With seven buildings, MART have established something of a mini empire of artists’ studios across Dublin. Have they nailed the model?
There’s been much talk over the years of the difficulties facing artists in Dublin – spaces coming and going, redevelopment forcing artists out, rising rents putting paid to spaces that cater to strapped creatives.
Meanwhile, MART have been growing, renting building after building, and then renting out studios in these buildings to artists.
Should more arts organisations be following suit? And can renting sustain MART? Or will they eventually need to buy their own buildings?
A Passion for Space
Full disclosure: MART are Dublin Inquirer’s landlords.
But, never wanting to turn down an opportunity to look at art, rents and property, we’ve decided to write about their operations anyway. Just keep a careful eye out for pro-MART bias in this article.
Established by Matthew Nevin and Ciara Scanlan in 2007, MART started out by holding exhibitions across Dublin.
Then, in 2013, they leased the old fire station in Rathmines from Dublin City Council, and began holding exhibitions in two galleries downstairs, and renting out studios upstairs to individual artists.
Three years later, they now rent out dozens of studios in seven different buildings across Dublin, collect the rent from tenants, and pay rent to the landlord of each property.
It’s a commercial enterprise, there’s no doubt. It differs somewhat from the altruistic, voluntary model of providing artists’ studios found elsewhere.
“If you look at the lifespan of artist studios, there’s often a burnout phase,” says co-founder Scanlan. “There’s only so much time people can do something without getting a wage.”
Scanlan and Nevin both admit they’ve a passion for property, and an interest in new spaces up for grabs.
After revamping the Rathmines fire station, which now contains eight studios, they moved on to two more Rathmines locations: the “House”, which holds 11 studios, and Parker Hill, which holds another 15.
On Lennox Street in Portobello, there are six studios. In Old Kilmainham, there are nine. And in Malpas Street, there are another six.
MART’s most recent takeover, in Crumlin, contains 11 studios. They’ve just taken out a 10-year lease on the building.
MART had another location in Rathmines too: their Casino gallery and studios. It proved problematic, however, when they learned that their lease there was essentially invalid. Scanlan described this as MART’s “biggest disaster” yet.
Bucking the Trend
MART’s growth seems at odds with what we’ve encountered elsewhere.
An Irish Times article published in February noted a growing “crisis” in Dublin where artist studio space was concerned. Submissions to the 2016–2022 City Development Plan showed that 104 studios had disappeared since 2014, according to the article.
In 2015, Broadstone studios closed, leaving about 30 artists working within soon working without. When Block T closed its Smithfield location in March this year, a further 120 creatives lost their spaces. (Block T later reopened elsewhere.)
As MART’s Scanlan sees it, not everyone’s cut out for the nitty-gritty of property management.
“A lot of people want a platform for them or for their work,” she says. “Maybe they didn’t want a career doing this because it’s obviously really hard. It’s not a voluntary thing for us anymore, it’s full-time and it’s hard.”
Scanlan argues that a combination of property-management skills, hard work and luck with landlords has seen MART thrive.
And the buildings they choose, worn and torn, don’t suit everybody. “The buildings we take are kind of weird,” she says. “I know Kilmainham is on a flood plain, Parker Hill is above a paint shop.”
So if MART aren’t a voluntary organisation, dedicated to housing artists, what are they?
Their studio prices are reasonable, €100 to €600 a month, depending on size and location, and it’s worked for Scanlan and Nevin so far. With one eye ever on the property market, as they see it, state support simply wouldn’t suffice.
“We have an interest in expansion and a passion for space and other buildings,” says Scanlan. “Also we realise we’re not going to really get that much funding. We haven’t been very successful with that.”
So they look elsewhere for support – to the market, it seems. MART could be said now to be something of a cultural letting agency.
Different Models, Different Groups
It’s a model that’s crossed City Arts Officer Ray Yeates’ path more than once.
“Artists themselves don’t always want to engage with the amount of work that you have to do to occupy a space, or own it or rent it,” Yeates says. “A cultural letting agency would be able to do that.”
Looking to the UK, there’s inspiration to be found for this model.
ACME studios was established in London in 1972 and has since converted over 25 major buildings to non-residential studios and refurbished and managed over 400 short-life houses, while managing 15 studios, eight of which they own.
Jack Fortescue of ACME studios says ACME are unique as studio providers in that they are constituted as a housing association. The initial aim, he says, was to find a cheap place to live and work in East London, and the model was suggested by a local authority officer.
“Different models allow for different groups to focus their efforts on education and outreach, on helping recent graduates, on keeping rents low, on retaining buildings in the long-term,” said Fortescue in an email. “The best models are those which are most financially stable and not overly reliant on outside factors such as grant funding, landlords raising the rent, etc.”
But for MART, rent is a constant and developers are always around the corner. It’s something Yeates, the city arts officer, has been looking at.
He is currently undertaking a “cultural audit” of each of the city’s areas, looking at the demand and provisions for artists studios, and consulting with locals as to what they’d like to see.
Yeates suggests a model that transfers the traditional reliance of artists on cheap space with a developmental change.
“Artists want to pay below market for a lot, eventually they need to be subsidised okay?” he says. “Or, should we be embedding the information from the cultural audit inside the development plan, and have developers paying attention to the culture of an area?”
In Rathmines, MART recently undertook a survey to establish their impact on the neighbourhood. Out of 594 respondents, 493 listed MART as “very important” to the local area, according to MART.
It’s about time, says Scanlan, that the council showed a little more support.
“It would be better if there was a better approach or a better discussion surrounding Dublin City Council buildings,” she says. “In Rathmines, there wasn’t really anything cultural, for instance.”
Yet, says ACME’s Fortescue, the main challenge he foresees for MART will be keeping the end cost to artists genuinely affordable while organisational costs increase. And, staving off development.
“Developers are always a challenge, though we have successfully created studios in new developments on seven schemes across London,” he says. “Rising rents are linked to the leases groups sign, which often include open-market rent reviews, which can be very damaging when the market picks up.”
Scanlan and Nevin are determined to eventually leap off the rental ladder.
To Rent, to Buy
MART’s model may have led to seven buildings bringing in income for Nevin and Scanlan, but until they buy, it could all fall apart.
The plan, says Nevin, is to put a moratorium on renting more buildings for a time and aim to buy. “You are the landlords then. You’ve no one over your head, bar the market,” he says. “We don’t own the buildings. We’ve no security even if it is a five- or ten-year lease.”
As for the current model, Nevin says, its uniqueness lies in the fact that MART don’t rely heavily on government funding. The Rathmines fire station, rented from Dublin City Council, remains the most insecure building, according to Nevin and Scanlan.
And Nevin is keen to note that MART are more than just landlords. “We’re not just a studio provider. We’re not just opening studios in the warehouse down the road,” he says. “We’ve always been trying to build an arts organisation.”
Until they’re able to purchase a building themselves, Scanlan says having multiple buildings provides some measure of security against the next blow, if it comes. For now, their model seems to be working.
Says ACME’s Fortescue: “A mix of different models is healthy for any city and allowing space for new models to emerge is crucial … But, one organisation will always be the biggest.”