How to start your own not-for-profit arts cafe

We often get asked ‘how did you do this’ and the answer is not a very simple one!  For each idea, each project, the journey will be very different. 

Here, though, are a few tips we’d like to share on how to make your dream a reality – whether it’s an arts cafe, a community group, a musicians collective…….

The Art House was set up on 1 January 2008 by Bik, Jani, Nina and Ziggy.  It was formed by gathering small private loans to save a commercial gallery space, which had been running for around 3 years.  The founders re-formed it as a not-for-profit veggie cafe, art gallery and arts venue. 

It started with just enough money for three months rent and borrowed furniture from the previous owner.  After surviving and growing in the first 3 months, it became a Community Interest Company in April 2008.

Just under 4 years on, we now have around 80 volunteers, 6 part-time paid positions and average 60 visitors a day and our projected turnover for this year is over £120K

Here’s our advice if you are thinking you’d like to do something similar yourself:-

1) Tell everyone about your idea.  Talk about it in the pub, at work, to your friends and family.  Share your passion and vision with anyone who will listen.  This creates a network of people who can help you later, tell you about opportunities that come up and encourage you along the way.

– Two of our Directors, Jani and Bik, had wanted to set up an arts cafe & venue in Southampton for a few years.  They told anyone who would stand still long enough about their plans.  This connected them with Ziggy (now another Director) who was interested in running a vegan cafe. 

Word reached Nina, who was working at the Art House under the old management.  Nina called Jani for help when the venue was about to close, Jani called the others…….and more friends who could help…..  those  connections made it happen.

2) START.  Even if you have no money, no venue, no partners.  Work out what you want to do, then work out what you CAN do, right now, with what you have now.  Start today, even if it’s just a name and a facebook group.  Logos, cash, legal stuff and all the rest can come later – you can start small and work your way up.  This means your early mistakes will be small, too.  People are far more likely to engage with you and take you seriously if they can see that you’re already doing something.

– Jani, Bik and Ziggy ran ‘The Hubbub’ as a voluntary organisation with no money and no venue for 2 years.  They scraped together cash to put on events in other venues and created a website and built a mailing list. 

This meant that, when the opportunity came up, they’d already made a huge number of contacts – making it all possible.  In the meantime, Nina started encouraging people in to The Art House (under the old management) and this is what showed the other three the potential of the venue.  So we didn’t start from nowhere & nothing, the groundwork was already done.

3) Forget about earning money for yourself to start with.  This is a hard one, we know.  If you focus on making your project pay all your bills from day 1, you are likely to stumble at this hurdle before you even start.  Although there are a few funders out there who may help you, for the most part you’re going to need to finance yourself.  Be prepared to work two jobs for a while, cut your living costs, draw in those purse strings – it’s totally worth it and totally possible.

– For the first couple of years, Nina got VERY creative so she didn’t have to pay rent.  She house sat and even stayed at Bik’s house for a while and lived in her caravan one summer!  This meant she could commit to The Art House full-time.  Jani worked freelance and rented a tiny studio flat from a friend so it was cheaper, Bik stayed in his job for the first few years and Ziggy took in lodgers.  Remember, you’re going to be eating & socialising where you work, so your costs will drop dramatically.  You will get support from people who love what you’re doing, and you won’t need to buy many new shoes when you love your job, we promise.

4) Work out a way to make the project self-sustaining financially.  Relying on funding can put you in a vulnerable position when the funding runs out – and it will run out.  The more places you get revenue from, the better.  Don’t put all your eggs in one basket – oh, and try not to start with a great big loan or huge costs either.  Keep it simple, improvise, make do, keep it cheap & cheerful and let it grow from a stable foundation.

– We started in a smaller venue with just the basics, and moved 14 months later.  The renovations at our new place were done on a showstring with lots of help and lots of scrounged and re-used materials.  Most of our current furnishings are second-hand, many are donated.  You do not need to go and spend thousands to start a venture, even if banks tell you different (well, they would, wouldn’t they!).

5) Don’t forget to ask for what you need. 

– From breadmakers to donations, from volunteers to vans:  we ask, and it arrives. 

6) Just get on with it, don’t wait for the right time or circumstances because they will never come.

Our four founders are all very passionate, creative and hardworking people – but they are ordinary humans, just like you.  They weren’t ‘ready’ to start The Art House, they didn’t have a big complicated business plan or tonnes of cash stashed away.  They had very little experience of running anything and none of running a business this size. 

If they can do it, you most certainly can!  We’ve had some serious challenges, some very hard times and the workload is impossible to prepare you for (holidays and even regular days off are a distant memory!).

We’ve also seen our wildest dreams come true before our eyes.  It’s been so very worth it..

About arthousesouthampton

The Art House is a not-for-profit café, gallery and arts venue in the centre of Southampton. We are a place you can meet new people, meet up with friends or just come in by yourself. Our licensed café offers delicious organic lunches, Fairtrade tea and homemade cake. We also have a busy programme of events, workshops, and art exhibitions, a clothing and crafts boutique and lots more. Most of our crew are volunteers and you might even want to apply to join them. Come along and enjoy our unique, community run space.
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1 Response to How to start your own not-for-profit arts cafe

  1. Kat says:

    This is so amazing. My hope and dream is to one day run a space where people can come and create art, commune together and have a space which promotes mental wellbeing through the healing properties that I have personally found art to bring. Thank you so much for creating this article. It has inspired my heart once again to keep on the hope and vision despite setbacks!

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