How to Nurture Flourishing Cultural and Creative Hubs: Lessons from the Netherlands

Rinske Brand
Mar 4, 2021
May 1, 2024

The importance of new business models, the need for “money to play with,” and how to “cast” the ultimate mix of functions and users—invite twenty city makers to share their thoughts in a virtual conference, and they’ll give you an abundance of tips on nurturing successful cultural and creative hubs.

RAUM in Utrecht, The Netherlands. Photo by Jelmer de Haas.

Art and culture are one of the most promising avenues to revitalize cities and neighborhoods. But to succeed as a driving force for lasting and equitable area development, what do incubators, cultural houses and creative hubs need? In a recent virtual meet-up, I worked with twenty fellow Dutch city makers to identify tools that city makers, governments, and developers can use to help their cities thrive. From theatre directors to developers to founders to researchers, each brought their own experiences in culture houses and creative hubs to the table.

This adventure started almost by accident, with a "call for best practices" on LinkedIn to help as inspiration for two of my projects: new cultural hubs in the cities of Amsterdam and Eindhoven. An overwhelming flow of responses, not only with examples, but also with interest in sharing knowledge and experiences, prompted me to organize this peer-to-peer session. This article contains the findings of the first session, and a second session is already in the works.

Culture and the City

A city without a vibrant, diverse cultural life holds no appeal. Look closely at a Dutch city’s cultural and creative ecosystem, and you’ll see a broad, highly varied field. And this field is often anchored by specific places. Some “cultural houses” were launched as offshoots of city or provincial policy. Some creative hubs were the brainchild of cultural or creative entrepreneurs, as is more common in North America. And you’ll find everything in-between, including incubators and countless placemaking projects. Many of these venues are temporary, sometimes with the intention of continuing them when the “real” development begins. But all too often, they’re doomed to disappear.

Werkspoorkathedraal in Utrecht, The Netherlands. Photo by Joni Israeli.

Among other cities, the city council of Amsterdam has developed specific policies for cultural incubators, to support groups who want to run a so-called "broedplaats." The policy gives existing buildings a second life and provides low-rent spaces for new cultural and economic initiatives. In this way, hundreds of workplaces for creative collectives have already been created. 

In theory, what all these places have in common is that they are mixed-use meeting places for creative minds—in the broadest sense of the word. Places where cross-fertilization between the different users leads to new joint programming and the exchange of visitor and customer groups. But in practice, the success of these spaces varies enormously. How come?

The Rise of Culture Houses and Meanwhile Uses

In the Netherlands, these spaces are known as culture houses, art buildings, or multifunctional centers, and they are often brand new structures housing a library, theater, welfare facilities, and a few other functions. This phenomenon blew over from Scandinavia, where every city has its own “Kulturhuset.” Hundreds have sprung up around the country, often energized by city or provincial policy. 

Pollux Studios in The Hague, The Netherlands. Photo by Alaaaïa.

Ideally, the colocation of the various organizations should offer financial and social added value. But in practice, things aren’t that simple. Often conceived mostly on paper, the collaboration between these “roommates” doesn’t get off to a flying start. On the ground, often the various parties are too involved in their own affairs, or there’s no collective vision for the space, or they don’t see the added value of joint programming. Meanwhile, the policy ambitions for such venues are sky high.

If the culture houses are at one end of the spectrum, at the other are the countless temporary creative and cultural initiatives. Abandoned properties and vacant lots can be leased for a modest rent, on a short or longer term basis, as live-work spaces for artists and creatives. Their creative endeavors generate a buzz and attract new people, thus enhancing the area’s quality of life, and thus its monetary value.

Allee du Kaai in Brussels, Belgium. Photo by Tine Declerck.

This type of placemaking has proved to be an extraordinarily successful strategy for many real estate owners, developers, and city councils, so much so that several companies have now built their business model around starting and running these kinds of temporary sites. Some places flourish and become part of the area development, while others die a silent death when more permanent development comes along.

Seven Principles for Successful Cultural Hubs

Looking at this broad spectrum of places, what is the key to success? Based on my conversation with twenty leading experts, here is a quick overview of seven success factors.

1. Find a smart mix of functions and users.

At the top of the list is cultivating the right mix of functions. Just being “roommates” of convenience won’t cut it. There has to be programmatic cross-fertilization and a productive exchange of audience groups. Ideally, the mix of functions also strikes a good balance between commercial and non-commercial activities. That way, the “cash cows” can absorb the lower monetary returns (but high social or environmental returns!) of other functions.

Pier 15 in Breda, The Netherlands. Photo by Mathijs Tromp.

Ultimately, the place revolves around people, though, so the trick is to bring the right mix of users together. Whether you call it “casting,” scouting, or curating, be thorough and invest time and care in choosing the right mix of people. The ideal person to do this would be an independent community manager, responsible for bringing the right people together, or maybe the initial group of users, although the advantage of the former is that she, he, or they will make more independent choices.

2. Create a sharp brand and positioning.

Be clear and bold about what the space stands for. This is key because as the Dutch proverb goes, "If you don’t choose, you won’t be chosen.” Sharp profiling is the best way to attract the right partners.

LocHal in Tilburg, The Netherlands. Photo by Ossip Architectuurfotografie.

Remember that by choosing one direction, you must exclude others. But there’s no point trying to be all things to all people—it simply doesn’t work. Thankfully, this positioning does not have to be set in stone. It can be part of a growth model, an identity in the making that grows along with the size and ambition of the site.

3. Share ownership and a common goal.

Once you’ve found the partners, they must be willing to work together openly and constructively—particularly in terms of content. Stakeholders must work together on the basis of shared ownership and shared motivation, and that includes the city council, the developer, and the real estate owner. They must share a collective ambition, appreciate the added value of this collaboration, and be dedicated to achieving it. Ultimately, it requires a shared sense of ownership and responsibility for ensuring the space is a success.

Pollux Studios in The Hague, The Netherlands. Photo by Alaaaïa.

This alignment of mutual expectations and collective vision is vital not only during the project’s concept phase, but throughout its operation. This is why the stakeholders should draw up clear agreements with each other about the program, positioning, and management of the space.

4. Earn local support.

A cultural or creative venue will only succeed if it’s tied to its environment, community, and city. It needs to match the area’s DNA and serve the needs of local people. A project won’t take root in a community unless its stakeholders are open to co-creating with the local citizens. 

Pollux Studios in the Hague, The Netherlands. Photo by Alaaaïa.

Organize a meeting with the surrounding community to express a sincere interest in the contributions of local people, and to ask for their assistance. The long-term success of the space depends on securing this grassroots support, which is one reason these spaces should strive to address local urban issues as well as supporting the arts and culture community.

5. Build a sustainable business model with a triple bottom line.

A space can’t survive without a sustainable revenue model and healthy long-term management. Each stakeholder plays a role in this. Users can work with the real estate owner to identify ways of creating a healthy business model. Continuity relies on a secure basis of recurring revenue. An art space requires several income streams: rent, ticket sales, catering, and rentals, for example. Revenue models of this kind also often include direct or indirect subsidies and financial support derived from government or philanthropy.

This revenue model is different to that of retail, catering, or housing, though. The way to spark a conversation between these different stakeholders is through the idea of “multiple value creation” or a “triple bottom line.” In multiple value creation, economic, ecological, and social values ​​are in balance—people, planet, and profit. Financial gain is socially fair and respects the environment and planet, and vice versa; the social added value also generates revenue. Creating value in all three areas isn’t the short-term job of a single organization, it’s a shared, long-term task for the whole community: users, owners, and government. The horizon for financial sustainability should be long—think 25 years, not the next quarter.

Theater Zuidplein in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Photo by Daria Scagliola.

A realistic growth model also provides the opportunity to start small, experiment, and grow organically. In other words, don’t try to start too neatly or too big. Be patient and give the initiative the room to evolve. You cannot force success. And remember, without a decent start-up budget the project will remain a dream, so invest upfront to give the space a chance to get off the ground.

6. Cultivate an active community.

The community—the tenants, users and visitors—are the venue’s true strength. They make the space, and serve as its ambassadors. Ultimately, they need to feel responsible for the space, which means giving them a reciprocal say in programming and recruiting additional partners.

Keeping a community together takes constant effort. It won’t happen naturally. If you don’t have a community manager, it’ll be difficult to keep the various users and visitors connected in the long term. Many cultural venues rely on volunteers as part of this work. Cherish their efforts and invest in volunteer training.

Allee de Kaai in Brussels, Belgium. Photo by Tine Declerck.

City councils, developers, and owners should dare to hand the reins over to this community. Let the uniqueness of the community to shine out, and be open to its initiative and ways of working. Don’t try to get everything nailed down, leave space for things to unfold, and don’t worry. Again, this underlines the importance of flexibility. Long-term success is about being agile—responding swiftly to social change and new situations—which is precisely where creative minds come into their own. 

One way to cede some control is to simply give the community a bit of “money to play with” and encourage people to try out their own ideas. Lengthy, complicated grant applications are creativity killers. This modest discretionary budget is often a fantastic investment in pure innovation.

7. Serve a real need.

Oddly enough, the seventh and final success factor is too often overlooked. And when it is, the policy ambitions and dreams of civil servants, directors, or visionaries exceed the bounds of reality. The bottom line is this: a venue must respond to the needs of one or more user groups. If the need is dormant, you might have to rouse it gently, but without sufficient critical mass, a space will fail. 

Identifying this need calls for research that digs deeper than consultations between potential partners. It means visiting and observing the neighborhood and city and asking people what they feel is lacking. It may mean launching a pilot project to test out different functions and programs. You’ll soon discover whether the space mobilizes sufficient people or not. And, of course, this strategy ties in perfectly with the current transience of many creative placemaking initiatives.

Pier 15 in Breda, The Netherlands. Photo by Johan van Geek.

Another piece of advice that seems glaringly obvious, but often goes ignored: Work with what’s already there. Carry out an area assessment—identify current initiatives and spaces, and how they can be strengthened. A blank canvas may be tempting to public officials and creative entrepreneurs, but hitting the ground running often proves way more effective than starting from scratch. Besides, the fact is, there’s no such thing as a blank canvas.

The Pitfalls

So to recap: a sophisticated mix of functions, good collaboration between the partners, local support, a sustainable business model, a close-knit community and, above all, serving a need. These are seven ingredients for a successful culture house or creative hub. 

But if these are the dos, what are the don’ts?

Onze Ambassade in The Hague, The Netherlands.

The financial aspects can be a major headache. For instance, if a culture hub lays out the financial prerequisites too late in the game, everyone may be excited about the venue and the programming, but an unbridgeable financial gap may crop up between the developer or owner, on the one hand, and the future users, on the other. Other financial deathblows include no secure business plan, no sound long-term management, or too great a financial dependence on one user.

Expectations also often throw a wrench in the works. Not infrequently, administrators and policymakers have many high expectations for the space. When a long wish list of policy goals that straddle numerous areas is projected onto the venue, turning it into a kind of universal remedy, a it is guaranteed to fail.

After all the points we’ve mentioned, wanting to go it alone sounds like an obvious blunder. Yet all too often, a project has a single enthusiastic advocate—a city council, a developer, or a creative leader. This visionary sells a fantastic idea, which generates a degree of enthusiasm, but no co-owners. Without a broad contingent of supporters, the basis is too weak to sustain lasting success. 

Conversely, opening up the community to just anyone, is another fast track to failure. The result is a hodgepodge and a synergistic nightmare. Who wants to be a part of that in the long term? In this context, the reasons for users relocating to a site are hugely important. Parties primarily motivated by low rent are likely to feel little connection with the space and be unwilling to invest in it.

The community is the anchor that holds the venue together, but problems can arise here, too, such as when the users have little in common, or they don’t see the added value of collaboration. Similarly, if no one plays the role of community liaison, continually activating and connecting the local residents, the users wind up nothing more than a bunch of people who share a space.

Yet another hazard is trying to clone a successful example or traditional model in a different place, sometimes using inspiring international examples as a blueprint. What worked for A never works for B, no matter how exciting the project.

Invest in Making a Space Permanent

Your project is successful, but now you have to leave. Creative centers often disappear when the “real” development begins. Although it’s often not for want of trying, the various stakeholders frequently discover that the venue isn’t financially viable. A new financial infrastructure is needed to ensure these initiatives are more sustainable. 

Hof van Cartesius in Utrecht, The Netherlands—one of the first project to receive funding from the Dutch Stadmakersfonds.

One possible solution could be to set up a “Stadmakersfonds,” or city makers fund. This is what’s known as a revolving fund, which invites participation from city councils, developers, national, local, and regional funds, cultural and creative organizations. The funding is a loan—not a grant!—and flows back to the fund, so it can be re-used and loaned to other initiatives. It’s a tried and true sustainable financing model. The fund helps to make the space permanent and guarantees the users continuity. A city maker’s fund is great for creative initiators and enhances the quality of life of neighborhoods and districts. A project in the Province of Utrecht was the first to be financed by the new Dutch Stadmakersfonds. The intention is to roll out this fund throughout the Netherlands in the near future. 

There is no shortage of city makers’ cases, but scaling up this idea requires more investors to provide the loans. The question now is: Which financiers, municipalities, provinces, funds, investors, and others will follow this example?

Rinske Brand is the founder of BRAND The Urban Agency, an agency that works on creating better cities for people, with people. Our projects are designed to make cities more sustainable, healthier, innovative and vital. Every day we help businesses, brands, organisations and local governments to have a positive impact on the city and its communities. Placemaking, placetesting and place branding are just some of the tools in our toolbox. BRAND works for city councils, government agencies, architects, real estate developers, cultural institutions and commercial brands. No matter who we work for, profit or non-profit, we all share the same vision: the love for the city.

The original Dutch version of this article was published previously by the online platform

The rich text element allows you to create and format headings, paragraphs, blockquotes, images, and video all in one place instead of having to add and format them individually. Just double-click and easily create content.

The rich text element allows you to create and format headings, paragraphs, blockquotes, images, and video all in one place instead of having to add and format them individually. Just double-click and easily create content.

Heading One

Heading Two

Heading Three

Heading Four

Heading Five
Heading Six

Body Text    Body Link

The rich text element allows you to create and format headings, paragraphs, blockquotes, images, and video all in one place instead of having to add and format them individually. Just double-click and easily create content.

Here is some highlighted text from the article.

Headings, paragraphs, blockquotes, figures, images, and figure captions can all be styled after a class is added to the rich text element using the "When inside of" nested selector system.

Headings, paragraphs, blockquotes, figures, images, and figure captions can all be styled after a class is added to the rich text element using the "When inside of" nested selector system.

Headings, paragraphs, blockquotes, figures, images, and figure captions can all be styled after a class is added to the rich text element using the "When inside of" nested selector system.

  • Bulleted List Item 1 Headings, paragraphs, blockquotes, figures, images, and figure captions can all be styled after a class is added to the rich text element using the "When inside of" nested selector system.
  • Bulleted List Item 2 Headings, paragraphs, blockquotes, figures, images, and figure captions can all be styled after a class is added to the rich text element using the "When inside of" nested selector system.
  1. Ordered List Item 1
  2. Ordered List Item 2
Related Articles

Contact Us

Want to unlock the potential of public space in your community? Get in touch!