As Pallas Studios and Projects celebrate 20 years on the go as an artist run organisation, Martin Leen caught up with co-founder and artist Mark Cullen to talk about twenty years of self-determination, hopping around the city and how they got the God of Muses on their side.
When was Pallas formed?
Pallas was formed in 1996 when myself and Brian Duggan located a building on Foley Street. It was an old knitwear factory called Pallas Knitwear so after a bit of pre-ambling about a few different names we decided on Pallas because Pallas was the goddess of the muses, the goddess of intellect and the goddess of war. We knew we were going to be in for a rough ride so we wanted her on our side.
You’ve had a very nomadic existence since, how many places have you resided?
About eleven I think. Sometimes we had multiple locations within the one space. We were in Sean Treacy house which is the former flats on Buckingham Street. We had four flats there that we got off the city council. We had 2 places on Foley Street, a place in Castleforbes. After Pallas Heights closed down we moved over to Grangegorman, we had Brunswick Mill, we had two places on Grangegorman road. One of those burnt out just as we signed a lease for a place in Dominic Street.
The day after we signed the lease the landlords were foreclosed by the bank. This was pretty bad timing because the other place had just burnt down. We had planned to move but wanted to do it on our own terms. Then we found this place on The Coombe and it took us about nine months to negotiate the lease with the estate agent. This was a torturous process but anyways we got it in the end. We have a ten year lease which is really good. This place is great because we have the gallery and the studios now in the same place whereas before we felt quite atomised and dispersed. It’s very hard to manage across different locations. It’s very hard to curate a program and do your own work if you have to manage places all over town.
So insecurity of tenure is a big problem for artist run spaces?
Yes it’s terrible. Previous to this the longest lease we had was four years nine months. If you are in a place for five years, you get rights of tenure and landlords don’t want that. Then during the boom you just had landlords sitting on property, really reluctant to let it out. You had to twist their arms to get it. The place that got burnt out was an old engineering works on Grangegorman Road that was sitting empty for years. It has since become that squat.
It wasn’t until the landlord got into trouble that he leased it out to us. Then he got swallowed up by Nama. He was the Lord of the Hunt in Kildare. He stiffed us for our deposit.
We got this place at a just about an affordable rate. Even though this lease is for ten years this is not long this is just a mid-range lease. So we’re trying to find a proper long term sustainable location, with something like a 100 year lease so that it can last and become a proper feature of Dublin.
It’s needed as there is a serious shortage of studios in Dublin.
So many artist run spaces have fallen by the wayside over the years. What has kept you guys going for twenty years?
I don’t know…bloody-mindedness, tenaciousness. We’re pretty tenacious; we just want to get it done. It’s because we’re not just studios, we also run a gallery programme which is really enlivening. You gain a lot of energy from working with new people, doing exhibitions. We love collaborating with other people. We have collaborated with nearly every organisation in Ireland.
Even though I have my own studio practise, I also like collaboration. I’m in a collaborative group called Difference Engine which is an experimental travelling exhibition which constantly changes and commutes. I like the idea of multiple voices riffing off each other, works over-lapping. That sort of energy sustains.
Also we’re not driven by money; I don’t care about it at all as long as I have enough. Sometimes it’s barely enough, but I don’t see the value in it. I have more value on my time and what I do than looking to be paid. Gavin Murphy our other curator/ director isn’t either.
If we were motivated by money the project would have fallen apart. There have been ups and downs. Since 2011 our funding has fallen through the floor. We are on 70% of the funding we used to get.
Now because we have this great new building, our studios are always full; it gives a kind of buoyancy. That is something to be happy about it gives us a bit more sustainability, and means we can weather storms. Because we have a ten year lease, we can now plan ahead.
Now we can plan two years ahead, before we could only plan projects maybe three months ahead.
You have a lot of strong personalities on your board. How do you guys make decisions?
It’s democratic. I come up with crazy ideas and it’s good to have a board to tell me Mark that’s just mad. If you don’t have a board it’s really hard to analyse whether your ideas are actually good. There are plenty of times I thought we should definitely do that, and the board would go did you really think that was good? Myself and Gavin Murphy are quite different but we work well together.
What’s the most memorable venue you were in?
Well Pallas Heights was particularly inspiring. Working in the flats in Sean Treacy House while they were scheduled for demolition in the middle of a construction boom was inspiring. There was this zone of contention where they were gradually disintegrating. There were families being moved out but there were loads of families still living there. Dublin City Council made a decision that they were going to tear it down so they weren’t keeping them in a state that was habitable. There were a lot of really interesting shows there.
From that we got asked to curate all of the downstairs galleries in the Hugh Lane. We had that for three months. That was amazing it was the first time we had a big budget. That was in 2006. I have a criticism of museums in Ireland because mostly they are open when people are working.I know they are open at weekends but it would be much better for the cultural life of the country if they opened at say 12 and closed at 8pm. So we challenged the traditional time-frame of museum opening times. We were able to do a lot of live art nights with all kinds of performances, bands and a techno DJ late into the night. This was great and they had never encountered anything like this in the museum before.
What changes strike you most in the art scene in Ireland in the last 20 years?
The biggest change is the amount of people who stay and make a go of it. There are a lot of reasons for that. When I graduated everybody left, there was no independent things happen. In the last years people are hanging around and there is a load of stuff happening. Lots of artist run spaces sprouted up.
However it reached a high point in 2011 and lots of places have closed down since mostly due to lack of funding. Funding for the arts is six times less than the European Average. In Ireland arts funding is 0.1% of GDP. The European average is 0.6%. It’s disgraceful.
What have you planned for you twenty years celebration?
Well we had a show that opened last week with Liz Nielson and Max Wars over from the states curated by Jessen Fiore who used to run this is Not a Shop in Smithfield. We have a whole day of talks on artist run spaces and a social last Saturday. We have an auction coming up in the Irish Georgian Society with Whites Auction House. We have will around 90 artists work. From people like Sean Scully to freshly graduated artists.
This is a conscious decision on our part to see contemporary art being sold in Ireland. We want to get some good publicity around it so people stop thinking that buying contemporary art is an alien thing to do. This is an interesting way of us being supported by a community of artists who we have supported over the years and who get the idea that we are trying to develop opportunities for contemporary art. The hope is that the auction will generate more interest in Irish contemporary art. This is in The City Assembly House in South William Street.
You have a book that has just been published?
It’s about artist run practise throughout Europe. We’ve been researching it for 4 years. It has a directory of all the spaces we could find. It also has a series of case studies on different models that exist for running these spaces. There are lots of different kinds of models. Our Pallas Periodical this Christmas will have a review of the last 20 years of practise in Ireland.
We are also going to have a whole education programme about it. Actually that is the great thing of having a long lease we can really engage with the community.
You are becoming an institution albeit a kind of a radical one. How do you feel about that?
Oh yeah it’s great. Institutional finance would be great. I would always say to be an institution you need some kind of stability. That brings us back full circle to the whole issues with artist run spaces. There is no temporal terrestrial security on the grounds that you are on, you are on shifting sands. It’s about what’s happening in the area around you.
You could chart a course of where Pallas have gone, from empty street to empty street, these street s have been completely redeveloped. The same thing is going to happen here, there are plans for hostels and hotels and all sorts. Who knows what will happen. So I suppose you could call us a precarious institution.
Check out Pallas Projects website for upcoming events.