Halting the Developers: Lessons from The Cube

With the future of Hamilton House uncertain and dozens of other creative & community hubs around the country facing funding cuts or closure, it sometimes feels like a bleak time for those of us working in these spaces. But it doesn’t have to be this way. This week we had a chat with a collective based round the corner from us who have stayed open on their own terms: The Cube Microplex.

If you know where to the find it, The Cube is one of the gems of Stokes Croft. Tucked away behind King’s Square, it’s a volunteer-run cinema, showing arthouse and independent films, weird cult movies and hosting events like the Bristol Radical Film Festival as well as regular live gigs. It’s also got a pretty decent bar and is the cheapest place to see a movie in Bristol.

The building that now houses The Cube has gone through multiple changes of ownership that read like a who’s who of the fringes of Bristol’s art scene. This is what Scruff, a long-standing volunteer who also sometimes works on reception at Hamilton House, told me when I caught up with her last Tuesday.

In the 1960s, the building was home to an amateur theatre group who needed a space to rehearse, as no one else would let them put on plays anywhere else. That’s what accounts for the hand-built wooden stage. There were rumours that the space was a porn cinema, before becoming a base for the Bristol Deaf Centre, and then an arts Centre through the 1980s. It lay empty for a while in the 1990s when the group who founded The Cube, a bunch of “idealists, amateurs, fools, material positivists, stilt walkers, film directors, screen writers and occultists”, (in the words of their website), took on the space in 1998.

Scruff got involved in 2009:

I had not long moved to Bristol and didn’t know many people and thought it would be a really good way to meet some interesting people and see some interesting cultural things. I knew about The Cube before I moved here, because I had friends that had told me about it, and I thought it seemed like a really great place to support. And then I started working on the bar, doing music promotion, putting on gigs.
Image by Headfirst Bristol

In-keeping with its DIY ethos, The Cube has always been run co-operatively. As Scruff puts it, the project is “all volunteer-run, no hierarchy, just do what you can: where your skills are, what you’re interested in.” While some roles, like projectionists, require more training than others, everyone chips in and new volunteers can shadow others to pick up new skills that interest them.

The Cube is also in the enviable position of being collectively owned by those who work in it. In 2012, when the landlord who owned the building declared his intention to sell it, the collective behind quickly stepped in to try and buy the building themselves. As Scruff tells it:

We negotiated with him and he gave us a year to raise the funds. We then successfully applied for an Arts Council grant. It was a match-funding one so they were like “we’ll stump up 50% if you guys can raise the rest of it”. So then we spent a year fundraising, madly, in various ways.

The fundraising included a theatre show at the Bristol Old Vic, tea and cake stalls, selling T-shirts, and a project called The Film that buys The Cube, an experimental film in which around 90 artists each submitted one minute of footage, which was then edited in a random order. It paid off: by the end of the year, the agreed price of £185, 000 had been met and The Cube became the property of Microplex Holdings, a Community Land Trust that was formed to ensure that the space remained a community resource in perpetuity.

How has becoming collective owners of the building changed what The Cube does? “It’s given us a lot of freedom, even just mentally. The idea that the building is now ours and we can do what we like, was quite a freeing thing”, says Scruff. It’s also allowed the collective to make plans to invest in the building, to upgrade infrastructure and make the space more accessible. Crucially, it means that this community space can’t be sold on for profit.

While the situation of Hamilton House is on a different scale — the building has been valued at between £5–7 million and is owned by a city-wde property developer rather than a single landlord — the principle remains the same: if there is enough will from those who work in or use the building, it can be protected as a community space. For Scruff, this is a crucial factor in staving off the worst effects of gentrification:

Yes it’s really nice to have a sustainable community and it’s great to have places for people to live but if there’s no places for people to work together and use together, then you haven’t got a very cohesive community. So if you lose all of that and just have apartments then it’s not a community anymore it’s just loads of people living in little boxes and not spending any time together. So spaces like [Hamiton House] and The Cube are really important in that they give people a place to come together.

Click here to sign up to the Hamilton House newsletter.