Above: A photo of Process being staged at BLOCK T as captured by Tadgh Nathan.
BLOCK T is an independent art enterprise and one stop shop for all things creative. It was based in Smithfield from 2010 until March of this year. Unable to get a long term lease there, they have moved to Dublin 8. Martin Leen caught up with co-founder and managing director Laura Dovn to talk about the challenges of running a space such as BLOCK T.
Could you tell me about BLOCK T’s approach to building its community.
During the 6 years of our existence, we have met pretty much every challenge in the book whether it was licensing, legal, financial, promotional or other. We got lucky to get established at the time we did and in the space that we did. In the midst of the recession, people were already re-visiting their priorities and values, and looking at what was really important for them and their quality of life.
Therefore, when we opened our doors in July 2010, the space immediately got a lot of attention and we received hundreds of visitors through our gigs, markets and exhibitions. It was evident, we were filling a market niche and the word spread like hell fire.
We developed several membership schemes that were providing mentoring, education and workspace facilities in order to engage with our public, and made sure that the programmes they were participating in were of high standard and inclusive. Supporting young grassroots talent was also something that was really paramount to us.
What benefits does BLOCK T bring to its locality in terms of creativity, and the public sphere that it creates for the local community to express itself?
There are many benefits I can think of that BLOCK T brings to the area it operates in.To date we have produced over 500 projects and events, and taught dozens of courses ranging from painting, to electronics, music making, creative entrepreneurship and many more. During the years we have developed extensive internship and mentoring programmes, through which we have mentored student, undergraduates and volunteers for over 5000 hours. In a way we have been acting as a seeder company, and team members after completing these programmes have successfully moved on to very good jobs and exciting opportunities and some of them remained with BLOCK T.
I know that you guys pride yourselves in being self-sufficient, however do you think cultural organisations should or could receive more support from the government or the council etc?
I think for independent organisations such as ours, it is essential to get start-up or seeder supports. It is a shame that current funding infrastructures that are in place are still slow to support social and cultural entrepreneurs like us. Primarily because such business models are still hard to understand and they don’t fit in conventional arts or profit-making agendas.
What is really required here is an open dialogue between government and civic representatives, developers, creative independents and cultural organisations in order to assess what is really required and what tangible benefits could we all collectively bring to a country’s economy, culture and society overall.
As it stands, the system does not work, and independents are constantly at the mercy of the growing market, facing huge risks and having no stability. It is extremely strenuous and unfortunately usually with an expiration date. So things do have to progress, but in order to do that- we need to stop pointing fingers and looking for one party responsible and see whether we could collectively achieve change.
With regards to staying in Smithfield, was there more that could have been done to support you?
I think the situation we were in was inevitable. With the growing market and facilities on Smithfield square becoming so valuable, our activities in Haymarket were about to seize. It did not come as a surprise, when taking on the lease we did expect the market to change at some point. Due to tight resources and no current investment, it was only that long we could last without having to downsize and really revisit the model we were working with after the recession.
Now with six years’ experience and great amount of credibility, we believe we have a chance to build a long term model and seek large scale investment for permanent facilities in Dublin city.
What is your view on critiques that the arrival arts of organisations such as Block T and others are actually the first phase of the gentrification process in areas like Smithfield and Stoneybatter? Artists/ Arts organisations are often blamed as the roots of the shift, as in they move into an area with cheap housing and studio space, then developers follow.
I think the very fact that by default artists and creatives are the ones who usually can not afford market rates on accommodation or studio space is most concerning. This shows that we are yet to recognise the real value of culture and art within our society, and the benefits that they bring to our quality of life and wellbeing.
The provision of expanded cultural offering certainly contributes to the regeneration and expansion of any city, and by natural progression of things- business follows. However, I would disagree with the statement that artists and cultural institutions are to ‘blamed’ for the gentrification process. It is the lack of collective effort from various city representatives (corporate and civic) to preserve the cultural integrity of urban areas, where market can grow without jeopardising grassroot initiatives and independent organisations that are the originators of cultural and social initiatives.
We see great examples of such cultural preservation in cities like London, Barcelona, Lisbon where subsidies and support are given to the cultural instigators who are viewed as essential contributors towards society’s development and growth.
From your own point of view how could Dublin better accommodate and nurture its cultural institutions?
There is a lot that Dublin can do but that would require different funding policies, collaborative engagement and ongoing dialogue between all parties and a proper economic case on the impact of such organisations. We have a long way to go.
Independents also could use proper support when dealing with planning and licensing issues, more comprehensive information on such challenges and more integrated approach when it comes to where they are placed in the city. In my opinion engaging properly with the developers is paramount, but for them to be interested long term, it would be necessary to develop a system where their engagement with cultural institutions would also be beneficial to them, whether it is tax benefits, rates, etc. It is a very broad topic, but to answer your question- there is always a better way, as we evolve, those systems have to evolve too.
Is there any advice you could to new grassroots initiatives?
Be organised, make a plan, know your boundaries, understand your resources, act responsibly, engage and seek help, collaborate, ask questions and learn, celebrate your people and be kind, do it.
Could you tell us about your plans for the future and your move to Dublin 8 and your gofundme campaign?
We are mid-way through a funding campaign. We are really overwhelmed by the good will we have received from everyone and the positive feedback that keeps coming to us. The space is looking great and with the money received we will be able to complete all the works while creating a really cosy home for our members and the community.
We hope the city will continue supporting us and we will reach our target soon enough. We have big plans for Dublin 8 and hoping to engage with local schools, organisations and social projects in order to support Dublin 8 community and its surrounding areas.
We are also looking at developing several off site and online ventures once we find our feet in Basin view. So keep your eyes peeled for all the updates!
You can donate to Block T via their GOFUNDME campaign here.