Shop till the artistic penny drops


Kicking off a St Patrick’s week series, BRIAN O’CONNELLexplores a visual arts trail of vacant prime retail spaces temporarily colonised, in ‘a moment between culture and commerce’

FROM THE OUTSIDE, it looks like the fit up for any commercial retail space or boutique in the capital. Through the display windows, two workers can be seen sitting having a tea break. Scattered around the floor are old window displays, mannequins and electrical fittings. Passers-by press their flesh to the glass, keen to find out what shop is coming in next.

Situated under a large “To Let” sign at the corner of Cow Lane in Dublin’s Temple Bar area, the unit is on a pedestrianised shopping route and would have been prime retail space up until relatively recently. Last week, a Polish national knocked on the door and asked if he could lend a hand with the carpentry work. Yet the two “workers” in this case are artists Aoife Casey and Sharon White, and there isn’t a till, product or price tag in sight. Both artists are in the last stages of preparing their contribution to this year’s visual arts programme of the St Patrick’s Day Festival, which sees three former retail spaces in Temple Bar colonised, temporarily at least, for artistic purposes. For the first time, international artists will also contribute to the visual-arts offering, which incorporates sculpture, installation, painting and digital medias.

The development of the visual arts programme is a measure of how much the St Patrick’s Day Festival has broadened its artistic remit over the past 15 years. First established in 1995, as a means of showcasing Ireland’s heritage, arts and culture in a more contemporary manner, the festival has grown from a one-day event to a six-day celebration, with a diverse range of events from fireworks to street ceilis, and treasure hunts to academic discussions. This year, up to a million people are expected to attend in 40 different venues and locations in Dublin alone, generating up to €60 million in revenue for the city. While the traditional parade element of the event remains, other aspects of the festival have grown in ambition year on year. There’s hardly a goose-bumped majorette or marching FCA troupe in sight.

Curated by Jonathan Carroll, the visual arts trail in Temple Bar, titled Shop If You Can, Look if You Want, runs from today until Wednesday, and is cleverly probing the tension between commerce and culture locally. It is also neatly reflecting on experience in other towns and cities across Ireland, where vacant commercial space is up for artistic grabs.

The recession may have been bad for banks and builders, but for Banksy wannabes, there are increasing opportunities, it seems. Suddenly, artists aren’t seen as such undesirable tenants and spaces in prime locations, previously off limits, are on offer for nominal rents and flexible leases.

The Temple Bar arts trail, though, is not looking to become a permanent fixture, more a temporary commentary on changing spaces. So there is a “non-laundry”, a “non-car showroom” and a “non-Taxidermy”, with each artist asked to respond to their allotted space. “We’re not trying to make galleries and we’re not trying to make shops. We’re trying to occupy the space between the two of them,” says Jonathan Carroll. “We’re in a moment of uncertainty, a moment between culture and commerce. I was inspired partly by the fact that if you go into some of the current outlets in the area, such as Urban Outfitters, they are selling second-hand clothes, but for top-dollar prices. There is a moment when I was in there when I didn’t know if what I was seeing was an artistic display or something for sale. I want this exhibition to bring us back to the moment where you have to ask if something is for sale, because you’re not so sure.”

Carroll says the timing of the art trail and what it says about how we celebrate our national day of Irishness is also important, given its setting. “This art trail is happening during St Patrick’s Day, which is the ultimate drinking moment, especially for this area. It’s good to take that face on and highlight the artistic and cultural elements here.”

While physical space might be more available to artists than at any time in the past five years, issues of funding are a pressing concern for many in the visual-arts community. “The space is the old money as such. Previously, in terms of the artist galleries in this area, they might be small interventions, or you might be given a small corner of a shop space or somebody would lend you a space that doesn’t really have commercial viability. But now everyone has space, so they are all offering it,” says Carroll. “I don’t want to just say ‘isn’t it great, we have space now’. I want us to have space and money. We never got the two things at the same time.

“There are lots of collectives around Dublin in huge warehouses with no heating and no budgets. They come up to me as a curator and say ‘we have all this space, we’re looking for curators’. But it’s very hard to curate without a budget and that remains the problem. So this art trail is a comment on that.”

Outside Dublin, some local authorities are also seizing on the renewed acceptability of artists as tenants for prime retail space and looking at ways to facilitate this process. Limerick City Council has been particularly pioneering, offering landlords who give over their space to creative tenants a reduction on their rates of up to €500 per annum. The council matches creative tenants with the vacant properties, and the premises are provided rent free (tenants have to pay for bills and upkeep) on the understanding that should a permanent client want the space, the artists must vacate.

Called Creative Limerick, the venture has helped house 70 creative persons in nine city-centre properties. Lise-Ann Sheahan from Limerick City Council says the arrangement is a win-win situation for both landlord and tenant.

“The buildings are given rent free and rate free and we also look after public-liability insurance. They are available not just to artists but also to graphic designers, animators, fashion designers and a whole range of the creative arts. It’s the first scheme of its type in Ireland and it’s also helping give the creative community in Limerick a platform.”

Many of the buildings are open to the public on weekends, and are in use as studio and creative space during weekdays, so that the city’s artistic infrastructure is added to, and a sense of vibrancy is lent to vacant city centre retail space.

Graphic designer Stephen O’Donnell is one of those who has benefited from the scheme. Along with several other designers, he has been given the use of a former shoe shop as a studio and gallery space.

The designers pay for the upkeep, estimated at €200-300 per month, and in return they open their gallery to the public at weekends. “A lot of companies at the moment are not taking on designers like us, so it is hugely important to be able to showcase our work,” O’Donnell says. “I think schemes like this should be happening all over Ireland.”

Similarly in Cork, several collectives have taken over former retail and office space in central locations. Mary McCarthy, director of the National Sculpture Factory, recently hosted a conference on artistic uses for vacant commercial space.

“This is a big national issue right now,” she says. “It’s the first time in 10 years that cities and small towns have a lot of vacant retail spaces and apartments, and debate about creative and smart uses of space is beginning to happen.” One group, Cork Contemporary Projects, is currently in discussion with the city council on a larger scale project similar to the Temple Bar art trail. “We plan to take over 10 to 15 commercial spaces for a project during the summer,” says Edel O’Reilly of Cork Contemporary Projects. “We’re running an open call and inviting other artists to create work to put inside the shop fronts. All of the locations will be city centre vacant properties.”

O’Reilly has also helped launch a gallery in a former solicitor’s office in the heart of Cork’s financial district on the South Mall. It’s a location that would have been off-limits financially to artists in the past few years, but the landlord is glad to have the space in use for a modest rental return.

“We would have never been able to afford the rent here previously. But the landlord is really sympathetic and I think he appreciates we are trying to set something up which will reflect positively on his premises.”

O’Reilly says that there are signs that a new spirit of co-operation is emerging nationally, whereby artists are seen as integral parts of city landscapes, occupying prime locations, in contrast to bleak, out of the way warehouses of the past.

“The spirit of co-operation is beginning to improve. I think that city officials are definitely responding more positively to visual arts initiatives. There is a new dynamic and energy within cities. There is still a way to go, but we’re getting there.”

Shop If You Can, Look if You Wantruns from today until Wednesday in Temple Bar, Dublin as part of the St Patrick’s Day Festival.