Hockley was even voted the fifteenth ‘Coolest Place to Live’ by The Sunday Times recently. That’s partly because of what we’ve done and because of the Creative Quarter, it’s all helped get a little bit more focus from the media.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline?
Yeah. I’m not going to tell you what they are, but I am currently looking at buildings in Leicester, as well as Nottingham. I hope I can get some key spaces, keep the places affordable and spaces accessible. If it doesn’t happen then local artists will inevitably move somewhere else and the Creative Quarter won’t be full of creatives anymore.

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