City Arts drops its centre and relocates to northside


When the City Arts Centre closed down, Dublin lost a vibrant engine of the arts – but now it’s back, and with a reinvigorated agenda

WHEN THE City Arts Centre closed its doors on the corner of Dublin’s Moss Street in 2002, its loss as a cultural space was much lamented. Here was a venue that by day provided community arts services and at night morphed into a space that hosted theatre, dance shows and even Tony Allen gigs. The late 1980s and early 1990s were something of a heyday. U2 donated music equipment for rehearsal spaces and dramatists like Conor McPherson and Jo Mangan cut their theatrical teeth here.

In its Moss Street incarnation, “it was primarily perceived as a venue”, says Declan Gorman, but reached out to local youth communities, “advocating cultural equality”. Gorman, who has been involved with the centre for 20 years, is chairperson of City Arts (they’ve dropped the “Centre”) in its new location on Bachelor’s Walk, which opened yesterday. Its new premises are in a narrow Georgian building on the opposite side of the quays. Crucially, it’s not rented and was bought with funds from the Moss Street sale. It is minimal and compact compared to its former home, but it has different aims and motivation, according to general manager Nick Reilly, who has overseen the building’s renovation since 2007, and who has plenty of ideas about what happens now. “We don’t see it as a conventional space at all and there are so many options, from readings to workshops and screenings, but we also see it as a place of resource, where there are desks for artists. We want to look at providing training in visual culture, especially within the current economic climate.”

With the recession and the knock-on effect of Arts Council funding cuts, it may seem perilous to open a new arts venue. In times of economic restraint, it’s said that creativity flourishes and Declan Gorman feels that people would not have been so receptive to the centre three years ago.

The space at Bachelor’s Walk lacks the sprawl of its former home, and is possibly disadvantaged by not having the café/drop-in facilities that Moss Street had. Yet, the new location is far more visible, with higher passing footfall, as Gorman acknowledges. “It’s not about running an all-purpose venue. This is a very different space that’s not so much a ‘producing’ venue, as a place for small-scale performances and exhibitions. City Arts is a hub for arts activity with an emphasis on socially engaged practices.” It will also continue its work with the Young Urban Arts project, offering facilitated courses in film, drama and music. The main room seats 35 and there are upper rooms for workshops and a bar. “We’re interested in the value of a small space, and shared spaces,” says Nick Reilly, a reference to Theatre Forum, who are housed in the same building.

Despite City Arts’s peripatetic existence, it has always remained spiritually close to the Liffey and echoes of Joyce, which resurface in the opening show, Liliquoi Blue: God Made Me a Boy. Conceived by Manchester-based artist Qasim Riza Shaheen, it takes inspiration from Joyce’s Dubliners, and follows the lives of some transgender Filipinos in Dublin, exploring ideas of identity and exile.

Declan Gorman is excited at the renewal and possibilities. “We’ll find out what people want and expect for the venue, but it’ll be trial and error. I think it’s going to be the kind of place where anything can happen.”

City Arts is at 15 Bachelor’s Walk, Dublin 1. See