Smithfield square’s generator hostel is full with international visitors. Yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that something missing. For a few years through the gloom of the recession there was a hope that Smithfield had the potential to bring something of the vivacity of Berlin to Dublin. Martin Leen believes you can kiss that hope goodbye as the new rental realities are killing art spaces.
There was a sense of grassroots DIY activity around the place. Block T and The Complex brought energy and people to the area. Up around the corner Flatpack Studios and the Joinery held gigs, exhibitions and happenings.
You could stroll down by the fruit market and catch some performance art in The Market Studios. With the closure of Block T in Smithfield on March 30 all of these places for one reason or another will be gone, some gone from the area, some gone for good.
Block T having been in Smithfield for over 6 years had to move out because they could not get a long term lease and could not grow or indeed invest in the space with any guarantee. They since found another home in Basin View, Dublin 8 but it involves a big rebuilding process and another huge investment of capital to refurbish the building via a gofundme campaign. The Complex had to move because their building was taken over by NAMA who wanted to put a Tesco there. The Joinery had to close because of the precariousness of running a not for profit arts space year after year.
Smithfield and Stoneybatter have become gentrified, rents are going up and there is no room for the organisations that brought life back to this place. This problem is not just confined to Dublin 7. Broadstone Studios in Harcourt Street closed after 18 years when their landlord sold the property, Moxie Studios in Dublin 2, the Mabos Project on Hanover Quay and The Factory. The list goes on.
Louise Marlborough of PrettyvacanT says “There is no easy solution to the closure of art space and studios. In 2009 I saw an opportunity and set up PrettyvacanT Dublin, but it was born out of the economic and property crisis. The closures are part and parcel of the economic cycle. Unless this is broken or challenged and I believe this will continue to happen – the economy improves and property is in demand, prices rise and one of the first casualties are arts organisations, studios and groups etc. It is an ever repeating cycle.”
Running an independent art space is an unstable business, with the space itself in many ways being the most insecure. During a recession, spaces for arts organisations, are easier to find. The opposite is true in ‘recovery’.
Naomi Murphy and Marisa Denker are Connect the Dots, an organisation that brings diverse stakeholders together over a common cause or issue. Over the last year and a half they have focused on the use of vacant space in the city. Naomi says:
“It was easiest right after the economic crash, because it was a bit more flexible, there were more spaces that were a bit cheaper to get into. Now, with the economy going up, people realise that they can actually get ‘real’ commercial people to come in. Many alternative places have closed.”
While funding will always be an issue for arts organisations Connect the Dots found that they also face other obstacles such as a lack of supportive and flexible infrastructure in terms of advice, champions, transparent information and clear processes to encourage the growth of new initiatives and current projects. The ad hoc nature of their set-ups often leaves creative spaces vulnerable to sudden changes or to authorities, thus making economic viability and resilience challenging.
Naomi feels an issue is, “space not being valued as an important asset to the community. What’s come out of a lot of the discussions at Connect The Dots is that there are few ‘champions’ and little or no legislation that protects spaces that may not have direct fiscal benefits to the city, but do amazing work for the community and provide an important creative space for an area that would otherwise have none.”
While Dublin City Council provides some support through its Arts office, new grassroots organisations often find it difficult to find support. Louise says, “I think there is plenty that government and local authorities can do but I have seen little or no evidence of this. Arts and culture needs to be valued and nourished, especially at the early stages e.g. fledgling organisations, artist led spaces etc. They often cannot generate income but contribute in other ways to the fabric of the city.”
These are not simply just “art spaces” they are also important community centres, works-spaces and educational facilities. Laura Dovn of Block T feels that “It is important to recognise that creative self-expression is integral in everyone’s life. Creativity is a part of sustainable living, and not just a separate domain that no-one outside arts industry is able to access or understand. I would hope that in years to come government officials, developers, representatives of the creative industry and community workers can come together and re-define how creative organisations and art centres are supported and utilised.”
Louise didn’t feel that “there was much support from government and local authorities. I spoke to and met with many Departments and organisations and although they were supportive in principle their actions were lacking.”
Surely this is something that the council can help with. Dublin City Arts Officer runs a Vacant Spaces Initiative, but at the moment there are 350 artists on the waiting list and only 2 places became available last year. There are so many empty buildings around that could be used, many of them owned by NAMA who according to both Naomi and Louise are very difficult to penetrate. There are also some practical measures that can be taken by the council to help. Naomi says “Commercial rates are a big problem for arts organisations. These are rates paid to a council for non-domestic space. Many alternative spaces have closed in the last year or so because it was not sustainable for them to pay the rates.”
A start to getting to where Laura is talking about is actually taking the social dividend promised by Nama. That needs political will but it’s clear the consensus of the current regime is to marginalise the Arts further and bundle it together with Rural Affairs, Rural Development and The Gaeltacht in a new mutant department. Meanwhile the council rejects motions that call for new developments to allocate a small percent of their space to cultural use. Naomi says: “The city needs to be inspired a bit by other examples in similar sized cities. It needs a really well thought out strategic plan, informed by citizens, and to then have an open door policy (more of a ‘yes, and how can we help’, then a ‘no, but..’).”
As Laura told me when it comes to such spaces: “There is enough evidence of their social and economic impact available to form a thorough case study which could act as a catalyst for a real cultural reform in Ireland. And I trust we are ready for it.”
Look up Block T’s Go Fund Me page to make a donation.