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A Cafe Art milestone

Updated: 3 days ago

Café Art is a small but highly effective social enterprise which was set up by Michael Wong and Paul Ryan in 2012. We like to think we “punch above our weight” as we focus on making a difference to the lives of people who have lived experience of being homeless.


Today is a milestone point for Café Art as we transition from being a social enterprise to becoming the MYWORLD charity. As such, we think it’s a time to look back on what we have achieved, why we do this and to look forward to where we hope to go.


Café Art as a brand, including the website and social media will remain. However, from July 1 2024, the projects will officially be run by the MYWORLD charity. This gives us more freedom to apply for funding to grow to help more people affected by homelessness.



Our mission


Café Art first started helping artists sell their paintings to members of the general public in independent London cafes. Our mission is “to change lives and improve community connections by empowering people affected by homelessness through creativity and entrepreneurship. The mission statement has been adopted by the new MYWORLD charity.


Paying artists and photographers from the beginning


Paying photographers and vendors makes MYLONDON unique amongst charities. Since 2012 we have paid out more than £300,000 to artists, photographers and calendar vendors.


We know this aspect of MYLONDON is effective in raising the quality of people’s lives through the self-esteem and dignity it gives people when they sell their own work. We are also actually getting people off the streets. The annual selling of the MYLONDON calendar and greeting cards are a huge part of what we do and the process – of standing at tables in Spitalfields Market and in Elizabeth line stations – is also how we are very visible to Londoners.


The new MYWORLD is a Charitable Incorporated Organisation (CIO) and is registered with the Charity Commission of England and Wales. CIOs combine the benefits of being a charity with the safeguards for trustees who have the same protections as directors running a business limited by guarantee.


Michael and Paul – the founders


Michael Wong is a Malaysian who has lived in London since 1979. He lives in London with his wife Jean and has two adult children. A trained pharmacist, he volunteered with St Mungo’s before coming up with the idea to hang art by people who went to the art group he volunteered with in nearby cafes in 2011.


I’m Paul Ryan. I grew up in New Zealand and after a degree in political science trained as a journalist. I arrived in London in 1997 working in publishing for an educational charity before living in Vancouver, Canada for seven years and returning to the UK in early 2012.


I was introduced to Michael in August 2012. I had returned to London after seven years working for Pivot Legal Society, a legal aid organisation helping vulnerable people in Vancouver, Canada. I had been back several months and was volunteering for several homeless charities, including Shelter and St Mungo’s while I looked for a job.


Hope in Shadows – the origin of MYLONDON

My job in Canada had been to run a “camera to calendar” project called Hope in Shadows, for Pivot. Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is infamously known as the poorest postcode in Canada and Pivot was set up there by a young lawyer John Richardson who wanted to help the marginalised people of that neighbourhood.


The original calendar project was basic and over the next seven years I developed it into something which is very similar to MYLONDON today. The annual Hope in Shadows calendar is still run today by the street newspaper Megaphone.


Back in early 2005, newly arrived in Vancouver, I volunteered to publish a newsletter for Pivot. After two months volunteering, funding came through for a one-off grant which had been applied for by two local writers Gillian Jerome and Brad Cran. They were given the go ahead to write and publish a book about the Hope in Shadows project which had already produced two wall calendars with photos taken by the impoverished community in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver.


When Brad and Gillian’s book grant came through in April 2005, 50 percent of the funding went to them and 50 percent to Pivot in exchange for access to all the photos and an office space to interview the photographers. Pivot’s money would fund another Hope in Shadows contest and 2006 calendar.


Brad and Gillian went on to write the book and in 2008 the book Hope in Shadows won the Vancouver book of the year award.


I had to run the project – from distributing more than 100 cameras to publishing the 2006 calendar and I knew that if the calendar didn’t sell well that I would not have a job beyond the end of the year. This motivated me to make sure it sold well.


The reimbursement structure used by Pivot was the same as Café Art uses: Generous prizes were given to attract people to pick up a camera and once published, 50 percent of the sale price from each calendar went to the vendor. In Vancouver the calendars are sold on the street like The Big Issue in London, whereas in London it’s sold in Spitalfields Market and Elizabeth line stations.


After doing some research on calendars – with clipboards on the streets of Vancouver – I redesigned the Hope in Shadows calendar: I interviewed the photographers involved in the project and added information about them. I believed that a strong selling point would be the stories about the people who take the photos. This would help buyers of the calendar to empathise with them as individuals.


The research I undertook also informed me that people wanted to buy a wall calendar they could write on. The original calendar didn’t have enough space for that. We also added a public vote so that the most popular photos were in the calendar. This made the calendar a lot more commercial and more likely to sell – obviously a way to help more people.


The 2006 calendar sold 50 percent more than the previous year - my job was safe and the Hope in Shadows project was continued. When I left Vancouver in January 2012 the 2012 calendar had just sold out from a print run of 17,000, up from 4,500 in 2005. After the street vendors earned 50 percent of the income, it was earning Pivot more than enough to not only employ me but to help Pivot in general, helping employ lawyers to take on legal cases involving homelessness, sex workers, drug users and more issues affecting local residents of the Downtown Eastside.


Café Art set up as a project


On weekends Michael is an avid road cyclist and met a group of St Mungo’s fundraisers while cycling on a road somewhere in the countryside to the north of London one weekend. Michael was encouraged to volunteer with St Mungo’s and eventually joined an art group run by Jen Burnham in a St Mungo’s hostel near King’s Cross.


Every week Michael saw some great art, created by residents of the hostel, filed away in the storage cupboards. He had an idea to let the art be seen: Michael approached cafes to hang pictures. He bought simple frames from IKEA and hung the art in the cafes. After running out of art at the St Mungo’s hostel, he approached other homeless art groups run by other charities around London and soon had a name for his project: Café Art. (Oliver's Cafe in Belsize Park above: artists present owner Caroline Chan with flowers to thank her for hanging their art.)


When I met Michael in August 2012 he had been doing his Café Art project for at around 10 months.


Michael has an infectious enthusiasm and is good at approaching organisations who might help – Christie’s, The Royal Photographic Society (The RPS), to name a few. Michael had spoken to Michael Pritchard, the RPS CEO, who expressed an interest in doing a photography project with people affected by homelessness.


We approached The RPS and they said they could help us if we ran the project. It was too late in the year to hold a contest for a 2013 photography calendar – so we produced an art calendar instead which we called One. One was chosen as a name as it united people and homeless charities together as one to fight homelessness.


2012: One  - the art calendar



The graphic design for the One calendar and later the MYLONDON calendar was donated by CarterWong Design. Michael’s uncle Phil Wong was a co-founder of CarterWong and they not only designed the first Café Art calendar but also our “coffee stain” logo.


The One calendar was launched on December 6th 2012. We printed 1,000 copies and sold most of them in Spitalfields Market. After paying the artists £100 each, we donated all the profits, after printing costs were paid, to the charities whose artists appeared in the calendar - £500 each to Crisis, The Connection, St Mungo’s and nine more. That year I wasn’t paid at all and Michael Wong has never been paid a penny for all his work with Café Art.


Photographers and vendors have always been paid a large percentage of profits – from the prize money and commissions awarded each year to photographers, to the money paid to vendors selling calendars and greeting cards.


2013: School for Social Entrepreneurs / Café Art registered


In late 2012 Ivor Morgan from St Mungo’s suggested I apply for a place on a social enterprise course with The School for Social Entrepreneurs. I applied and was really happy to be accepted on a part time course with them in 2013. It was perfect for learning the ropes for the setting up of Café Art as a fully functioning company. Michael and I decided to create a CIC – which was a version of a company limited by guarantee. It was registered in November 2013.


Pop up art exhibitions


Since the beginning Café Art was hanging art in cafes and this was a perfect balance to the MYLONDON project which officially started in July 2013. The art in cafes was a loss leader – in that it didn’t make a lot of money and wasn’t funded by grants, but it did engage the artists and fulfil our mission to connect people affected by homelessness with the wider community.

The video above, produced in 2015, gives a glimpse of the IKEA exhibition in 2014 and was made for a visiting group of organisations from Brazil so has subtitles in Portuguese.


Over the next few years Café Art held many exhibitions. The exhibitions were often in the foyers of office buildings; like the art in cafes, these exhibitions were unfunded by grants and relied on the generosity of the building owners and volunteers helping to hang the exhibitions.

Michael’s goal throughout has been to connect artists not only with their peers, but with the wider community. When a painting sold in a café, he arranged for the artist to meet the buyer over a coffee in the cafe.


One highlight was a week’s exhibition in IKEA in 2014.



Homeless art market in Spitalfields Market



In 2013 we approached Ray Dervin who ran Spitalfields Market. He agreed that we could use the pods from the monthly arts market for a week after they were up and in August 2013 we invited 12 different charities to have a pod each.


The market was another way to bring artists – and homeless charities – together. At one end of the homeless art market we put up the MYLONDON exhibition and polled the public on the Top 20 photos – something we were able to do until 2019.


The market has since been redesigned, so we can’t do the arts market, but we returned with the annual MYLONDON exhibition in August 2023 (right). See the full 2023 exhibition here.


This Is Where I Live



The video produced by Freshart featuring the London paintings in New York:



In 2013 Michael approached a homeless arts group in New York called Freshart and we did an international exchange of art. We called our international art exchange project “This Is Where I Live”,  making us the first international homeless arts organisation in the world. Over the years we added many more cities: Berlin, Dar es Salaam, Auckland, Melbourne, and of course New York and London.



Michael approached Old Diorama Arts Centre in 2014 to ask about hosting “This Is Where I Live”. This connection introduced Old Diorama to the homeless arts scene and was the start of several years of collaboration with Café Art and Old Diorama. We introduced one of our artists and photographers David Tovey to Old Diorama in 2016 when he became their first artist in residence. Other Café Art artists to take up that position included Geraldine Crimmins and James Gray.


Alumni success stories


David went on to set up the One Festival of Homeless Artists at Old Diorama which was recently renamed the One Roof Festival of Homeless Arts and is now run by Old Diorama. David was hired as a director of the Arts & Homelessness International charity by Matt Peacock (founder of homeless organisation Streetwise Opera and With One Voice), in 2019.


Geraldine, who was a Café Art artist and photographer and had sold the MYLONDON calendar for several years and run a women’s art group for Café Art, now works for Old Diorama part time. She set up her own art group called the Drummond Street Collective in Old Diorama in 2023.


Art Competition Exhibition


The Hampstead School of Arts (HSoA) helped us run the Art Competition Exhibition in 2018 and 2019. From 2017-19 Sarah Caldwell Watson worked for us, as well as helping to transform This Is Where I Live and our website.


FEANTSA Homeless in Europe magazine



For the past seven years we have provided art for a quarterly magazine by FEANTSA, the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless.


The United Nations, Geneva


In 2018 Cafe Art was invited to show photographs from our MYWORLD project in the United Nations in Geneva. We used the opportunity to promote photographers from cities involved with our project in London, Budapest, New Orleans and Toronto.


Covid


When Covid hit we had to cancel all our activities – apart from a “best of” calendar printed and sold online at the end of 2020 and the weekly RPS photography mentoring group which continued.


We successfully applied for a grant to help our artists as well who were given food parcels, smart phones and financial support. We helped out the four main calendar market vendors from the previous year with our own payments of over £3,000 in total, made up from sales of the 2021 calendar online.


After Covid was over we decided to focus on the projects which were self-sustaining – resulting in MYLONDON, the art rental project returning.


The RPS-run photography mentoring group had of course continued throughout the pandemic. When travel around London was discouraged by the government, they met weekly on Zoom – gradually meeting up outside with social distancing. After the pandemic the group was stronger and now meet every week – online one Saturday and in a different part of London the next Saturday.


The Covid pandemic, and resulting cost of living crisis, has meant some of our art projects have not been done since 2019 – but we are always looking at ways to bring them back.


MYLONDON takes off


In 2015 we had some major luck when our Kickstarter for MYLONDON went viral following an article in Amateur Photographer magazine. Chris Cheesman from Amateur Photographer had been one of the judges on the judging panel and when we launched the Kickstarter to fund the printing of the 2016 MYLONDON calendar he offered to put the top 20 photos on their website.


Barely 30 minutes after uploading his article we received an email from PetaPixel in the US. PetaPixel is a photography website and obviously one of their sources for story ideas was Amateur Photographer in the UK. Over the coming days and weeks more and more media companies contacted us about the photos. We ended up sending them, via Dropbox, to more than 200 websites across almost every country in the world, including UpWorthy, the NBC Today Show, elsewhere in the US and many news organisations in Europe including Germany.



Because of that coverage and links to the Kickstarter we sold hundreds of calendars to people across the world. Many still buy the calendar every year even now, nine years later. Apart from the UK, the calendar is still most popular with buyers from the USA and Germany.


In August and September 2015 more than 100 people who had read about us online emailed us to ask about doing their own homeless photography project. We always gave them as much advice as we could and eventually four cities did their own projects with us – most for several years: Brighton & Hove, Budapest, Toronto, New Orleans, Perth, Sydney and last year, Mumbai. Several other cities did their own camera-to-calendar project without us and that was great to see.


By coincidence, in 2015 Matt Peacock from With One Voice was organising a trip of homeless-sector art charity workers to Brazil and Café Art was asked to not only join the group but the Brazilian host asked us to help them to do Minha São Paulo (My São Paulo) in November 2015.




MYWORLD


We didn’t choose to create our international homeless arts network – they came to us and it’s a big part of us changing from just a Community Interest Company social enterprise to a Charitable Incorporated Organisation charity.


What we have found is that homelessness is indeed an international issue. It has been fantastic to connect with the many homeless art organisations and to share “best practice” – sharing ideas and strategies to improve the lives of people who are homeless.


At first, we didn’t know whether to call it “MyCity”, “Café Art International” or “MyWorld” but eventually MyWorld won out. In 2018 we started meeting with founders of projects in the cities already running a project. When Covid hit in 2020 we continued, eventually resulting in the registration of the name as MYWORLD Creative Projects.


The charity was given the green light by the Charity Commission in December 2021. Due to delays in changes to the banking system around charities we only opened our bank account in November 2023. MYWORLD takes over the financial responsibilities from Café Art on Monday 1 July, 2024. Café Art will continue as a brand however.


The people who made us


The cafes: Thank you to all the cafes who hung the art. It has always been a simple concept, and it worked in helping us connect artists with lived experience of homelessness with the wider community.


MYLONDON online buyers: The MYLONDON project, through Café Art’s annual online pre-selling campaigns, has been supported by thousands of people. We are very grateful for their support.


Photographers: Since 2013 thousands of people who have lived experience of homelessness have participated in the project. Our goals are simple: to engage people affected by homelessness, whether they are sleeping rough, living in a hostel or have been re-housed in a flat but still needing support. By engaging people in something creative we help people to gain skills and confidence to face the challenges they have in reconnecting to the wider community.


Artists – art rental programme: Our art rental programme helps renting art to corporate offices and giving profits to the artists who have been homeless. Thanks you to the artists and the companies who support them.


Volunteers: we are grateful to the hundreds of volunteers who have helped Café Art since the beginning. The biggest event of the year is the MYLONDON camera handout. The ongoing Cafe Art RPS Photography Mentoring Group is run by RPS volunteers. A special thank you to Julian Rouse, Pat Simmons, Fred Barrington and Judy Hicks.


MYWORLD advisors and trustees: Since the first discussions in 2018, the following people have helped us build to where we are today. Those people include the founders of the projects run so far, Bernadette Fekete in Budapest, Heather Milton in New Orleans, Mathew Diamond and Martin Copeland in Toronto and Jai Jaru in Sydney. Sarah Turner from our graphic design company – who designed the MYLONDON calendar for many years – was also involved in the application process during 2020 to 2023. The trustees of MYWORLD Creative Projects are Michael Alwright who set up MYSYDNEY in 2015, Rick Henderson, CEO of Homeless Link, Katrina Treacy from the Elizabeth line and Michael Wong, founder of Café Art.


Supporting organisations There are many companies and organisations who have helped us over the years, from the London homeless-sector charities to the companies who let us hold pop up exhibitions. Carter Wong Design helped us design our branding and calendars from 2013 onwards. The RPS has provided volunteers for MYLONDON since 2013 and our weekly mentoring group since 2015. Since 2014 we have been given storage for our art, calendars and stationery in The Corner Hotel (formerly Qbic). Fujifilm have given us QuickSnap cameras free of charge since 2015 and also six digital X1 cameras for the mentoring group in 2015. Homeless Link have let us hotdesk in their offices since 2019. Spitalfields Market have let us sell calendars in their market since 2012. The Elizabeth line (formerly TfL Rail) has let us sell in their stations since 2019.



MYLONDON’s 2024 contest with 100 Fujifilm QuickSnap cameras happens at St Paul’s Cathedral on Tuesday 2 July. It is the 10th annual contest to be held (2020 and 2021 contests were virtual although calendars were printed).

 

 

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