Walking around Merrion Square, the air is warm and there’s a market-like buzz about the place as artists chat with passers-by.
Three young tourists swing their heads from side to side, from the beautiful Georgian buildings on the left to the paintings of every style and variety hanging along the railing to the right. They study the seascapes and gush over one of the canine portraits. A few artists paint on canvasses held by easels, and others sit in camping chairs with flasks full of tea.
A similar scene can be seen here every Sunday: very little changes on this square. In fact, this year marks the thirtieth anniversary of Merrion Square’s weekly open-air art exhibition.
The Best Spot
The exhibition was initially set up in 1985 for the summer months: June to August. At first, it was only on the side of the park facing the National Gallery.
Although the event got only “a lukewarm response” from artists, according the Irish Independent, the exhibition soon became permanent. Over the past 30 years, it has grown to include three sides of the park.
“There are artists who stuck with it and didn’t give up,” says Labour councillor Mary Freehill, who chaired the Dublin Corporation Cultural Committee in 1985.
The idea at the start was to give unknown artists a chance to display and sell their work and also to bring art to the street for people to view and buy at a reasonable price, she says. Freehill believes it’s been a huge success.
“It added to the atmosphere of Merrion Square,” she says.
Over the years, the council tried to bring artists to other green areas of the city as well. Parnell Square and the Liffey Boardwalk didn’t work. And though St Patrick’s Park and Wolfe Tone Park are available to artists, just one licence is currently issued, for St Patrick’s Park.
“It’s been established after 30 years – this is the place,” says artist Brendan Pierce, who has been displaying work at Merrion Square for 26 of those years.
Dealing Directly with Artists
Artists on Merrion Square can only display their own paintings or drawings. This means buyers get to meet the people who made the works – rather than dealers or sales assistants – and ask them questions.
This arrangement definitely helps sales, says Pierce. “A lot of people don’t go into galleries, because they are afraid of the person behind the desk,” he says.
Dee Crowe, who has been here since the beginning 30 years ago, agrees with Pierce. She says there are other benefits to selling on the square too.
After painting alone at home all week, it’s nice to socialise with other artists and the public, Crowe says. And she likes to see where her paintings go. Occasionally, customers have sent her photos of her work on their walls.
“The prices are phenomenally good, because there is no middleman,” says artist Elizabeth Prendergast. “Why would you need a gallery?”
Snobbery is still a big part of the art world, she says. Merrion Square offers buyers the opportunity to pick pieces of art that they love – without paying a commission – rather than being told what they should like by galleries. “The customer has grown up, but the art market hasn’t,” she says.
And if buyers don’t see what they want, they can talk to the artists and commission exactly what they’re looking for. “It means getting something special, just for you,” Prendergast says.
Representatives come here to buy art to sell in their galleries, particularly from Northern Ireland and the west coast, says another artist, Simon Meyler.
Business has been picking up for the artists here over the last few months, says Meyler. During the Celtic Tiger, Merrion Square was jam-packed with sellers and buyers, but since the recession many artists have been struggling to make a living.
At the moment, there is no waiting list for spaces along the railings. In fact, there are plenty of empty spots as you walk around. But during the boom, artists waited years for a place. Prendergast got a spot in 2006, after a seven-year wait.
There’s an annual fee of €240 for a casual trading licence from Dublin City Council, and there’s the cost of public liability insurance. Meyler says most artists cover their costs easily enough.
Now that business is beginning to grow again, the artists want to do more to promote Merrion Square. In May, they set up the Merrion Square Artists Association – the first such organisation in the event’s 30-year history. The association’s main purpose is to promote the weekly event and the artists.
Prendergast, who is the group’s secretary, saw people travelling all the way to Dundrum or Carrickmines for something to do at the weekend and wanted to put Merrion Square back in the mix. “I thought it was time to bring it back to being a nice, easy afternoon,” she says.
The group hopes to liaise with Dublin City Council and event organisers to deal with a few problems. For example, certain events, like the Patrick’s Day festival, cut off cars from the Merrion Square and prevent artists from displaying their work.
More-frequent tree trimming and road sweeping would also make life easier for the artists. They often bring gardening equipment and brushes with them on Sundays.
The group’s first act has been to work with the council to organise a street party and exhibition. It’ll take place inside the park on Sunday, 13 September and will celebrate the 30-year anniversary.
There will be face painting, live music and demonstrations by the artists. Each artist will also paint a 30cm-by-30cm canvas – a “Merrion Square” – which will be sold that day for €50. Some of the money raised will go to the Capuchin Day Centre for Homeless People and the rest will go toward promoting the art at Merrion Square.
According to Meyler, posters and flyers are needed to inform tourists – and Dubliners – about the weekly art display. He is often asked, ‘Are you here every Sunday?’ when Irish people stumble upon it.
Merrion Square open air art is displayed every Sunday from 10am until 6.30am.