The Dean Arts Studio, in a former music school on Chatham Row off Grafton Street in Dublin, was a rare success story in a city where artists struggle to find workspace. Since early 2022, a vibrant community of artists have worked, collaborated and excelled in the space. Their rent is paid by the hospitality group Press Up, which funds the endeavour. Resident artists include musicians such as Paul Noonan of Bell X1; Salvatore of Lucan, winner of the 2021 Zurich Portrait Prize; Jesse Jones, who previously represented Ireland at the Venice Biennale, and many more.
But recently, an open-call process by Dublin City Council awarded the right to negotiate a lease to Flux, formerly Block T, an organisation that provides workspace to artists at a cost they say is below market rate. One studio collective will replace another, demonstrating how artists in a city full of corporate workspace in empty and semi-vacant office buildings find themselves competing for resources. Councillors who adjudicated the open call have defended the process, while another called it “a shambles”.
The Dean Arts Studio came to occupy its building on Chatham Row in the first quarter of 2022 when the original Dean Arts Studio building rented by Press Up on Harcourt Street had to be vacated. Press Up made an inquiry to the property department of Dublin City Council, and secured a meanwhile-use licence for Chatham Row. The lack of transparency around this process was highlighted in media at the time.
When the studio was already up and running, a September 2022 memo to the Arts, Culture, Leisure and Recreation Strategic Policy Committee (SPC) from Richard Shakespeare – now the council’s interim chief executive following Owen Keegan’s departure – detailed how “the preferred option” was to refurbish the building as a council museum, and cited options including a fire brigade museum, a venue to display the lord mayor’s coach, and a museum for the council’s collection of weights and measures. These proposals were met with shock among Dean Arts Studios artists. This memo also stated: “The Press Up Group has given a commitment to relocate the artists’ studios as soon as the licence expires.”
When artists moved into the Dean Arts Studio on Chatham Row, some were sceptical about potential “artwashing” by Press Up. Yet what quickly emerged was “a really authentic endeavour,” according to Jennifer Jennings, codirector of the multi-award-winning theatre and live performance company Thisispopbaby, also resident at Dean Arts Studio. “Whatever people may feel about Press Up,” she says, “they are acknowledging that they need this city to be a bustling hub of creativity for their own business model. They are acknowledging that they have to feed back into the city to keep this ecosystem thriving. I have to admire that. More than that, I think it should be obligatory that anybody in the same position responds in the same way.”
Angela Dorgan, chief executive of First Music Contact, which secured workspace in Dean Arts Studio when its previous landlord doubled the rent, says: “We’ve seen collaborations happen before our eyes, just from people having access to each other, meeting each other.”
She felt “devastated” when the Dean Arts Studio didn’t succeed in the open call. She also wondered what impact the decision would have on other private operators looking to facilitate artists in the manner Press Up has. “We should be working towards a model where those who displace us support us to return,” Dorgan says. “We should be looking at the commercial occupants of the city to do more of that, not less of it. If I was a CSR [corporate social responsibility] arm of anything, I’d think, well apparently the city doesn’t support these partnerships or doesn’t think they’re a good idea. It blows my mind.”
Fine Gael councillor James Geoghegan said of the open call: “This process is kind of a makey-up process which doesn’t seem to have any basis in public procurement, although it’s given a pretence of procurement without the niceties, including the right of appeal.”
DCC arts officer Ray Yeates says the open-call process was previously used for Filmbase in Temple Bar. On December 15th the Chatham Row subcommittee of the SPC will meet to consider the Dean Arts Studio request for an appeal. Geoghegan has asked the council’s law agent to look into the process, something that will be “the subject of a report to the full city council”, Yeates says.
Green Party councillor Claire Byrne and Social Democrats councillor Cat O’Driscoll, who both participated in adjudicating the open call, defended the process, its criteria, and the ultimate selection of a new tenant. Byrne says: “The current tenants are there on a meanwhile use basis and there was no transparent process on selecting them to be tenants. So, as this is a public building, it was important to bring forward a robust process for selecting tenants.” O’Driscoll said that compared to other applicants, the Dean Arts Studio underperformed in the presentation part of its application, which was attended by studio director Kate Farnon and Press Up chief executive Ben Barclay. Artists at the Dean Arts Studio are hugely complimentary of Farnon, who said she is “terribly upset” by the open call outcome.
When the Dean Arts Studio received the scoring sheet of the applicants, its name wasn’t on the list. Instead, Press Up’s was. “The first thing I thought was: were we being graded as Press Up or were we being graded as Dean Arts Studio? That was unclear.” Farnon, who led the application, said, “I went back to the [DCC] arts office to say, for the record, we applied as Dean Arts Studio . . . I just got back: ‘noted, and apologies.’ Who was being judged here?”
Artists in the Dean Arts Studio are at pains not to malign the winning applicant. They highlight instead how successful their experience has been in the building, and the huge difficulties artists face in Dublin. It is hoped that at least some of the artists could have their presence maintained under Flux’s model – where they would be paying rent – but many feel plunged into an insecure situation.
Flux began as the recession-era endeavour Block T in Smithfield in Dublin 7. That building has since been demolished, replaced by a new office block. Block T moved to Basin View, and then to the Digital Hub, both in Dublin 8.
“We’ve been pushed around the city as well due to gentrification,” says Chris Cullen, the managing director of Flux. “We’ve been going for close to 12 years. We’ve never had a permanent home. We’ve always had this vicarious existence.” When the open call for Chatham Row was announced, Cullen thought, “The idea of a public building to set down roots in was amazing. It’s the dream. It’s been everything we’ve been working towards. We have a track record. We’ve everything in place really to make the best possible use [of the building].” Their application also included “public-facing elements”, with various community groups potentially given access. “The lack of space is the core issue,” Cullen says. “We’re all fighting for the same thing.”
Some new artist workspaces are in development. These include a space on Merchants Quay, the former Eden restaurant in Temple Bar, a site on Bridgefoot Street in Dublin 8, and another at Artane Place in Dublin 5. Meanwhile, artists unable to deal with the high cost of working and living in Dublin are leaving the city in droves.
One of Dean Arts Studio’s artists, the acclaimed photographer Brian Teeling, says: “I’m a realist with my situation. And my situation is: I’m a working-class artist who can’t afford a studio.” Teeling, who was previously in the Harcourt Street building, says the Chatham Row building was not maintained by Dublin City Council while it was closed, and when he arrived in March 2022, the carpets were infested with moths. Press Up paid for the building to be cleaned up, and for renovations. Farnon estimated the initial cost of this was about €150,000.
Teeling says the prospect of having to vacate the building is “stark”. “Someone described me recently as ‘a successful artist in Ireland’. I’m poor. I can’t survive in this city while being viewed as ‘successful’ . . . I’m probably going to be part of this wave of silent emigration.”
Jennings is calling on landlords and owners of commercial property, anyone with vacant buildings available, as well as Dublin City Council, to urgently address the creative and cultural drain in the city. “It’s time to step up,” she says. Without urgent action, Jennings said, “We know where this goes. You’re seeing it in cities all across the world. You’re seeing this life cycle of creative cities becoming very successful economic powerhouses and then driving the creativity out,” with cities “becoming shells of themselves. That’s the path that we’re on. It’s going to require a multifaceted approach to stop this in this tracks.”