There was once a shop in west Temple Bar with a €50,000 sofa in its window. Then came the recession, the shop disappeared and the space was filled with artistically minded teenagers who salvaged furniture from skips.
This was Exchange Dublin, a co-operatively run, alcohol- free, all-ages arts space, founded in 2009 with the co-operation of the Project Arts Centre and Temple Bar Cultural Trust.
This week, the web page of Exchange Dublin showed a clock counting down to the moment yesterday when the collective was to return the keys to its landlord, the Temple Bar Cultural Trust, now owned by Dublin City Council.
The group says it first heard about this deadline days earlier – but there has been friction between the organisation and its landlords and local residents for some time. Neighbours claim that the space is partly to blame for antisocial behaviour in the area.
The 24 or so volunteers feel they have been addressing such problems and are being unfairly scapegoated for nebulous issues outside of their control.
I have visited the Exchange and seen vegan café evenings, African drumming, dance classes and funny, offbeat exhibitions. On Mondays there is a community cinema and anyone who wishes can visit and avail of a free cup of tea. The exchange prides itself on an open-door policy, which allows anyone to contribute, exhibit, meet or perform there.
It was always so. Dylan Haskins, a former political candidate, was one of the founders (he told me about the €50,000 sofa), although he is no longer connected to the group.
“It was designed as a non-hierarchical space for people who don’t have connections or a platform to come and present things to the city,” he says. “You could just come in and get involved.”
In those days, the endeavour was partnered with the Project but they have since parted ways. Subsequently it has become, according to its critics, ramshackle and disorganised and is sometimes used as a “bolthole” for troublemakers.
Bob Johnston, proprietor of the nearby Gutter Bookshop, says there is "a definite link between some of the people using the Exchange and the antisocial behaviour in the area – drinking, shouting abuse and drug use."
Last summer the co-operative was told it would have to leave by September unless things improved. Volunteers worked hard to address the issues and, according to local residents, significant progress was made.
“Things have escalated since then,” says Johnston. “The structure of Exchange doesn’t necessarily allow for consistency in approach because it is a co-operative . . . Some [volunteers] do a brilliant job trying to address the issues, but it isn’t consistent. There isn’t one person responsible for things.”
At a public meeting in City Hall on January 23rd, residents, local business people, gardaí and councillors met to discuss bad behaviour in the area.
It was suggested at that meeting that the Exchange wind down for three months during which time they would work with the city council to restructure its operation.
“I’m not satisfied they have the wherewithal or management capabilities to continue to run the place,” says Mannix Flynn, a councillor and former supporter of the collective, who chaired the meeting.
For the volunteers this came as a shock. On Monday they were asked by email to vacate by Friday. Fearing they would not be allowed to reoccupy the space, they orchestrated a campaign and a petition.
The volunteers have some supporters on the council.
"I'm very disappointed to hear that it's being shut down," says former lord mayor Andrew Montague. "I think they provide a very valuable service to young people in the area. There is drug-taking and drinking on the street, but I don't think you can lay that at the door of Exchange.
“I think they’re being unfairly blamed and are in fact helping to deal with those problems. Taking the Exchange away isn’t going to take drug use away from that area.”
On Wednesday Montague mediated at a meeting between volunteers and Ray Yeates, chief executive of the Temple Bar Cultural Trust. Yeates still insisted on changing the locks by the weekend, but offered them nine more supervised days in the space, the opportunity to relocate events to the nearby Culture Box and a reassessment in three months. This was followed by a downhearted meeting of the Exchange's users.
Opinions differed as to whether they should accept the offer, but ultimately they felt like they had no choice.
Their ejection could look like a familiar narrative of gentrification – scruffy artists move into an unwanted space, the economy recovers and the artists are moved on – but, to be fair to their neighbours, it’s more complicated than that.
“There’s no hidden agenda here,” says Bob Johnston. “This is not about getting them out of that space to put a business in. It’s a real issue. Antisocial behaviour in this little corner of Dublin is out of control . . .
“The local residents have always been very supportive of the ethos of the Exchange and want to encourage it to manage itself in a way that would allow it to carry on.”
Artists and activists
Whatever happens, the number of artists, activists and community groups who turned up at Wednesday's meeting and gathered yesterday to express gratitude and offer support, suggest that the Exchange fulfils a real need.
Haskins feels such spaces are still important. “You can tell by how busy it is that there’s demand. In principle there needs to be an all-ages non-alcohol event and gig space in a prominent place in the city centre.”
He would not like to see another high-end furniture shop.