Creativity and collaboration spell success

Andrew Clay with staff at Woodend Museum.Picture Richard Ponter 132905
Andrew Clay with staff at Woodend Museum.Picture Richard Ponter 132905

It wasn’t just a creative mind that was needed for the transformation of Scarborough’s Natural History Museum – patience and determination were also essential.

The £7 million transformation was dealt a rather heavy hand of setbacks, ranging from Japanese knotweed, with the strangling power to break through concrete, running amok on site to the discovery of Pipistrelle bats, a protected species, roosting inside the Grade II listed building.

Couple that with a two-week delay due to the removal of stuffed animal heads containing asbestos, which had been buried underground in the 1950s, the discovery of unmapped archaeological remains underground and the collapse of a boundary wall, and the project looked as if it would never get off the ground.

However five years ago, against the odds, the dusty museum started its new life as Woodend Creative Workspace.

The former home of the Sitwell literary family was transformed into a hub for creative industry, containing 32 workspaces, eight artists’ studios, a large business incubator space, and a gallery space.

But would the modern refurbishment attract tennants, and more imporantly was there the prospective tennants in Scarborough to fit the bill for a centre of creative talent?

Well, half a decade later and the answer has obviously been a resounding yes.

With 40 tenants, and 100 people passing through the doors every day to their offices, Woodend has enjoyed a “natural growth” which has also seen the development of a successful art gallery, showcasing exhibitions twice a year, and recently the venue even hosted its first wedding reception.

Known now simply as Woodend, the iconic building, buried in The Crescent, is a hive of activity as tenants and visitors enjoy business and pleasure in the historic walls.

Woodend director Andrew Clay said: “We never envisaged back then we would be doing the things we are doing now.

“We have everything from chocolate workshops and dance classes to business support seminars and film making courses. We have got hundreds of activities.

“We have created something unique now. The Stephen Joseph Theatre, the Art Gallery and the Rotunda have all existed for years and years, then all of a sudden Woodend came along and created its own niche and reason for being. We feel after five years we have now earned our own place around the table.”

Before being home to a variety of businesses in the creative industries sector Woodend was built as a marine villa for civil engineer George Knowles in 1835.

Lady Louisa Sitwell bought the house in 1870. She added a double-height conservatory and a few years later her son, Sir George Sitwell, added a new wing with a library modelled on his family home at Renishaw Hall in Derbyshire. The folly tower in the garden was probably built with the original house but Lady Louisa had ovens installed so that it could be used as a pottery.

The house was the birthplace of Edith Sitwell in 1887 and played a strong role in the literary lives of Sir George’s children Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell, until he eventually disposed of it to Scarborough Council in 1934.

The council operated the Wood End Museum of Natural History in the building until 2006, when work started for its adaptation as part of the creative workplace development.

Mr Clay said: “Since we have opened our tenants have been really busy. We have got people here now who were here when we first opened. They have grown and expanded and employed more people. We must be doing something right if they are still here with us after five years.

“People at Woodend are very aware of this work-life balance and the fact you can base your business somewhere as beautiful as Scarborough and still exploit national and international markets.

“Everyone here is contributing to a wider community. We have created this community of creative professionals who aren’t just renting an office.

“Every single tenant here will have done some work with another tenant. They support each other. That’s a healthy way of working and healthy tenants make a healthy Woodend.”

As well as office space Woodend offcers a virtual tenant service, allowing businesses to work from home but use the premises for meetings, networking, post and support. With 26 virtual tenants on the books it proves a popular option for fledgling businesses.

Mr Clay said: “Going forward our main aims are to develop the gallery and continue to market ourselves as a cultural venue.

“We put on a unique programme of exhibitions and have about 40 artists on our books in the gallery. We had 3,500 visitors to the Hockney exhibition in a month and sold £14,000 worth of Hockney prints, so we are looking to repeat that success.

“The challenge is increasing visibility as we don’t have passing trade here.

“A lot of people still don’t know we exist, so we are looking to change that.”