In Conversation With Cockpit Arts CEO Vanessa Swann

If you follow me on Instagram or Twitter, you might have noticed that I’ve recently been dedicating a fair bit of air time to the discussion of why supporting independent businesses is important. At this time of year, I feel that buying direct from makers and shopping from independent stores and ventures can make a positive impact, not just on the quality and meaningfulness of the gifts we give and receive and our greater impact on the planet, but on the people that craft and sell them with passion and great attention to detail.

I recently caught up with Vanessa Swann, Chief Executive at Cockpit Arts – an inspiring woman who has taken the idea of supporting makers to a hugely impactful level. Vanessa works directly with makers, craftspeople and small businesses through Cockpit Arts, an organisation that nurtures, promotes and enables the UK’s flourishing traditional creative and handmade industries. Now, as we gear up for Christmas, and shoppers everywhere turn to the high street for gift ideas, I thought it the perfect time to get to know Vanessa a little better and share her inspiring thoughts on the importance of shopping independent and how can do it this Christmas…

Tell us about Cockpit Arts – what does the organisation do and who is it for?

Cockpit Arts is the only business incubator in the UK for craftspeople, with two premises in central and south London housing up to 170 makers at any one time. We also work with hundreds of other makers based elsewhere, through our training programmes. Our aim is to support independent craftspeople to start up and develop their practice and business and make a living from what they do best and our services are not just for start-ups; they’re for makers at any stage of career and development.

Makers with studios at Cockpit have been awarded a place with us on the basis that they want to grow and develop; so, in that regard they get involved in our coaching and workshop programme, receive help with accessing finance, are assisted with recruitment of staff – in fact with any aspect of their development needs.

What inspired you to work with Cockpit Arts – what makes it special?

I had previously worked for many years in the craft sector and then later in public art and design. I came back to crafts at Cockpit Arts because I wanted to head up an organisation: Cockpit was at a pivotal stage and the role presented me with a particularly interesting challenge. We had just acquired our second building (in Deptford) to meet growing demand for our services, and it felt important to pin down the specific need when defining the entrepreneurship role that we were about to take, and then proactively set out to fill it.  Like profit-minded entrepreneurs, our questions were related to success: “How can we do things better?” “How can we sustain ourselves” and “How can we offer a service to a set of clients that improves the craft economy of the UK in some way”.

We didn’t approach the situation as a charity, rather our approach was to seek investment from funders who were interested in our long-term goal to be a self-financing social enterprise craft business incubator, trading on the back of services provided to independent craftspeople needing support to develop and grow their businesses at affordable rates. Our goal was to generate surpluses from mission-related earned income and plough these back into the charity so that we could provide the same services to those who can’t afford it and are at a disadvantage.  We’ve always operated on the basis that our model can be replicated more widely – a microcosm of how the sector could be on a macro or UK-wide level. This is what makes Cockpit special to me.

Cockpit Arts – Alun Callender Photography

Why is working with makers, creatives, small businesses and soc-ents important to you?

On the one hand it’s important to me because it’s about creating a fairer and more equitable society; that is, making available a social enterprise craft business incubator to all who demonstrate talent and skill, or have the potential to do so.  On the other hand, it’s vital to support the opportunity that now exists more readily for individuals who have the capability and passion to enter self-employment, as an alternative to employment in industry at a time when these jobs are declining. The creative industries are largely made up of micro businesses and freelancers, and as one of the fastest growing sectors it relies on these small creative businesses for a constant flow of craft skills and creativity.

Take high street retailers as an example; they are hugely reliant on design inspiration that they regularly soak up from work created by designers and makers working independently. One of the most fulfilling parts of my role is seeing the impact of our work. Since we developed the Cockpit business incubator model in 2005 we’ve supported hundreds of craftspeople to become successful and profitable. We can evidence this through our annual impact studies, which demonstrate greater growth amongst Cockpit makers than comparable craft businesses elsewhere in the UK.

Mind you, we’re not the only factor in their success; successful makers need drive and ambition and the nouse to seek out and to seize opportunities.  They will generally have a network of people who are supporting them in different ways. Another factor about Cockpit Arts that is incredibly fulfilling, is working within a creative community. We work cheek by jowl alongside hundreds of craftspeople and the staff team are very much in a symbiotic relationship with them. We are reliant on each other to achieve our objectives. This, alongside our relative independence as a largely self-financing social enterprise, is very satisfying.

Can you tell us about the sorts of designer-makers you work with?

We work with a wide range of makers, including master craftspeople, such as silversmith Shona Marsh, shoe makers Carreducker and jeweller Jessica Poole; artist makers creating conceptual work including Cockpit Arts’ Artist in Residence Jane Hoodless, wood artist Eleanor Lakelin and glass artist Shelley James, and small batch producers such as LUSH Designs, Another Studio and Camilla Meijer, to name but a few.

And tell us about your working day – what do you get up to?

My working days are very varied. Today for example I met the CEO of our local enterprise agency to see if there are areas we can work in partnership; for example, the availability of affordable studio space is an issue in London and we can help refer businesses to one another. I also liaised with one of our trustees who is a gallery owner and one of our selectors of makers awarded places at Cockpit. Tomorrow I will spend half a day interviewing which is something I do a lot of as it’s important that I and my colleagues, and our trustees and other expert selectors, meet as many applicants as possible.

Cockpit Arts – Alun Callender Photography

What does the word ‘success’ mean to you?

Success to me means being more and more efficient and effective in assisting craftspeople so that we can help many more makers thrive and be successful on their own terms. I’m often asked to give an individual example of a maker success story that is particularly significant, and I always say that success comes in different forms. We work with such a spectrum of makers at different stages of career and business success: success to a young person who has come to us from The Prince’s Trust showing raw creative talent and who is, say, taught how to set stones properly and then relaunches her business, is just as exciting as Cockpit helping a maker to recruit an apprentice, or an established maker exiting to take larger premises elsewhere.

What’s the best piece advice you’ve ever been given?

I was very influenced by Jeff Boschee, way back in the early 2000s.  Jeff is an American entrepreneur who came over to the UK to deliver a workshop on ‘Arts as Social Enterprises’ organised by Sally Taylor when she was a Director at Arts & Business – she’s now Director of The Koestler Trust. Jeff co-founded the National Center for Social Entrepreneurs in 1984 and is currently the Founder and Executive Director of the Institute for Social Entrepreneurs.  Everything he said, and his advice about starting up and running a social enterprise, made perfect sense to me and chimed with some of the ways of working I was experimenting with in the education department at the Design Museum at the time.

His philosophy and practical examples of what was already happening in the States, well before social enterprise gained ground in the UK, gave me confidence and inspiration to pursue my ideas for social good.  Apart from this, the best single piece of advice I’ve had was from Paul Thompson, now Rector of the Royal College, who said to always focus on recruiting good people to work with and around you. I think that has served me well at Cockpit Arts because we have a very talented team, and they tend to stay a long time which I love because a decent amount of longevity in roles means you can see your ideas develop properly.

Why do you think shopping independent and buying direct from makers matters?

The beauty of coming to an Open Studios event is you get to meet the person behind the product. You can get a sense of where the design idea started, see the work space and admire the tools and processes undertaken to create the object. It’s a behind the scenes experience that you can’t find elsewhere.

Cockpit Arts has two unique London studio spaces – tell us about those…

Our incubators are based in Holborn, WC1, close to the Hatton Garden jewellery quarter; and in Deptford SE8, at the centre of an exciting community of artists and craftspeople. The studios are open to the public twice a year at each centre in Summer and Winter. During these Open Studios events, the buildings come alive, all the studio doors are open, and the working spaces have been transformed into mini shops or galleries. The place is bustling with activity and it’s the perfect time to visit to meet and buy direct from the makers.

Holborn Open Studios take place from 23 – 26 November and Deptford Open Studios from 1 – 3 December. For visiting and ticket information head to the Cockpit Arts website. Outside of the Open Studios, you can browse our Directory of Makers and contact makers direct to arrange an appointment to visit. Alternatively, you and your friends or colleagues can book a private tour. Additionally, many of our makers are taking part in exhibitions which we list in our newsletters so it’s worth subscribing to receive our regular news.


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Words: Emily Beeson | @boogiemargaret

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