Council’s System for Choosing Which Arts Groups Get to Use Its Buildings Should Be More Transparent, Some Say

While council officials thrash out what an old red-brick building on Chatham Row near St Stephen’s Green, formerly a music college, will be used for long-term, they’ve rented it to a company for artists’ studios.

Holtend Limited had come to the council to ask for that, said Richard Shakespeare, the council’s assistant chief executive, at the February meeting of the council’s arts and culture committee.

“You might say we were approached and it’s for artists studios, who are going to be dislocated out of a meanwhile use, up on Harcourt Street,” he said, as they had been using it temporarily.

It’s not unusual for the council to rent out places short-term or, in council-speak, as “meanwhile use” so that its buildings don’t sit vacant as officials and councillors work out a longer-term vision.

But there’s not enough transparency around how those spaces are doled out, says Willie White, the artistic director of the Dublin Theatre Festival.

The council needs a proper process so that any arts organisation in need of a temporary space can apply for one if it is available, said White, who sits on the council’s arts and culture committee.

“In the context of us crying out for cultural infrastructure, it seems really short-sighted to have these places lying idle and for there not to be some public dimension to finding out how to use them,” he said.

The council currently has three other buildings, or groups of buildings, in the city centre that it is readying for meanwhile uses, said a council spokesperson last week.

Members of the arts and culture committee have been discussing the idea of a policy around meanwhile use in a subcommittee, said the spokesperson, and are to start to research the idea.

What’s the System?

Holtend Limited, which runs the Dean Arts Studios artists hub, and is owned by PressUp has got a temporary licence for 12 months to provide artists’ studios and offices in the Chatham Row building, said a council spokesperson on Thursday.

It is paying the council €20,000 for the year, they said. Dean Arts Studio will be offering rent-free studio space to 20 artists for a year, its website says.

Dublin City Council considers all kinds of things as possible meanwhile uses, said a council spokesperson.

It can be anything like a start-up business, a gallery space, work studios, a café, a pop-up shop or a market, they said, and can help bring vibrancy back to a street with a vacant building or redefine an area’s identity.

How to allocate buildings for “meanwhile use” isn’t in the council’s property procurement policy, said a spokesperson for the council on 25 February.

But it needs to fit with the existing planning permission for the space, they said, or apply for a temporary change of use.

Anyone who wants to use a building or space for a meanwhile use should check in with the council’s planning department, they said.

Sunil Sharpe, who runs the Give Us the Night campaign to improve nightlife in the city, says he’s happy to see the building on Chatham Row used as artists’ studios.

“If they’re making positive things happen there, that’s all good as far as anyone’s concerned,” he says.

But how they got use of the building was too behind-the-scenes and happened quite swiftly, he says. “We’d like to know that that same process could be applied elsewhere.”

White, of the Dublin Theatre Festival, says he plans to bring a motion to the next arts and culture committee meeting asking the council to establish a framework for temporary use.

“Some mechanism for temporary use of spaces, in other words, something that doesn’t require planning, where the city council still is in control, and it’s clear what the arrangement is,” he says.

Sharpe says it’s important because not many arts organisations may know that this option is available.

“Now more than ever, we’re looking for temporary spaces as opposed to long-term spaces,” says Sharpe, as there’s a slim chance of getting a long-term space without significant investment.

Arts communities are being displaced without proper venues, he says, and temporary is better than nothing.

“It might just give them a little bit more hope for the future, you know, there’s a better chance that individuals and communities will stay here in the city,” he says.

An Open Process

At the moment, the former Eden restaurant and the old Filmbase building on Curved Street in Temple Bar, as well as the buildings at 7, 8 and 9 Merchants Quay are being considered for temporary uses, said a council spokesperson.

The buildings on Merchants Quay and the Eden restaurant need to be cleaned out, they said. The council plans to run open days followed by an application process over the summer, they said, with the buildings hopefully ready to use by year’s end.

“Long-term arts use is also planned for these buildings pending capital budget allocation and extensive refurbishment,” they said.

Dermot Lacey, a Labour Party councillor, says the council should approach local area committees – which are made up of councillors from the same part of the city – to get approval in public for temporary uses. “In order to ensure transparency.”

It wouldn’t take long to do that since those meetings are monthly, he says.

White says he thinks the council’s arts office should be given responsibility to manage the temporary use of any buildings the council is in charge of.

“They’ve got connections with artists,” he says, and they could do a call-out for arts organisations or individuals who need temporary spaces.

They could ask the property section of the council to send details of the buildings and match them with the applicants, he says. “Seems simple to me, but maybe it’s not.”

Cat O’Driscoll, a Social Democrats councillor, said she thinks the council made this list already. “I’ll definitely look for that list to be circulated again.”

The council didn’t respond to a query asking whether such a list exists.

Sharpe says he thinks the council could be more transparent so more arts organisations are aware that temporary uses are possible.

“That could start with a, you know, an FAQ section on their website,” he says. It could host public forums to tell people about the process, he says.

It would depend on the capacity of the arts office to do all this, he says, and perhaps the council needs to hire more staff.

“At least two to three people who are employed to oversee the meanwhile or temporary use,” he says.

Future of Chatham Row

In December 2019, the building on Chatham Row was listed on a report from council chief executive Owen Keegan as one that the council wanted to sell.

It wasn’t suitable for housing and there was probably enough retail and commercial around there, the report said, listing other cultural and housing projects that could be part-financed by any sale.

Councillors pushed back against that though.

Shakespeare, the council’s assistant chief executive, said at the February meeting that the building will remain in cultural use.

City Arts Officer Ray Yeates said the council is yet to decide exactly what the building will become long-term.

The council is going to tender for somebody to do a feasibility study of what it could be, he said.

The council hopes to have the draft study by late June, a council spokesperson said last Thursday.

Lacey, the Labour Party councillor, says some ideas for the Chatham Row building are floating around already.

“Some people would like to leave it as artists studios, I think there’s a huge need in Dublin for a music museum, but I don’t think that would be big enough,” he says.

At the February meeting, Sharpe said he had popped his head into the building while passing by, as it was being painted.

“There’s a little venue space there that could hold about 80 people or thereabouts,” he said, and that could possibly go out for meanwhile use too.

Shakespeare said there could be, but the council would have to ask the arts organisation who are using the building temporarily.

“It’ll be all about access and insurance and all the other bits and pieces but I’m sure if you take it up with them, you know, there are possibilities there,” he said.

CORRECTION: This article was updated at 8.26am on 5 May to include the correct name of the group Give Us the Night. We apologise for the error.

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Claudia Dalby: Claudia Dalby is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. She's especially interested in stories about the southside, transport, and kids in the city. Get in touch at [email protected]

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