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Interview with Nichole Herbert Wood: Social Entrepreneur and CEO of Second Floor Studios.

Updated: Apr 18, 2021

A transcription of Laura Harris's instagram live conversation with Nichole Herbert-Wood, CEO of Second Floor Studios and Arts.

LH: Okay, hi everybody, tonight we are going to speak with Nichole Herbert Wood, who runs a large studio complex in the South East of England. Welcome to all of the artists that are tuning in today. I’m super passionate about all things creative, art studios and how and why artists can make their work. It's just so exciting to be able to speak with somebody who is so heavily involved in providing art studios all across London.

NHW: Thank you very much. Good to be here.

LH: So Nichole, just to start, tell me about your background, your education and how you came to start up Second Floor Studios and Arts?

NHW: Okay, my background is comprehensive school, after which I went on to study economics at university. And then I went into retail, and I was in retail for about 10 years. I got really bored of the fact that the new Black was the new Navy was the new Chocolate was the new Gray! And it all just felt pretty vacuous. I decided about 10 years ago that I wanted to be a social entrepreneur. So I set up an art business through which I met Matthew wood, who is the founder of Second Floor Studios and Arts. In 1997, he needed space for himself to practice both his Theatre Arts and his visual arts. And through that, he took on a building. And then he let it out to his friends. And then the rest, as you say, is history. He set the direction since 1997. So yes, I think we're in our 23rd year of operating, which is all a bit crazy. It makes me feel very old.

LH: That's making me feel old as well.

NHW: Yes. He set up the company and he was running the largest single studio project in London, back in 2013. But sadly, he became very ill and acquired a brain injury. So I've been running the business since 2016. But yes, if he was here now, he jokes that he is strategy, and I'm delivery.

LH: He’s on the call!

NHW: Oh, yes, he wouldn't let me do this without you know, giving me a critique afterwards.

LH: It's great getting a critique after one of these. So Matthew is still heavily involved today, though?

NHW: Yes, very much. So we know when we're looking at new sites, you know, he will do the studio design, and the layout, and he talks with all the builders while I'm doing the admin and the numbers. So it's been on me to arrange all the financing, which is really, really tricky. Social investment is not an easy thing to achieve. But you know, if you look at it, we were running it back in 2016. We were running 410 Studios on a single site. But we didn't have any security of tenure. So we decided to branch out in a way that gave us much firmer foundations. So we bought, we bought one site, and we've got another three that were that we're managing now. And it's only hard for us to potentially buy another two, if not three sites, if we can raise enough finance.

LH: And to give us a sort of sense of the location of the studios, do you mind just letting us know where they are, so that people have some idea if they haven't heard Second Floor Studios and Arts before?

NHW: Yes, our biggest project is called the Deptford foundry. That's on Arklow Road in Deptford and we've got another small little tiny project in Deptford foreshore, then we have a site at Wembley Park and a test site out in Sevenoaks High Street.

LH: Wow. All over London and environs as well. How many artists do you support? And what kind of artists do you have in your studios?

NHW: So we probably support about 170 humans and about 60 workers that work with those people in their spaces. And we have quite a broad remit of who we take in, we're unusual in our sector, in that we're not a charity. We are configured, we have company configurations as a community interest company, and we're a limited company, which gives us more flexibility and freedom. Because we're not having to meet charitable aims, this means that we can accept a much broader definition of visual artists into our studios. So we are very much there for the finances, as you would expect, but we also welcome makers. And unusually for us, the first time we've done it, and again, it was you know, it's about making the economics work. We've invited the creative industries into the depth of foundry project. So out of 85 studios, there, we have 13 that are allocated to creative industries. So that's architectural graphic designers, brand designers, pattern cutters and other commercial artists. So we hope that, in turn, they are being paid a commercial rate.

LH: Yes. So one of the problems that artists tend to have is to find affordable art studios, as we know, and also the fact that many buildings have been now converted into flats. And I know that one of your key things is sustainability. I wanted to ask you how you approach that, because in reality, it's actually quite difficult, isn't it, to be very ethical, and to sort of fight with large property magnates, you know, to save this land for artists? I just wondered how you do that, because you talk about that a little bit.

NHW: It's actually very difficult to save old buildings at the moment, because if you're saving an old building, you're effectively stopping the refurbishment of that site. So what we're trying to do is work with developers in a cohesive way. So we're saying, Okay, look, we'll come in on the ground floor, maybe the first floor, and then you can sky build, you know, apartments, because, again, they have to make the economics work. So for them, if we go into a mixed-use site, the developer buys the site, and they develop it, and they don't know, you know, do 300, or how many of the apartments, they're going to put in that development. If they can make enough profit on that development, we can then come in on the ground floor and run affordable studio provision. But there's a piece of planning called section 106, which at the moment, still is in situ.

And that's where it's imposed upon developers to give back in some way to the community because they are intensifying the land that they're occupying. And that's section 106 is what enabled us to buy the depth of foundry, and we bought it on a 250-year leasehold. This goes back as well to Matthew and his strategy. He identified a number of years ago, that we unless we bought our own assets, we would always be at the mercy of extrapolating rents. So if we're, you know, being charged 10 pounds per square foot, and then 15, and then 20, and then 25. Ultimately, we have to pass that on to our studio members. And we didn't want to be in that position. So we've been a bit brave. And we've opened in London within zone two, the largest project of its kind in Deptford Foundry. And we've got on a 250-year leasehold. So our ambition is to protect that workspace for the next six generations behind us. It's not just about the here and there now and the artists now, it's also about who's behind us. And we've already put in place legal frameworks that once Matthew and I are no longer on this earth, all of our assets move into the community interest company that we have, and they get asset locked.

We're doing what we're doing because it has to be about legacy and it has to be about perpetuity, it has to be about affordability. And we only have the option to be charging affordable rents. Ultimately, if we own our own sites, I mean, we've got a massive mortgage on the Deptford Foundry, but once we've paid that off, we don't need to be collecting as much rent as we are now. So, you know, I hope in 20 years’ time, we might be able to actually be putting the rents down rather than up. I think that in a very small way we're trying to protect and buy assets for artists now and also in the future.

LH: That really feeds into your approach to business, in terms of sustainability.

NHW: I’m having a glass of wine; I hope you don't mind.

LH: No, absolutely not. That's another thing, that artists need space to create, they don't need to be involved in all of the, you know, the planning, and the legal jurisdictions, and all of that heavy protocol that goes on behind the scenes in any building that you use for work or where you live or whatever. And that can actually be quite stressful for a creative person. So for you to take that stress away, and kind of work on all of that paperwork in advance. And obviously, whilst those artists are still using those buildings, I just think it's fantastic. And you're building, you know a London for the future.

NHW: It really is our philosophy to let artists have peace in their studios and get all the admin out of the way for them. And it's for Matthew and I to lobby for the artists on their behalf. And we do, you know; I sit on the GLA workspace advisory board. And they're bored of me banging on about anything over 15 pounds per square foot is not okay, if you if you're going to classify as affordable. We've set up London's Affordable Artists' Studio Network, because we want to keep advocating. And we see it that we have a responsibility for everyone that's in our studios to speak on their behalf, to get to know then and to give them the piece that they need to be the creative and authentic selves that they want to be. And we take on the business side of fighting their corner.

LH: And then another question I want to ask you, I know artists, so friends of mine that are potters, or use kilns. There are quite a lot of fire restrictions and lots of buildings across London. So I've noticed that you are quite open to the different types of artists that you work with? And do you make sure that you have certain sort of purpose - built parts or studio within the building, so that people can use equipment that might be dangerous, for example, or might potentially cause a fire?

NHW: Everything that comes into our studios has to be pat tested. So you would hope that it's all functioning well, and kilns are, you know, they do go up to exceptionally high temperatures, but all within a controlled environment. If you look at the sort of the structures that we're going into, a number of them have concrete floors. So they're actually, you know, pretty robust environments, and you've got a higher floor to ceiling heights on the ground floor. So you have more air, you know, you've got to make sure you've got air circulating around the kiln and that sort of thing. But it hasn't affected anyone's insurance. We do build specifically ground floor studios, with makers in mind, including ceramics. So we have a much higher voltage distribution. So you can just plug in your kiln, we make sure there's three phase power available, and you've got sinks in every ground floor studio. And that has attracted an awful lot of ceramicists to The Foundry in particular.

LH: Do you build an exhibition spaces into these new studio complexes?

NHW: At the foundry, we've got nearly 1000 square foot of exhibition space, which is known as the No Format gallery. Unfortunately, at the moment, it's closed for obvious reasons. But I think the year the 12 months preceding COVID, I think we've turned 26 shows in 12 months. It’s a busy piece of community programming. Often people have their first solo shows with us. You know, we're not a commercial gallery. We are a gallery that's for artists, so it's positioned to be very affordable, and to provide opportunity, rather than do anything else.

LH: It's amazing. Have you found that the pandemic has slowed down the building of, or operating the studios?

NHW: We've actually seen about a 25% increase in studio inquiries during the pandemic, because I think a lot of people are reevaluating their options and their lives and how they spend their time. We are very, very fortunate in that the way that we occupy our studios, because we're not a charity. We build all of our studios to be within the, it's getting a bit technical, sorry, but I'll go fast. But basically, we build our studios to be below the valuation threshold of 12,000 pounds a year. And that means that everyone is eligible for small business rate relief. And it just so happens that in March last year, the government took the decision that if you were eligible for small business rate relief, they will give you a 10,000-pound grant. So all of our studio members have had 10,000-pound grants on for three of our sites. Therefore, they've been able to keep their studios. So we've maintained 100% occupancy, through most of our sites.

LH: If only I had been an artist at your studio, Nicole!

NHW: The government handout, 10,000 pounds, I mean, some people, you know, they've invested in their practice, and they've bought kilns or Macs and stuff like that. But a lot of people have just put it to one side for a rainy day, because a lot of the way that artists work, is that they have a profile career as a perfect portfolio career. So, you know, they often have gigs around their practice as artists, and some events work stopped because of Covid19. So, we're hoping that the grants that the Small Business revenue grants that have come in and kind of plugged that gap, which is able to sustain them. But if you think about it, artists rarely earn more than about five 6000 pounds a year off their practice, which I think a lot of people realize actually how low it is that they're trying to exist on.

LH: Absolutely. And also, a lot of artists are teaching in a school, or running their own studio classes or online classes. Most artists or creatives have more than one job, you know, they do other things as well to support himself. And of course, the you know, there are lots of costs involved and equipment or software. So, yes, of course, the grant is well deserved.

NHW: And I think it's interesting that you've made that comment about the investment. And I think a lot of people underestimate the years, that it's taken someone to develop their practice, you might have a piece in front of and you're like, Oh, that's 500 pounds, it's quite expensive. The materials only cost, you know, 40 quid, and you're like, how rude because actually, there’s 10 years’ worth of experience, methodology and experimentation that sits behind that, and I think a lot of people don't make that equation. Certainly from second floors point of view, we see all of that we see that investment of time and energy, and practice. And we you know and wholeheartedly support, the ultimate sales price that those people are trying to achieve, because we've seen what's gone into the process.

LH: So you're working on some big projects for 2021 and beyond. Do you have like, a five-to-10-year plan? Where do you want to be in five- or 10-years’ time? Do you want to go global?

NHW: There are some amazing studio projects in places like Portugal and Lisbon and all that kind of thing. Do you want to go global? No, I doubt it. Do we want to protect more space? Absolutely. Are we working on some projects at the moment? Yes. We're hoping to go into legal in the next couple of weeks on nearly 70,000 square foot space. The bigger that we get is one of those businesses that is very susceptible to economies of scale. So the bigger that we get, if we don't then also raise the admin side of it. We can charge less overall because it's about making the overall cost structure work.

We're very unusual as an organization because we have one and a half members of staff, maybe two. If you look at other organizations, they sometimes, you know, have almost, you know, the same size of studios that we have another organization that's got 17 members of staff, some of them are part time, but they've got 17 members of staff. And the reason why we can charge the rents that we do is because we keep the admin light. So our ambition would be to have more studios, because it gives us more options, and a better overall picture on the affordability. So I can imagine in sort of, you know, 10 years’ time, we've probably got about another three 400 Studios, at least. And ideally, they will be in buildings that are owned, because again, it comes back to perpetuity, and legacy, and that's what Matthew and I are focused on delivering is long term, high quality, affordable studios.

And that's the other thing as well, that, that I think needs to be considered, is that a lot of artists are being used in regeneration. And they're often in end-of-life buildings that are cold and damp, and potentially have fire hazards around them. There's no reason why artists should be existing in those sorts of spaces. I really noticed it, when we opened the foundry people were coming in, and there was this, this brand-new studio. And they were like, almost looking like they weren't worthy that it didn't quite fit with the whole definition of an artist, you know, because an artist is meant to suffer. And you know, and there was this kind of this really beautiful picture window and it was dry. Our studios are not in cold, damp environments. You know, we should absolutely, as a capital city, be enabling people to be their authentic selves, and enabling high quality environments for artists to thrive in.

LH: Nichole, that's just spot on. I'm just thinking back to some of my old art studios!

NHW: We want to deliver high quality studios where we can.

LH: Do you have open plan studios as well as self-contained ones?

NHW: No, we find that the people that come to us, they're all looking for their own private workspace. And that's helped during COVID as well, because we've been able to keep open through COVID. Because everyone has their own self-contained space, we find that we get a lot of career people that come to us. And they've kind of grown out of that sort of shared environment that you get maybe when you're doing your masters, and that they actually want to be able to shut the door and know that when they reopen the door, it's as they left it in it because people are investing in kits and all that kind of thing. And again, it comes back to the way that we run our business model because we're not a charity, we can't just organize with the council business rate relief on the floor plates, we have to do each individual studio. So that's how that's how we organize ourselves.

LH: Wow. Well, Nichole, it’s been amazing speak with you this evening. I definitely recommend everybody should go and visit the No Format gallery, once it's reopened again.

NHW: I think maybe keep an eye on our Instagram. We had online open studios before Christmas, where we had professional photos taken of everyone in the studios. If you scroll back through the Instagram, you'll see everyone and what they're doing.

LH: I really can't wait to show your amazing space with my project Niches and Nuances and fellow artists Lindsey Baretto and Marek Dutka. I’m really, really excited about it. Thank you, everybody, for joining us today and Nichole, I really appreciate your time. And it's good to see you virtually. Hopefully, I'll see you in real life very soon.

NHW: Yeah, I hope so. Thanks for your time. Take care.


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