Bristols Watershed was an awkward beast from the off, writes Dick Penny. The original 1982 vision Britains first Media and Communications Centre was designed to straddle arts and commercial worlds. It was not conceived in response to arts policy or funding programmes. The current success of Watershed has its foundation in the original vision but its genesis in a very real (potentially terminal) organisational and financial crisis in the late 1990s. The crisis created the environment for a new strategic focus and new support from the arts funding system. As the new, networked approach began to work, the organisation increasingly responded to opportunities in the creative technology space and an entrepreneurial culture evolved. However, Watershed found its ability to invest in this new area constrained by the potential impact on the traditional charity business model and its relationship with traditional arts system stakeholders. To explore this conundrum, Watershed appointed Peter Boyden to review the organisations growing cross-sector partnership activity to assess value and potential. In November 2004 he delivered a report Watershed Partner Value Review The following is an edited extract:
In 1982 there was no such thing as a media and communications centre. When first coined by Watersheds founders, the term had yet to be devalued by either repetition or distortion. It was accompanied by clear assumptions about cultural democracy and access in a wired universe as well as a commitment to working proactively with private sector media enterprises in a different kind of economic model. With hindsight it seems obvious that the digital revolution was necessary before the Watershed dream could become a fully achieved reality. The scale of the future opportunity is now determined by the continuing dizzying pace of change as digital media respond to huge increases in data processing capacity and the potential of wireless connectivity. Given the right support, in another ten years Watershed may still represent a pioneering vision whose time has yet to come. It could be that the organisations true purpose is to stay just ahead of the breaking wave of emerging technologies and to mediate their capacity to be used creatively in a fully inclusive knowledge economy.
The key challenge for Watershed is how to surf the breaking wave of innovation while maintaining a stable arts offer in an increasingly complex business model. The solution the organisation has settled upon is to evolve the business model and operate through a group of companies designed to meet the needs of the distinct business areas. The corporate group structure is being expanded to meet the demands of inter-disciplinary convergence and will now consist of three organisations. Watershed Arts Trust Ltd, a registered charity and company limited by guarantee, will focus on the venue and online activity. Watershed Trading Company Ltd, a for-profit subsidiary, will take care of venue catering and conferences/events. iShed CIC Ltd is a new venture to be set up as a community interest company: the iShed will be a Creative Economy cultural broker dealing in Research & Development in creative technology. iSheds CIC structure will allow Watershed to operate at the interface of public and private sectors, working to develop creative and financial capital. It will enable joint venture projects and, through establishing a creative venture capital fund; it will enable flexible and early seed investment in new ideas with uncertain outcomes. iShed will enable Watershed to play a leading role in the developing knowledge economy.
Dick Penny is Managing Director of Watershed.