Culture is future » Financing and economic models


A fresh breeze for the industrial heritage

Cultural reinvigoration of vacant industrial sites: A comparative study of three European cases

Revitalising abandoned industrial heritage with a new, often cultural function, is a practice that has already been proven successful in many post-industrial countries. The Tate Modern in London, the Cable Factory in Helsinki, the Tabacalera in Madrid or Stan's Cafe in Birmingham are some well-known results of such initiatives.

However, the manifestations of this idea diverge not only in the novel roles of the renovated places, but also with respect to chosen funding models as well as in terms of relations created with the surrounding area. The following short study focuses on the two latter points. It is preceded by the core facts about the examined places.

Stara mestna elektrarna – Elektro Ljubljana (Slovenia)

Located in the north of the old city center of Ljubljana, the Stara mestna elektrarna (literally, the Old power station of the city) was built in 1898 and was regularly modernized until the end of World War II, at which point it was replaced by a modern power station in the outskirts of the town. The old power station represents one of the few surviving examples of industrial architecture in Slovenia and is protected as a cultural, technical and historical monument. From 2004 onwards, the site had undergone cultural rebirth by virtue of a partnership agreement signed between the Ministry of Culture, the City of Ljubljana and the company Elektro Ljubljana, the owner of the power station. Since that time, the Stara elektrarna has served for the needs of performing arts: for creation, training and production. Its premises comprise a theater with 300 seats.

Leipziger Baumwollspinnerei (Germany)

Founded in the late 19th century, the Leipziger Baumwollspinnerei (the Leipzig cotton mill) became very prosperous and grew to be the largest mill in continental Europe 25 years after its foundation. The 100,000 m2 of its surface are divided into 25 halls. From 1992, the factory was dismantled and in 2001, the complex was purchased by three German businessmen, firmly convinced of the potential residing in the site. The available places in the Baumwollspinnerei were initially rented out to young artists and artisans, but gradually also included young creative businesses outside the domain of the arts, thus bringing a certain freshness and new dynamics to the location.

Thaddaeus Ropac Paris Pantin gallery

Thaddaeus Ropac, a gallery owner specializing in contemporary art, chose to open a new Parisian exhibition location in Pantin, in a former boiler works factory dating back to the early 20th century. Spreading over 4700 m2, four of its eighthalls were converted into exposition spaces, while the remaining four are now being used for performances, private showrooms, archives and offices. The gallery opened in October 2012 and aims to exhibit monumental art masterpieces. The opening exhibition is dedicated to German contemporary artists Anselm Kiefer and Joseph Beuys.

Art project funding: At the crossroads of different models

By comparing the three cases, we observe that the three industrial buildings were revitalized using either only private funds or a combination of public and private resources. Accordingly, the cases also differ in the financial management of the premises.

The management of the former boiler works factory of Pantin is perhaps the most obvious: the site was rearranged by the Thaddaeus Ropac gallery, providing the necessary capital to realize the project. The gallery generates revenue through ticket sale.

The Baumwollspinnerei was reinvigorated due to the investment of enthusiastic businessmen: Florian Busse from Munich (Heintz & Co.), Tillmann Sauer-Morhard from Berlin and Bertram Schultze from Leipzig (the two from MIB AG), joined by the collector Karsten Schmitz from Munich (Federkiel Foundation). After restoration, the owners decided to rent out the premises for a moderate price. It should be noted, however,that some public funds were also obtained in order to contribute to the renovation of the halls: resources coming from the City of Leipzig, the State of Saxony and the Federal Republic of Germany. Thus, some public financial support joined the already successfully invested private funds.

As for the Stara elektrarna in Ljubljana, its new cultural identity has been created thanks to the initial funding coming from a synergy between economy and politics: the owner Elektro Ljubljana (an electricity distribution company) and the Ministry of Culture fully funded the first and the second renovation (in 1998 and in 2004), and decided to make the building available to the performing artists for free. This is a real success story of collaboration between political, economic and cultural agents in Slovenia, representing a relatively isolated example. Maintenance and additional renovation of the site are financed by the sale of tickets for the shows, by the support of some public and private partners as well as through a call for donations.

Some lucky ''side effects''

Apart from the general purposes of promoting industrial heritage and the development of cultural practices, the new activities breathe new life into the these often abandoned sites. Moreover, the creative spaces begin to radiate beyond their physical location into the surrounding area, significantly raising its attractiveness: first of all for the locals, but also for the tourists, who are more and more in search of the extraordinary and the original.

Thus, the Stara elektrarna attracts many Slovenians and foreigners, especially during the international festival Mladi levi (Young Lions) which is dedicated to stage performances and takes place every year in late August. In 2012, the 15th edition of the festival attracted over 10,000 visitors. What is more, together with two other cultural institutions located in the vicinity (the famous Metelkova-Mesto and the Slovenian Ethnographic Museum), the old power station is becoming a part of a whole cultural district, a project aiming to be developed even more in the future.

On the other hand, the Baumwollspinnerei, located between the neighborhoods of Lindenau and Plagwitz in the west of Leipzig, brought life to a part of the city rarely frequented by non-residents. Having become the artistic residency of Neo Rauch, the leader of the "New Leipzig School", it has gained interest of many tourists and citizens. Moreover, the former cotton mill attracts visitors throughout the year by cultural events, craft shops (and other creative businesses), restaurants, a cinema and even by a renovated kindergarten in the same location it used to be at the beginning of the last century.

Unlike the Spinnerei, the new Thaddaeus Ropac gallery has settled in the territory of the town of Pantin, with an already very rich cultural identity due to the presence of the Cité de la Musique and the Centre National de la Danse, with which Thaddeaus Ropac plans to collaborate. His gallery adds its own part to the creative mosaic of the town by offering immense unusual exhibition spaces, highly appropriate to host monumental works and great multimedia projects.


The examples of the Slovenian Stara elektrarna, the German Baumwollspinnerei and the boiler works factory of Pantin show that older industrial buildings can go through a very successful cultural transformation, and may thus contribute to a form of "recycling" of the built industrial heritage. Before attempting such a transformation, certainly an in-depth preliminary reflection on the feasibility of the project is needed: is the location of the building appropriate for the development of cultural activity? Which artistic practices should the project favour and what type of interaction with the surroundings should it aim for? And finally, financial viability is crucial. The three cases show that sustainable cultural projects in vacant industrial sites are possible if they have a potential for synergy with the local social tissue, as well as with political and economic agents.


Kaja Androjna.


Photo credits: PercyGermany sur Flickr