Culture Vultures.

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Above: Ian Hunter captures Smithfield Square over on Flickr.


With plans well underway for yet another cultural qwartter in Parnell Square, Kerry Guinan warns us to be sceptical of Dublin city council’s love in with vulture fund Kennedy Wilson after the “culture” evaporated from Temple Bar and Smithfield Square quicker than the steam of piss behind the Hard Rock Cafe on Fleet Street.

Past initiatives warn us that culture-led development in Dublin has some dubious methods and outcomes. Experience shows that artists benefit little from such arrangements and nor do people resident in these zones.

Parnell Square’s creative makeover is due to be completed in 2020 in partnership with DCC, the OPW and the vulture fund Kennedy Wilson. Its proposals include a new city library, a cultural education centre, a design facility and a pedestrianised plaza on its Northern end. The square will be DCC’s third attempt at the Cultural model in the city, originating with Temple Bar in 1991 and replicated in Smithfield Square from 1997.

Once abound with independent art spaces, Smithfield Square is looking empty as of late. In 2016 Block T were priced out of their premises there, following in the footsteps of the Complex, the Art Tunnel and the Joinery nearby, and many other art spaces across Dublin. In fact half of Dublin’s art studios have closed for reasons of rent or redevelopment since property prices began rising again in 2013.

What is unusual about the Smithfield situation, however, is that these art spaces were situated in a zone supposedly earmarked to become Dublin’s next cultural quarter. From 1997 onwards Smithfield was to be redeveloped as ‘major civic space in Dublin for the 21st century’. The new plaza was designed for public creative use and 82,000 sq. ft. of cultural space was to be built on the west side of the square, comprising a 180-seat theatre, a workshop and conference space, and a ‘Museum of Childhood’. Given these ambitions, you would expect that the organic arrival of art spaces in the area would be nurtured and protected by the Council.

Failing to receive funds from central government, however, DCC opted to offer tax incentives to the private development consortium Fusano Properties in return for these creative facilities. The consortium were optimistic about the cultural quarter vision, promising a ‘unique mix of offerings, ranging from food to culture to entertainment and leisure’ in Smithfield. The Smithfield Square that exists today, however, clearly shows that they were ultimately unwilling to put their money where their mouth is.

Over the course of ten years Fusano Properties consistently delayed the construction of the cultural venues, arguing successfully to an Bord Pleanana that ‘there are very few examples of cultural projects that have succeeded without state or local authority funding.’

Remarkably, during this period a landlord from Fusano was incidentally letting their Haymarket House office block to Block T. Close by, the eviction of the Complex from their NAMA site was approved by former owner and Fusano co-director Chris Kelly in favour of a Tesco development. Both art venues combined would have met a significant portion of Fusano’s spatial requirements – yet once the market recovered they were the first to be pushed out in favour of more profitable tenants. An Bord Plenana made a similar move last year when they finally relieved the developers of their tax-incentivised agreement by permitting the development of a 24hr private gym in place of the museum – now the seventh within one kilometre of the site. Given the restrictions placed on the Smithfield horsefair and the closure of its independent art spaces, Smithfield now has even less cultural activity than before the redevelopment. Similarly the failings of the Temple Bar Cultural Quarter became crystal clear when, in 2014, Exchange Dublin was closed for reasons of ‘anti-social behaviour’ in the most infamously boozey corner of the city.

This begs the question – what does DCC mean when it declares ‘cultural quarter’ and who is its audience? Three distinct culture-led developments in the span of 20 years for a city of this size is nothing short of remarkable, so why the crisis in the supply of art spaces? The study of Smithfield’s redevelopment found that people were willing to pay 0.065% more to live near Block T, articulating a clear demand for urban cultural activity which in this case was found to be twice as high as the demand to live in a house with a garden. Herein may lie the clue of DCC’s intentions, however, as this demand translated into real property price increases in the Smithfield area.

The turn to culture-led development in Dublin began in the early 1990s, a time when industry was overwhelmingly shifting to the service sectors, tourism flourished and international private development began to be officially encouraged through tax incentives. These conditions are all characteristic of a globalised neoliberal economy that trades on the language of innovation – a language deeply connected to art. As the following quote from the 1996 Historical Area Rejuvenation Project illustrates, art was starting to play an important role in attracting international investment:

The quality of cultural and artistic activities helps sustain the public life of cities and plays an increasingly important economic function. Cities compete internationally and investment is attracted by factors beyond the normal economic costs of labour and rent. Dublin is now renowned for the energy and vitality of its arts and cultural sector, which plays an important role in how the city is perceived abroad.

Hence over the last twenty years DCC has increasingly stressed the importance of Dublin’s artistic reputation. Public artworks are now a facet of all capital construction projects and recent redevelopments such as Smithfield and the Docklands place unprecedented emphasis on architectural calibre. Material conditions do not meet the ‘creative Dublin’ mantra, however, with a 2016 survey finding that 76% of artists are earning less than 10,000 euros a year. Once credited for reviving Dublin’s vacant spaces during the downturn, independent art spaces are similarly struggling – with little support or protection offered by the council in the face of the current market.

As the Parnell Square redevelopment continues behind closed doors, it befits us to contrast the images plastered in development plans with their predictable results. The city library, music centre and educational space – if they do come to fruition on the back of private funding – would be welcome additions to Dublin’s landscape, but they cannot be created in isolation.

If the relatively small art organisation Block T had an impact on local property prices, what might this large scale cultural development entail? No provision has been made for social housing, despite the ongoing housing crisis and the fact that these cultural spaces are being developed on sites originally acquired by the OPW for that very purpose.

Revealingly the front page of the Parnell Square vision document glitters ‘Parnell Square Cultural Quarter: a catalyst for renewal and growth among the civic spine’. It is time for artists to respond to such rhetoric: art does not exist to attract ‘desirable’ footfall, landlords, and international investment. Culture is important and should be accounted for but it is both too important to be left to private developers and not as important as guaranteeing a roof over everyone’s head alongside it.

Check out Kerry Guinan’s full study The Impact and Instrumentalisation of Art in the Dublin Property Market: Evidence from Smithfield, Dublin 1996 – 2016 over at on www.academia.edu. Also pop along to her exhibition Presenting The Culutral Quarter in A4 Sounds later this week.

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