Incubators in the Arts

Innovation workshops: what they do and how they do it – a research project of The Centre for Leadership in Creativity and the Royal College of Arts


Incubators – in the Arts


While they are in their fragile early stages, new ventures are often housed together in incubators, with the aim of helping them to reach a point where they have become marketable propositions. In the course of our research with the Royal College of Art – about Innovation Workshops, what they do and how they do it, we have found ourselves seeking to uncover the alchemy in incubators. We offer here several short descriptions of ‘incubators’ and their processes – in the arts, which suggest a restless willingness to undertake experiments, from which useful lessons might be drawn: two at Watershed Bristol – one about the ‘incubation of ideas’, and the other about an experimental process for incubating technology; the third about part-time incubation in a university department; the fourth about Battersea Art Centre – as ‘creating the future of theatre’; a contributed description of participating in an incubator group; a description of a new incubator of technology in the arts; and finally a note about the Old Vic as an incubator of talent. 

             They suggest that what incubatees find valuable are: 

* the opportunity to explore new technologies and to generate and

  develop ideas about possible applications;

* the stimulation from having around you people working on similar

  but different projects; and the opportunity to beg, borrow or steal

  from them;

* an open, focused and supportive atmosphere;

* the ready availability of experts and supporters (especially mentors)

  as contacts;

* the opportunity to explore and experiment – for its own sake; 

* regular and fulsome feed-back – both formal and informal;

* pressure not necessarily to achieve a practical outcome but to reach

  the next stage.


Watershed Bristol’s Pervasive Media Studio

Watershed in Bristol, an established arts institution – which operates in a number of different dimensions – is a significant local presence at the retail level, but runs several different processes whose aim is to generate and develop inspirations in the arts (as the currency of meaning, and hence the shaper of our culture) especially in theatre, film and other media.

             The aim of the Pervasive Media Studio is to be a curated Open Innovation Space:

  housing a limited number of carefully selected innovators working in a variety

   of  different disciplines.

  in an ambience whose essence is openness but curated – with happenings that

   are designed around supporting creativity and interactivity.

The studio forms a unique kind of innovation workshop; it is indeed a workshop in the sense of being a physical space; and it is one that is in continuous session, in which people from different disciplines are brought to work together on their different projects, in a common environment that is carefully curated.

Members of the studio (under one roof it has about thirty desks – ordered in serried ranks, with a public space at the Reception end) value:

  • the opportunity to benefit from the technology, knowledge and expertise of the other members of the studio (as it were ‘open innovation’ in a single space – members are selected among other things for their potential contributions);
  • feed-back – on your project; the opportunity to discuss your work openly with others without the  need for any Non-disclosure Agreement [there being tacit agreement around the studio as a whole about non-disclosure];
  • the access, free, to high level expertise, contacts, opportunities etc (via top level networks); the fact that you do not need to fund protection of your ideas (IPR) until  you know that you have something of value;
  • the opportunity to experiment, the freedom to take risks, and to fail;
  • the availability of [personal/technical/project/business] mentoring;
  • the stimulation from formal and informal visitors, and others who have succeeded on similar journeys.

The Pervasive Media Studio brings together a collection of people with ideas who would not easily find homes for their work elsewhere, whose projects are based around pervasive media.


An experimental incubation process 

               iShed, part of Watershed in Bristol, has recently run an experimental process designed to explore and develop applications for new technology in a particular field.

                Invitations were issued widely in this field to attend workshops across the country where participants were introduced to the technology in question and taken through an idea generation process. These people then submitted applications, and an advisory group oversaw a shortlist and interview process. Six commissions were selected to undergo a three-month development process with a leading (non-competitive) organisation in this field, at the end of which they were expected to make ‘early stage performances’. Their remit was simply to explore and develop their ideas, entirely without any imperative as to commercial outcome.

            Each team had a small budget (£10K) plus a further smaller sum for expenses and equipment; they were provided with a mentor (future projects are expected to run with an additional mentor); they were paired with and worked with a leading venue; they had support from a fellow ‘producer’ in that organisation; they had access to a panel of industrial advisers; they worked in parallel with the other groups (who were working on their different projects all of which were based on the same technology) at other locations; and they had periodic collaborative workshops (called ‘salons’) with all parties involved in the project at ‘HQ’. A project documentary was created; and there was an online collaborative workspace and blog, to which each team was expected to contribute.

            The main benefits were seen as:

*  the opportunity to explore new creative ideas

*  learning about the technology and its capabilities

*  honing down potential applications of the technology 

*  having the opportunity to experiment, to fail, and to continue to explore

*  working collaboratively in an experimental process.


This experiment was about possible applications of Pervasive Media in theatre – a project supported by the Arts Council, through Watershed in Bristol (‘HQ’). (To see something of the outcomes, and a report on the process and the outcomes, see <> )


A culture of student entrepreneurialism in a university department

               Professor Treleaven claims that he has established a culture of entrepreneurialism in his Computer Science Department by:

*     allowing students to develop businesses at their desks in parallel with their  

      student work;

*     providing them with development projects of genuine value – from commercial

      organisations as partners (many of these projects are Apps);

*     developing an algorhythm-based computer program for submitting and assessing

      ideas and proposals;

*     developing a system of early-stage finance (‘Micro finance’) for ideas that are

      evolving but are not yet investment-ready (with initial small grants that may be

replaced as those ideas develop with larger grants; and a portion of the new larger grant then goes to repay the smaller one). This system, he says, can be used by any group, and applied on a competitive basis, with a small pump-priming capital sum which should thus be self-renewing.  

               Business subjects are taught every Thursday afternoon, and visiting speakers and other such special events are arranged by a part of the university dedicated to that aspect of learning.

  Prof Trevealen feels that his biggest gap at present is that he lacks working partners for his entrepreneurial students – people with commercial experience and knowledge of potential markets, who can work with those students to help in turning their ideas into marketable propositions. 


An incubator in the performing arts

               The Battersea Arts Centre states its mission as to create the future of theatre. It works with what it calls a ‘scratch’ methodology as part of its ‘ladder of development’ for new work, where performances are shown at various stages of development to an outside audience, whose input and criticism guides the further evolution of the work. As such it is a (‘drop-by’) incubator in the performing arts. The Centre sees its building as a home where people of all ages and backgrounds can take part in the theatre-making process

   It runs drop-in creative workshops in theatre, music, dance and futures. ‘You might be an artist looking to test an idea, a teacher looking to develop your practice or perhaps you’re considering a career in theatre’.

               It hosts a wide variety of theatrical happenings. As well as more conventional theatre pieces, it hosts brief experimental concept productions (after which feed-back is sought at the bar by authors); it runs a one-on-one festival, in which each visitor chooses his/her personal theatre production from a number on offer (and there are other one-on-one experiences hidden throughout the centre); and it develops and runs other innovative theatre experiences. It also runs life and other drawing classes, sometimes themed on productions. 

                And construction has begun of a residential wing in order to support those creative minds who get their best help from others late into the evening.


Incubator Groups: Faber’s Creative Writing programmes

“In 2009 I signed up for a creative writing course at the Faber Academy.

I’d been struggling with my novel for sometime and thought I needed help.

Their Writing a Novel programme ran for six months in central London.

There were twenty-two of us students divided into two groups of

eleven, a tutor per group.  Every week we attended a two-hour evening

session.  There were also full Saturday sessions once a month. The weekly

sessions, divided into two halves, a break in between, comprised a writing

exercise set by the tutor, followed by a critiquing session or ‘crit’.

In preparation for the ‘crit’, three of us submitted a piece of writing

(in our case it was mostly the first 5,000 words of our novels, followed by

two further submissions of the same length, the second and third 5,000 words

of our novel, respectively).  Each piece was then read and critiqued by

everyone in the group, tutor included, for forty minutes apiece. 

The Saturday sessions followed the same format but also included

contributions from outside speakers – novelists, publishers, editors,

agents, etc.. 

It was the best learning experience I have ever had for a number

of reasons.  First, we were learning principally by doing, ie., there was

nothing for it but to write, in class doing the exercises and before class

to prepare our submissions.  A concomitant of this was that there was nobody

lecturing us or as I often saw it previously, talking, ‘at us’ or telling

us, ‘how’ to write.

In other words, we were free to experiment and basically had to

work it out for ourselves and, for most of us, this was happening, for the

first time in front of a real live audience, our fellow students and tutor.

This completion of the creative circle, was, I believe critical to our

development as writers.  I will never forget my first ‘crit’.  It didn’t go

too well.  At first I was mortified and thought, I’ll never write again.

Then, I got huffy, thinking, they just don’t understand.  Then I realised, I

couldn’t put my new writing friends through that kind of reading experience

again.  I systematically addressed the issues they’d raised.  In the end,

they liked my work that has, I hasten to add, changed beyond all recognition

as a result of their input and my hard work.

Second point then: peers, all in the same boat wrestling with

their novels, were critiquing each other’s work.  The critiquing was always

constructive and offered in a supportive environment facilitated by a tutor

who ensured that everyone had their say.  The tutor also prevented any one

person from dominating and steered us to fresher pastures when we had begun

to go down blind alleys.  We also learnt by knit-picking others’ shortcomings:

once you have seen someone else making the same mistake as you, it becomes

much easier to recognise your own.

Of additional significance, was the fact that we were not, as has so

often happened to me at the beginning of other courses, asked about our

previous writing experience or what we did or did not do, workwise. As

a result, we were less likely to be inhibited by others students who might

otherwise have been perceived as more able and therefore intimidating.

This, ‘not knowing’ about other students also meant that we got to know one

another through our writing. This, together with artful facilitation by an

experienced, positive and supportive tutor meant that we formed a very

special bond: one that has allowed us to continue working informally as a

group over a year later, and, we are still meetings.”


Hyper Island – a digital media school started in Swedenhas just set up in Manchester in a pilot programme sponsored by NESTA. This is a school without teachers, without grades and without exams. Students will lead their own learning, and will be supported to develop skills to evaluate and reflect on their own performance and on the performances of their peers. Failure is explicitly encouraged as a critical step in learning how to do something or developing a solution to a problem.

Hyper Island is underpinned by a pedagogy which features problem-based learning, experience-based learning and industry briefs. Students work on projects set by colleagues from businesses within the digital media sector, so all learning happens in simulated or real professional contexts.                                                                     

            The Hyper Island curriculum is created in a close collaboration between Hyper Island’s expert curriculum designers and a range of industry partners (who are asked to offer a picture of current industry priorities, trends and skill needs and who often go on to design modules or projects for students). In the Manchester pilot, these include MTV, McCann, Channel 4, Saatchi and Saatchi, Sony Games, Code Computerlove and Weiden and Kennedy.

            The deep involvement of industry players in design and delivery means the Hyper Island curriculum is fresh and relevant, which is particularly important for dynamic and innovative sectors, such as high-tech creative industry. If ambitions are realised, students at Hyper Island will have a real head start. They will be ambitious, entrepreneurial, adaptable and in demand. They will also have developed a strong network of peers, potential employers and collaborative partners.     

Transferrable lessons

The Old Vic as an incubator of talent 

               The Old Vic runs a London-based club that provides support for young people embarking on a career in theatre, through contact with leading industry professionals, support for members’ own projects, and participation in networking events with like-minded peers. Its corresponding New York club offers Masterclasses in addition to the above; and there are transatlantic exchanges and collaborations between the two. 

                The Old Vic has also been a founding partner of ‘a creative online network and funding body for emerging arts talents, where members can find information about events, interact with other users and apply for projects as well as advertise their own shows, form collaborations and access a network of advice, inspiration and opportunities’. 


The Centre for Leadership in Creativity


Tel 020 8748 2553


Copyright John Whatmore 2011  


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