Is There Room in the City for a Second Cultural Quarter?

With the recent unveiling of the sketch designs for the new city library at Parnell Square, the creation of a new “cultural quarter” moves forward.

But what about the old one? What can we learn from its creation, evolution and troubles that might help make its new young cousin a success in this city?

Long before there was any thought of the Parnell Square Cultural Quarter, after all, there was Temple Bar. In 1976, Córas Iompair Éireann (CIE), the national bus and rail company, intended for the area to become home to a new central depot.

It started to buy up property in the area and rent it out cheaply to small businesses and artists, who led the charge for the area’s eventual regeneration, after CIE later abandoned its plans.

Diane Payne and Peter Stafford, in their 2007 paper “Governing the City: Institutional Innovation and Its Consequences” note the importance of the area’s culture-led regeneration.

“The Temple Bar project has been hailed as a turning point in the city government’s attitude towards regeneration,” the paper says. “Rather than retrospective repairs of buildings as they become derelict, the process of Temple Bar’s regeneration saw the council become more pro-active and planning for future regeneration.”

The project, enshrined in the Temple Bar Area Renewal and Development Act 1991, sought and succeeded in the re-use of the area, an area now defined as Dublin’s cultural quarter.

Yet, as Payne and Stafford note, the intervention of the government, and, in particular, the support of Taoiseach Charlie Haughey, meant that the culture-led regeneration of the area was a sure-fire thing. Once Haughey stepped in, essentially, the EU funding flowed.

This is what Culture Night founder Grainne Millar describes as a top-down, bottom-up approach.

“Temple Bar is interesting in that it was very much a planned cultural quarter,” she says. “It’s an interesting example of bottom-up community-led initiative, but at the same time you had the top-down support from government.”

If one wants to create a cultural quarter, says Millar, this is the best approach.

“The ones that are most successful have that top-down, bottom-up approach,” she says. “But also Temple Bar had a mix of lots of other things; its history, a really interesting streetscape. So trying to recreate that somewhere else … there isn’t really a one-size-fits-all approach to cultural quarters.”

Who Is It For?

Temple Bar Cultural Quarter, the beneficiary of €51.55 million in EU funding between 1989 and 1999, was a deliberate effort aimed at consolidating the area for the cultural institutions within.

Between Fownes Street and Fishamble Street, you’ll find the Irish Film Institute, the Project Arts Centre, the Ark Theatre, the Temple Bar Gallery + Studios, the Gallery of Photography and Temple Lane Studios.

There is a benefit to clustering, deliberate or otherwise, says creative director of Project Arts Cian O’Brien.

On the one hand, the institutions collaborate together and support one another over time. While, on the other, citizens and tourists have easy access to a host of cultural venues and activities all in one area.

But there’s more in Temple Bar than just a cluster of arts organisations. There’s also the night-time carnage of the old cultural quarter’s drinking quarter.

“Temple Bar is not an easy part of town,” O’Brien says. “There are a lot of competing groups all working side-by-side.”

This is an issue to consider during the creation of another cultural quarter in Parnell Square.

“That’s something for Parnell Square that’s important to get right,” O’Brien says. “Who is being served by it, but also what else is going to be in the area alongside the cultural quarter they might build there?”

There needs, says Millar, to be a balanced approach to the new Parnell Square development.

“If culture is dominated by a government agenda, or mainly top-down initiatives, it’s very unlikely that they will succeed without the input of key stakeholders and those on the ground.”

Cultural clusters need to be seen as separate from the artistic institutions within them. Cultural quarters aren’t about just one particular kind of culture, she says.

“It’s taking that holistic view in what makes a real cultural quarter, that it’s not just there for people who want to pursue artistic activity,” she says. “Temple Bar will always continue to divide people. I think part of that division comes from the vision people have in their minds when they imagine a cultural quarter.”

Temple Bar in Limbo

Temple Bar, as a cultural quarter, hasn’t been without its controversies.

In 2014, it transpired that the Temple Bar Cultural Trust had gone over budget by €700,000 on its spending on four umbrellas on Meeting House Square, altered board minutes, and failed to follow proper commissioning procedure. The trust was wound down and absorbed into Dublin City Council.

In May this year, a new Temple Bar Steering Committee was established with a view to defining the issues at work within the cultural quarter. Labour councillor and committee member Rebecca Moynihan says the area is in limbo.

“We’re at a bit of a crossroads in terms of where Temple Bar is at the moment,” she says. “This [committee] arose out of the selling-off of properties in order to then invest in Temple Bar so to speak.”

Temple Bar has become increasingly difficult for smaller arts organisations to crack, says O’Brien of Project Arts.

“Unfortunately it’s becoming more expensive,” he says. “I think for independent companies Temple Bar is expensive to set up in and you are going to get cheaper rates in Dublin 8 or Dublin 7.”

A Competing Cultural Quarter?

Moynihan says that the “creation of a destination” is the main thrust behind the new Parnell Square Cultural Quarter, a project some have reservations about.

Former Lord Mayor Naoise Ó Muirí of Fine Gael announced the new Parnell Square Cultural Quarter in April 2013.

At the time, Ó Muirí described the plan as a “catalyst for regeneration across the city”. Dublin City Architect Ali Grehan said the new hub would complete “the spine” of Dublin.

The plan is to develop the Georgian terrace along Parnell Square North to include the new City Library with links to the adjacent Hugh Lane Gallery and the Dublin Writers Museum.

In the Irish Times last month, that paper’s former environment editor, Frank McDonald, suggested that the centrepiece of the project be stripped out and moved to the old cultural quarter: Temple Bar. He would have it located within the soon-to-be-vacant Central Bank.

“Hidden away in the Ilac shopping centre since 1986, the library would be thrust out centre-stage rather than built behind the Georgian terrace once occupied by Coláiste Mhuire, where it would have no visible presence,” McDonald wrote. “Yet Dublin City Council apparently remains committed to this ill-advised plan.”

Is this a case of competing cultural quarters?

“I would be wary of setting up another [cultural quarter] when one exists already,” says O’Brien of Project Arts. “I would hope that the city would still maintain its support for Temple Bar. I’ve been reassured by the city that Temple Bar is not being given up on.”

Beyond Cultural Quarters

Even as the city works to create this second cultural quarter, it is also looking beyond cultural quarters.

City Arts Officer Ray Yeates is currently undertaking a cultural audit of the city, to pinpoint cultural deficiencies in each area and determine what residents would ideally like to see in their area.

It’s also aimed at spreading culture throughout the city, says Labour’s Moynihan.

“We’re going to have a look at where clusters develop,” she says. “For example, over in the North Inner City there’s a lot of visual artists that live there so how can we best plan to support that?”

Reader responses

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steve white
5 October at 14:50

so what would you use the Parnell street area for then?

dave
5 October at 15:36

Relocate Government buildings to Kilmainham, and create a museum and gallery quarter in the city center to be proud of. Turn the car park into a public square, and remove the fencing at Merrion Square. IMMA isn’t working – it’s a cultural dead zone. And Temple Bar remains just an embarrassment.

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Cónal Thomas: Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach him at cthomas@dubinq.com

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