When the artists move in

Commercial spaces can make a valuable contribution to facilitating artistic endeavours – but the agreements tend to be very short term. Maybe it’s time to start looking at more permanent arrangements and partnerships

Thu, May 15, 2014, 00:00

Alongside the intriguing and provocative art works at Eva International, Ireland’s major biennial art exhibition, which opened recently in Limerick, a standout centrepiece turned out to be one of the buildings in which they are housed.

On the banks of the Shannon, Kerry Group’s former Golden Vale milk plant on O’Callaghan Strand is a vast complex of yards and buildings extending to 2.57 hectares (6.35 acres). This has been converted into art galleries and screening rooms for the event. It is also for sale through DTZ Sherry FitzGerald.

So how do artists and property owners come together? Who helps to broker the deals?

And in light of Fintan O’Toole’s recent column on the eviction of the Factory film-making complex from its space in Dublin’s docklands, what are the risks attached to making spaces available for art on short, cheap leases if, when those leases come to an end, the artists don’t want to go?

Sometimes they stay: Temple Bar’s genesis as a cultural quarter came about when artists moved in to the semi-derelict area, earmarked for a bus depot. CIÉ rented buildings on short terms while waiting for planning permission, leading to a proliferation of studios, experimental spaces and boutiques.

It also led to a public outcry as demolition edged closer. In 1991, the government stepped in, and Temple Bar Properties and the cultural quarter were born.

Lifeblood of artists

More recently, Derry’s designation as UK City of Culture saw the former military barracks at Ebrington being turned into an art gallery to host the Turner Prize exhibition last year.

The plan was to then turn the site into a “creative hub” of offices and workspaces for what has been termed “digital Derry-type small businesses”.

An inevitable fuss ensued, with negative media coverage for the plans, and a petition against them. So far, urban regeneration company Ilex is holding firm. Caoimhín Corrigan of Ilex was quoted as saying the spaces had been “borrowed from their intended use for the Turner Prize. We can’t turn round and tell people who are expecting them to be one thing that, sorry, they are going to be something else.”

So what is the alternative? Inexpensive spaces are part of the lifeblood of artists and arts organisations, so how can owners, landlords, developers and agencies, including the Nama, be encouraged to continue to lease and lend buildings for the arts?

Brokering relationships between artists and vacant spaces can be handled in various ways. Launched in 2009 by Limerick City Council, Creative Limerick enables graduates from the city’s third-level institutions to use vacant prime shopfront spaces to sell or endorse their work. The council also makes its own spaces available in the city centre.

Nama is an obvious port of call when it comes to empty buildings, and it can put artists in touch with the owners or receivers of buildings, though it does not get involved with setting anything up.

Vacant Spaces
Dublin City Council arts officer Ray Yeates oversees the Vacant Spaces scheme, which facilitates relationships between owners of spaces and arts organisations and artists. The council will shortly launch a toolkit for artists, which will be available online to advise on practical matters. “We can make introductions, facilitate, and then step back,” says Yeates. “It’s one of the great pieces of hidden work that the council does.”

The DIY approach is often successful. Dublin-based Pallas Projects/Studios (pallasprojects.org) was founded in 1996. It has moved from home to home, including a semi-derelict block of council flats, a former milking parlour, and now an old school building in the Coombe, for which it has a 10-year lease.

The people behind Pallas say it has survived because of what they describe as “a stubborn willingness to adapt and transform”.

Also in Dublin, Block T (blockt.ie) has event, studio and exhibition spaces in Smithfield. Grace McEvoy at Block T says the initial opportunity to take over an old tile factory came out of links developed with the Smithfield Area Business Association. She underlines the importance of maintaining a strong relationship with Block T’s landlord. In 2012, Block T moved to take up more space in the old probations office building, also in Smithfield.

Saviours of arts festivals
Temporarily vacant spaces are the saviours of arts festivals and one-off events, especially where there is no dedicated gallery space.

For the past three years, Galway Arts Festival had taken over the former Atlantic Homecare on Headford Road, transforming it into the Absolut Festival Gallery. This gave the festival up to 3,700sq m (40,000sq ft) of space for exhibitions attracting more than 30,000 people each year.

“We dealt directly with Galway Shopping Centre to secure the space,” says festival director Paul Fahy.

The building now operates as a branch of Dealz, so the festival is on the hunt for a new gallery site. “While Galway City Council are a funder of the festival they were not involved with this gallery. Much has been written about the absence of a major year-round visual arts space in Galway city and this is something I think the council are completely aware of. As preparation for a bid for the European Capital of Culture 2020 is being considered, this absence is increasingly apparent.”

“Borrowing” spaces allows artists to operate outside the usual channels and institutions, and it can attract new audiences. In Dublin, Maggie Magee is working on the second iteration of Dublin Biennial (dublinbiennial.com), which will be held in June and July this year.

In 2012, the pop-up event took place in the Point Village and this year CHQ is sponsoring the exhibition with 1,400sq m (15,000sq ft) of space. “My experience in dealing with both of these spaces and all the people involved has been nothing but positive,” says Magee. “The support, the generosity – absolutely amazing.”

Although the Kerry Group site in Limerick is for sale, Eva director Woodrow Kernohan has high hopes of it remaining available for 2016.

Frank Hayes of Kerry Group describes the relationship: “There’s no fee involved. We’re a company, but we’re also part of a community, so it’s what we do, and we’re delighted to assist.”

From the Louvre in an old royal palace to Tate Modern in a former power station, the arts have a history of bringing new life to old buildings. They also bring life to areas waiting for something more commercial to happen, and while they benefit from the short leases and cheap rents, there has to be some way of accommodating them in the longer term.

These arts spaces are just as important as “official” institutions, and making space for them is a delicate balance between dreams of possibility and the practical necessities of shifting needs and opportunities. The arts make communities richer in intangible ways, so maybe every property portfolio should have at least one artistic tenant.

Eva runs until July 6th. eva.ie

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