Neotists – creating a creative community for St Neots

Neotists started about a year ago when my partner, Clair and I realised that St Neots didn’t have a visible creative community. It also lacked an arts centre, co-working spaces, art galleries and didn’t even have a dedicated art shop.

But the idea goes back further and had been rattling around my head for years. Clair and I moved to St Neots in 2008 and we both fell in love with the town – it was the perfect place to bring up our young children as it has plenty of open spaces, friendly residents and a quaint village-style high street.

I was commuting to London each day to work, but as a graphic designer I was keen to attend local creative events but when I looked for some in the local press and on sites like Meetup I couldn’t find any. So I started looked further afield and found just what I was looking for in Bedford and Cambridge – some really active creative communities, Bedford Creative Arts run by Dawn Giles and a dedicated team and Cam Creatives, run by Paul Smith and Steve O’Connor.

I attended events run by both these groups from 2013, including networking events, seminars, workshops and talks. I was given a friendly welcome by the organisers, including a big advocate of creativity in Bedford Kayte Judge, and it certainly helped me feel part of a wider creative community. I made some great connections along the way and some good friends. It was an event in Bedford though that I got chatting with design consultant Sandra Dartnell, and I remember saying to her “I’d love to bring these events to St Neots”.

As the idea for Neotists took shape I researched to see if there was an explanation as to why there were no creative groups in St Neots. I looked at the town plans produced by the local and district councils and it was clear, that in last 20 years, the creative industries had become less and less important on the administrative agenda. In fact, the last St Neots town plan only makes a few references to the creative industries and this made me realise, that like myself, creative people were going elsewhere to get their fix.

My first task was to look for local creative people who could be advocates of this idea which I was calling St Neots Creative. I contacted a local blogger, Christian Payne aka Documentally, to pick his brains about the idea. I got in touch with Christian via Twitter and the meeting that followed made me realise that the idea had huge potential. Christian offered some fantastic insights into how to make it happen and his excitement and connections became an inspiration for me to take it further.

It was clear though that I needed to find more local creatives and I was convinced they existed.

This is when Clair’s research skills and local connections made a difference. This is also the point where we met a key person in this process – a community engagement officer from Cambridgeshire County Council, Diane Lane who was a vital advocate and gave the idea her dedication and support. Diane provided a vital link for Neotists in connecting with local organisations and governance, as well as offering advice.

It was at this time that Clair introduced me to a local artist, Tracey Mowatt, who’d had a similar idea several years earlier for improving the visibility of the arts in St Neots and creating an official Arts Centre with a real community involvement. Tracey’s idea, which has now become an amazing community arts project for children and adults called Vir2oso, has become an inspiration and the work Neotists and Vir2oso does fits nicely together.

Another chance meeting around the same time with local illustrator, Andrew Foster and being introduced to Paxton Pits ranger Matt Hall gave us the chance to run the first Big Draw for St Neots. Both were big advocate of Neotists, giving their support and time, especially with The Big Draw and without his help the event would not have happened.

The first Big Draw was a huge success, but more importantly it brought together this small group who were keen to do some amazing creative stuff in St Neots – Diane, Matt, myself, Clair, Tracey and Andrew.

Big Draw 2014 organisers from left: Diane Lane, Matt Hall, Richard Slade, Clair Slade, Tracey Mowatt and Andrew Foster.

Big Draw 2014 organisers from left: Diane Lane, Matt Hall, Richard Slade, Clair Slade, Tracey Mowatt and Andrew Foster.

I spent the next few months searching, both online and offline. I sent a ton of cold calling emails in the hope the recipients would like to be part of Neotists. I organising random meet-ups with people i’d only connected with on social media, and slowly spread the word.

A chance meeting on my daily commute with website developer, Kieron Row, developed ideas about data projects and we started chatting about ideas on how this could work. Kieron became a big advocate for Neotists too and offered ideas and insights from the early days as well as collaborating on several projects.

So once I’d found enough potential creative advocates it was time to get all these people together to explain the idea.


Neotists meeting #1

In January 2015 I invited the local creatives i’d found to meet at the Priory Centre to discuss the idea. To my surprise 20 people turned up and not only liked the idea but were willing to be part of it.

I explained to the group that my research had found that the creative industry plays a huge role in the prosperity of a town and with the development of the new Wintringham Park estate in the west of the town, now was the time to begin building a creative community.

Wintringham Park is a proposed development of 2,800 new homes to include residential, retail and commercial spaces and the potential creative people who could choose St Neots as their home is huge. If there is no visible creative community already in place once the plans to build the estate goes ahead, then we could lose out on the chance to attract creative talent to the town.

At the meeting we discussed the ideas of pop-up shops, co-working spaces and mentoring in schools and we all went away fired-up with ideas of a creative community and some tasks for developing the idea.

My task was to work on some aims for the group and here’s what I came up with:

  • To build a collective where creative people from all fields can meet (such as designers, photographers, illustrators, developers and artists) to discuss and learn from each other
  • To maintain a database of creative people in the area
  • To encourage local communities to get involved in creative projects
  • To increase the understanding and raise awareness of the creative sector in St Neots
  • To put pressure on local governance to provide facilities for creative professionals and non-professionals

The final key task was to give the group a name. I had been calling the collective community many names, so I asked for suggestions from all the creatives and created a poll for them to vote for their favourite. The fantastic and clear winner from the start was a suggestion by local artist, Lauren Mitchell.

Lauren Mitchell, Christian Payne and Phil Baines discuss mentoring.

Lauren Mitchell, Christian Payne and Phil Baines discuss mentoring.

Neotists meeting #2

In February 2015 I invited all the creatives back again to meet to discuss some key objectives:

  • Mentoring in schools
  • Building a website for Neotists
  • Pop-up shops

This time we met in a much more creative space, The Shop at 40, kindly provided by owners Sharon Walker and Lee Burrett. With the support of Diane Lane and Nick Gardham, CEO of Community Organisers. We split into three groups and and went about discussing the objectives and formulating a plan of action. We had some fantastic discussions, coming to together at the end of the night to bring all the ideas together and tasks for people to take away.

Neotists and the future

Since the meetings some of the ideas and tasks have been put in to place and we’ve been holding regular events, called PechaKucha, introduced to me by Bedford networker, Kayte Judge, where creatives can present their work, latest project or simply talk about something they’re passionate about. We’ve had some amazing feedback from PechaKucha HQ via their global site with over 4,000 views on the St Neots page. You can watch all 17 presentations from the events online and some of the talks have had over 3,000 views.

There’s still lot more work to do though to give St Neots a visible creative community.

The launch of the Neotists website is a key part of that visibility and we’ve created a site that encourages people to join the community. Visitors to the site can find out more about the group, businesses and local traders can find creative specialists from our freelancers section and Neotists can interact with each other on the forums.

We now have over 100 members who have joined Neotists, but if you know someone who’d like to join then please ask them to get in touch.

I would like to say thank you to everyone who listened to the idea and took a leap of creative faith, there are too many names to mention but without you all this idea would not have become a reality.