Around this time every year Dublin’s art schools open their doors. Their degree exhibitions announce the arrival of graduating artists into broader society. The regularity of this occasion shouldn’t dull us to its significance. Each year I watch awkward suburban dads, rural mums, and inner-city grannies wander, by times proud or deeply challenged, among the cryptic and provocative art shows of their children and their class-mates.
The sincerity, the communality, the open-mindedness on display on all sides is a rare moment. But just as this moment of communion announces the graduates’ arrival, it also signals their imminent dispersal. Invariably many will soon migrate, which is no tragedy. But for all our sakes Dublin also needs to be a viable option for some to stay, and in the long run, to return to.
Last year, after 15 years of continuously precarious tenancies, and a traumatic eviction, suddenly I had no studio in Dublin after the closure of Broadstone Studios. Thirty other established artists, several of whom had represented Ireland at Venice biennales for example, also lost their working spaces.
The significant historic building where we were tenants later received planning permission for conversion to luxury apartments, trebling its value. It is currently on the market. A vibrant property market has its merits, but when a good deal brings to a close 30-plus indigenous artistic and artisanal businesses, it begs serious questions about what sort of sustainability our policy-makers are cultivating in Dublin. In an economy of miraculous value increases, property hoarding and overseas vulture funds, is Dublin still a sustainable option for already committed local artists and artisans, let alone being attractive to the forthcoming crops of art school graduates?
Our loss was one of several signals of what has turned into a crisis for artists’ studios over the last year. Close to 50% of Dublin’s organised artists’ studio spaces have disappeared since then, crushed in the very particular and extreme dynamics of the current commercial property market in the city. This is a market in which national and local government agencies remain major influencers, and where artists like others with small turnovers but significant space needs, are highly vulnerable. Being almost uniquely autonomous, artists can just up and leave, and start again elsewhere, and that’s exactly what many are doing, in Berlin, Brussels, or Leitrim - basically wherever they can continue to practice. More established artists like myself, with deeper roots here, are left working for solutions.
Either way Dublin is again renewing a chronic pattern of hemorrhaging its artists. Many of Irelands most important artists - Dorothy Cross, Alice Maher, or James Coleman - have born the brunt of the Dublin property market, lost their studios, and subsequently moved out. Very few established artists remain here. And right now the sense is that, just as my own generation are attempting to consolidate firm working arrangements in the city, we are being forced out too.
Dublin is the poorer for this pattern, perennially cast as the place left behind, less dynamic, less enlightened, and more provincial than it should be. Paradoxically, even as the city left behind, it still has a tenuous claim to be a great city of the arts.
Ulysses speaks to Joyce’s own life experience as an artist in the city, notwithstanding the obvious fact that Joyce too was forced to leave. That profound reflection upon the lived experience of Dublin, is largely why, rather beautifully, every Dubliner feels ownership in the carving out of that great work. Such is the significance of art made for us, and among us. We all own a part of it no matter who pays for it. Art is after all an act of sharing, and it enacts a generosity incomprehensible to “the market”. This is intuitively grasped by the earnest parents wandering slightly overwhelmed, hands clasped behind their backs, through the degree shows of Thomas Street and Grangegorman.
In contrast, when I travel to do exhibitions in the museums of Gothenburg, or Graz, or St Gallen, for example, the gracious welcome I receive, speaks of enlightened cities where artists are enthusiastically received precisely because they are scarce. Like the mythic town of Hamlyn bereft of children because of a debt not settled, few artists live there. In those museums I sense the idea that art emerges only from wooden shipping crates, fully formed, and reflective only of life elsewhere.
A year ago, when the studio building was lost, I was stunned to see the fatalism and glaring deficit of policy and action around the place of artists to this city. Working together with colleagues under the name of Creative Spaces Collective, we’ve earnestly addressed this with local and national government. As Dublin City councillors negotiate the final details of the Dublin City Development plan next week, newly graduating artists and others not so young, are looking for clear signals of intent that DCC recognises its critical role in sustainably developing a city artists and artisans can work in, a city where diversity is sustainable.
Gerard Byrne is an artist, currently based in Dublin. He is professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Art, Copenhagen