Back in the early summer of 2009, I heard about an initiative by a new organisation called Camden Town Unlimited, who were aiming to divert resources and fill shops left empty by the 2008 recession with creative pop-ups. To get a space for free you simply had to pitch a successful idea.
Which is how my interactive installation, Tales From a Park Bench, came to be one of the first shows at the temporary C22 Gallery on Chalk Farm Road that year. The plan was to bring my long-running Time Out column Bench Marks, on the stories behind memorial park benches, to life on an actual park bench installed in the disused shop. Via the fledgling social media networks (there was still no Instagram) I invited anyone and everyone to perform on it spontaneously.
Happily, at the end of the week-long exhibition, it had proved a success, with hundreds of visitors taking to the bench to rant, rap, sing, perform poetry – or even practice yoga.
Little did I know I was one of the first to take advantage of free space that would go on to become Camden Collective, whose mission was to encourage a new generation of creatives and entrepreneurs to see Camden as home.Fast forward ten years and this now internationally respected organisation has spent a decade supporting creative start-ups in the heart of Camden Town with pop-up shops, accelerator programmes, marketplaces and a workspace, as well as providing digital and creative skills training for young people.
From the empty retail unit over that summer of 2009 at the C22 Gallery, Collective has gone on to take over empty shops up and down the high street, as well as Parkway and Camden Road. Notable spaces have included the innovative C37 in a former furniture factory; the creative marketplace at 159 High Street, home to a dozen retailers; and the art deco Temperance Hospital on Hampstead Road, the largest hub so far, where it existed from 2015 to 2017.
Now housed in the Auction Rooms on the corner of Buck Street, Collective is currently home to 130 businesses offering free and subsidised desks and offices. It’s evolved into one of the most successful charity-run workspaces in the capital, providing a launchpad for both award-winning social enterprises and multi-million pound businesses. “It’s a diverse, thriving community where start-ups and small businesses can receive the support and the network to help them grow,” says CEO Simon Pitkeathley, “whatever the sector.”
Whether in food and drink, media, art, videogames, medTech or publishing, Collective has incubated over 400 businesses and pioneers, including the likes of Hinge Health, who have gone on to raise £500million in funding, and SB:TV founder Jamal Edwards, the visionary online youth broadcaster awarded an MBE in 2014.
In 2019 Collective has now raised over £23.6 million in outside investment and created over 300 new jobs. “This hasn’t just been about growing businesses, it’s investing in the wider community,” says Pitkeathley. “To date, Collective businesses have provided 564 days of work experience for local young people, and enabled 150 retailers to set up on the High Street. We’ve transformed 18 spaces, creating nearly £13 million of value in Camden creating jobs, and bringing entrepreneurs back to underused areas.”
Below we speak to an eclectic mix of artists, CEOs and entrepreneurs about how Collective helped them at a crucial stage in their careers.
For more on Collective follow @CMDNCollective or check out the website here