In search of a coworking model

For the last three years, I’ve been co-managing CitiZenit, a multidisciplinary platform based in Arad, Western Romania, dedicated to regeneration projects, cultural events, non-formal education, artistic distribution and production. Among our most important projects known to date stands Reset Teba – the re-activation of three halls from Teba, a former textile factory from our city. Through a series of restoration workshops and weekly cultural events we transformed these halls into a multifunctional artistic venue, that attracted the local community’s attention, as well as artists, creative industries people and entrepreneurs, and quickly became a real hot spot in the city.

After almost two years of activity at Teba, we left our space in October 2016. Since then, we’ve been organizing events in smaller venues throughout the city, while making plans to explore another space that we could reconvert into a sustainable cultural hub on the long term. And although Romania is filled with old industrial sites and historical buildings that are just waiting to be used, the are only a few functional models of cultural hubs based in reconverted sites, and as far as managing the Teba space, we hadn’t relied so much on a sustainable strategy on the long term. Thus I became very interested in learning about new strategies of running a cultural hub, and also I wanted to find out whether the coworking space idea could be something that we could integrate into our own future platform.

Cru Cowork appeared to be the perfect place where I could immerse myself and learn hands-on about a genuinely sustainable coworking space. Moreover, despite having a different functioning mechanism, Cru Cowork seemed to share a lot in common with CitiZenit, especially in terms of mission, tone and activities, placing multidisciplinarity and creative ecosystems at its core.

So at the end of June 2017, through the P2P European Creative Hubs Network Exchange, I went to Porto for one week, determined to experience a different model of running a cultural hub and to find out the strategies through which the concept of a coworking space could be integrated within our platform and future multifunctional space.

Tânia Santos and her partner Miguel Ferreira understood right from our first meeting what my curiosities and endeavour were. From setting me a shared desk within their coworking space to daily discussions and meetings with people from their team and network, they warmly introduced me behind the Cru Cowork scene. They even invited me to speak at the Sobre a Mesa session, which is a weekly event organized by Tânia every Wednesday where a different person (either a fresh Cru Cowork member or a friend who has just started an interesting new project) tells his story to the Cru Cowork team, right after lunch, during the desert, in their lovely interior backyard.

As for our daily discussions, we shared a lot of accounts and insights about what it means to manage a cultural hub with a mission. Moreover, Tânia openly recounted how she started up with Cru Cowork and what kind of strategies and developments she pursued during the last five years since she opened it. And by generously answering to even my most uncomfortable questions, she actively helped me to draw a comprehensive picture about how to set up a coworking space, and about some of the big dos and don’ts.

Besides the meetings with the Cru Cowork members, Tânia had the wonderful idea to put me in contact with other cultural hubs and their members. Thus I got to visit and to closely uncover several other artistic venues from Porto, such as Fábrica da Rua da Alegria (a former textile factory which has been occupied and transformed by a group of around 15 actors, directors, scenographers, set and costume designers into a meeting and creative space filled with workshop areas and rehearsal studios, dedicated to the performing arts), Cace Cultural do Porto (a cultural hub that gathers several visual studios based in a former warehouse near the Douro river that is coordinated by a state university institution and explores the idea of coworking spaces as well) and Circus Network (both a co-working space for visual artists and an independent network of Portuguese urban artists).

All these meetings were both recomforting and refreshing as they helped me understand how, despite relying on different models, these newly discovered cultural hubs along with those I was familiar with from my country share a lot of similar stories, especially when it comes to dealing with opportunities or challenges on the long term. Moreover, during my week I had the chance to explore some of Porto’s high-end cultural scene as well, attending events like concerts and film screenings and visiting renowned sights and architectural jewels, such as Centro Português de Fotografia, Casa da Música or Serralves Museum.

So what did I learn from all these experiences? Besides the illuminating insights about what it means to set up and develop a long term strategy for a co-working space, I got totally infused with the enthusiasm and confidence that felt so typical of Porto itself. And the idea of transformation and integration in order for innovation to happen seemed to be characteristic not only of Tânia’s Cru Cowork, but also of the whole city, from its architecture and cuisine to its cultural scene and people. Moreover, through getting in touch with all the cultural hubs from Tânia’s network, I learned once again that it is only through a permanent rethinking of its model and redesigning of its strategies as to meet the constantly changing needs, developments or challenges of its community, that a cultural hub can truly become a sustainable platform on the long run.

By Oana Tarce