Cobalt Studios, Ouseburn

10-16 Boyd Street | NE2 1AP | VARIOUS EVENT HOURS |

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These are exciting times for Cobalt Studios. Having held a home in the Ouseburn for 17 years, the artist led collective provides studio space for 15 self-employed artists, and are now looking to expand into a fully-fledged alternative venue for Newcastle’s cultural and nightlife scenes. Run by Mark Collett and Kathryn Hodgkins – also owners of the Ouseburn’s much-loved Ernest – Cobalt is ethically and artistically focused; they are a not-for-profit organisation devoted to sincerely contributing to the community’s cultural landscape. They’re currently fiercely defending the Ouseburn valley from the mercenary property developers keen to rid the area of any cultural integrity.

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Alongside the 14 artists’ studios, Cobalt has a treasure-trove of an events space on the ground-floor, which they have just been granted a permanent licence for. It’s a big step in Cobalt’s history – since 2015, they have been running ad hoc events such as gigs, shows, film screenings, discussions, supper clubs, and alternative nightlife parties. The permanent licence means they are now able to take these events to the next level and increase their frequency.

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There is, of course, a catch. The licence is subject to Cobalt sufficiently sound-proofing the venue – a £9000 task. A consequence of the wholesome way the pair run Cobalt and Ernest is a low profit margin, so they’ve started a crowd-funder to achieve the £9k goal. If every person who has ‘liked’ Ernest on Facebook donated one quid, they’d have reached their target already. If you have any interest in maintaining Newcastle’s cultural topography, or just want to support an alternative venue for our final term’s nightlife, please contribute via this link.

(Sorry for the plug mid-post, but it’s a really great cause so I’m not actually sorry at all.)

Artist studios are normally quite closed spaces, so Mark and Kate’s plans to open Cobalt up to the community more is an admirable and welcome addition to the creative cluster that sits in the Ouseburn. Of the few events I have been to at Cobalt (a film screening followed by a free, communal meal; their open studios weekend; their Winter party), whilst the genre was hugely varied, an identifiable trend was apparent in all of them. They’re welcoming, warm, and just decent people with the right aims and values. The first time I came in, I was a nervy volunteer for the NewBridge Project’s exhibition, not sure what to do with myself. The second time I came with two friends, and felt I definitely wasn’t trendy enough to be there. But quickly that impression was dismantled, as someone pops over to say hi and you realise they don’t care who walks through the door as long as they’re decent people.

To get to know a bit more about Cobalt’s history and their future plans, I popped down the other night and chatted to Mark and Kathryn, who hospitably welcomed me into their vibrant, lived-in studio space. With their big black bear of a puppy lying on the floor and a glass of wine, we chatted about the following:

Me: So you run Ernest too? What’s the link there?

Mark: Yes, we’ve owned Ernest since October 2015, having been on Boyd Street for 17 years running and managing Cobalt Studios. We were both graduates here, Kate was a glass artist and I studied architecture and furniture. We’ve always moved in fairly free thinking circles and during my studies I took some time out to form Fusion Arts, a collaborative work space with some fellow architecture graduates who wanted to stay on in the city. It was a lot of fun, more social than anything for some. There were a lot of parties including the ‘Arborias’ that took place in various forests across the region!

 Kate: I saw a house with four bedrooms for £34, 000. I thought I could do an MA in London and be in debt for years and years and years or stay…

 Mark: Fusion Arts lasted for around 5 years. It was located in the Bigg Market in a pretty derelict building which we lovingly turned into studio spaces, but the landlord had longer term plans so there was no lease which meant we couldn’t access any funding to develop the project. As it was nearing its end, Kate had joined up with two other people who were looking to form a new studio group in the Ouseburn. I was a little reluctant to join at first but eventually joined her, Ben Atkinson and Effie Burns to form Cobalt Studios. The Ouseburn then was an industrial wasteland, far removed from what it has become.

Me: What made you want to make it more than an artists’ studio space, the events etc.? How’s the battle with the developers going?

Mark: There’s a lot of friction between us and Adderstones at the minute, who are gobbling up all the available land and building student monoblocks. Of course we recognise that all cities must develop; our criticisms have focused on the lack of diversity and disengagement with local communities. Upton House was particularly galling as the proposal is to knock it down and build yet more student flats. This is an historically interesting building, it’s got architectural merit and houses a hub of cultural activity. Kate spearheaded a campaign to save the Tower which did see it listed as an asset of community interest, giving us six months to find an alternative plan for it. Unfortunately this needs money and as the building is privately owned we are expecting to see it knocked down this summer.

Me: How do they have the right to just come in and knock these things down?

Mark: They’ve got money –

Kate: Well, its more complicated than that …

Mark: The planning laws are really relaxed because there’s a shortage of homes nationwide, and we have a lot of students living in the city in Jesmond and Heaton etc., in houses. So the more of those students you can take out of what could be family homes and put into blocks of flats, it eases the pressure… That’s the motivation nationally, but additionally it generates income … So those two things have meant that the planning laws have been relaxed, and it’s really quite hard for councils to say no. We’ve objected to various planning applications with little effect; objections are swept under the carpet by developers that can afford whatever level of legal costs to ensure their projects go ahead. The developer is king at the moment. They’re wealthy, there’s a demand for their products, they’re being green-lighted and unfortunately Addison’s is particularly mercenary, aggressive and single minded …

What drives us is community, the opportunity for people to have shared experiences in much-loved, self-build spaces. We like co-working, we like everything that comes from a shared workspace, so that’s why we’ve done what we’ve done for a long time.

The venue at Cobalt only came into being in October 2015. It had never been our intention to create a music orientated performance space … but we both love music and hosting. Added to that our love of parties and dancing and without a great deal of thought we threw the space together and bought a pretty tasty sound system! Since then we’ve hosted all manner events from live music to DJ club nights, regular story telling nights and some college training away days for Northern Film and Media. In January this year we decided to submit a permanent premises license to free up our ability to programme extensively throughout the year. Despite being advised by various parties (including the council and police) that there shouldn’t be any issue (we operated on temporary event notices for a year and half with no issues or complaints whatsoever) we ran into a wall of objections from pretty much everyone involved in this decision.

[The licence application was challenged – but luckily Cobalt have been granted it.]

It’s a repeated pattern everywhere. The model of DIY, grassroots, arts-led, cultural organisations moving into peripheral, over looked parts of a city, where rent is low, and they start making things happen. They’re generous with their time and do things with an integrity where money and profit are not the principal drivers. But as is so often the case, this urban regeneration by artists; putting events on, opening small independent businesses, etc., it gives a place a buzz … which slowly pushes land values up and inevitably the developers will descend …

What the council don’t seem to really understand is that these grassroots bodies are so important. If you’re going to retain your graduates, your entrepreneurs, those people who are going to come up with fresh ideas, new businesses, then they must have a dynamic city to inhabit. We believe independent places like Cobalt and Ernest, owned and run by a small family of people are very much part of what makes a city dynamic. They are incubators where people can talk, eat, work and play. Plot and plan, be free to think in an environment that doesn’t care about colour, creed, clothing or any other form of so called identity. It’s conversation that matters.

Me: What are your views on students?

Mark: We welcome anyone that walks through the door. It doesn’t matter if you’re 16, 40, or 80. Everyone is more than welcome, as long as you are considerate and kind to those around you. We don’t have any issues with students; we were students ourselves! We currently employ lots of students and we enjoy their energy and enthusiasm; it’s a great time of life and we’re proud of being able to redistribute money to some of them to help fund it. We don’t do student promotions because it doesn’t really stack up. More importantly we’re not interested, despite our location, in becoming a student bar, which a series of cheap drink promotions might promote. We’re proud of the very wide demographic we serve and would hate to see this change.

 Me: Where are your favourite places in Newcastle?

 Mark: [Read the next blog posts to find out where he sent me, eh!]

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For now, PLEASE donate to: http://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/soundproof-cobalt/

And like their page on Facebook to keep up to date with when you can next head down for a party. Current plans for the next one are on the 6th May, at their Spring session.

http://www.cobaltstudios.co.uk/

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