It is a brisk January afternoon and I am being guided through the courtyard of the Fire Station Artists’ Studios by Director Helen Carey.
Above us, the tall lighted windows of the studios are animated by the passing figures of artists at work.
“Almost every artist of note in Ireland has passed through the portals of the Fire Station and most of them have lived, stayed or worked here during that time,” says Carey, who has managed strategy and operations here since 2014.
“The legacy for Dublin 1 of those twenty-five years is stellar. It’s one of those stories that don’t get told and maybe we should tell the story more, make more of it,” she says.
This year marks 25 years since the birth of the Fire Station Artists’ Studios on Lower Buckingham Street.
In the first half of the twentieth century, it had been a working station serving the north-east inner city. During the second half, though, it fell into disuse and disrepair.
The Arts Council choose the grand red-brick building as a viable space for artists’ studios in 1991.
Officials there thought its large, well-lit rooms, which were once living quarters for firemen and their families, would make ideal artist spaces, says Carey.
The Arts Council refurbished the building at a cost of £750,000, and two years later there were eight self-contained studios and three large open-plan workshops.
“If you go back twenty-five years, the decision to turn an old decommissioned fire station into artist studios was really quite visionary,” Carey says.
Its birth was part of a broader official push to address what was seen at the time as the chronic shortage of available studio space for working artists in Ireland. The National Sculpture Factory had opened a couple of years earlier too, in Cork in 1989.
When it opened officially in 1993, those behind the Fire Station set out its basic mission of accommodating working artists for up to two years and nine months.
Artists pay low rents from €400 to €600 per month for long-term residencies. They get a personal studio and living space, as well as access to a range of computers, media, film and photographic equipment.
The sculpture workshop has work bays. And an assortment of heavy equipment and machinery that would otherwise be difficult and costly for the average artist to access.
There are welding torches and saws, sanding tables and hoists, and large chrome electric kilns that crowd the open floor. The artist bays line the far wall, with works in progress in metal, ceramics, glass, and woodwork.
“Most people think of art solely in terms of creativity and ideas. But the practical side to the life of the working artist is just as important,” says Suzanne Walsh, a resident at the station for the past year.
Walsh says that the Fire Station has offered her secure rent and technical support. The “space and stability” necessary for her work.
Walsh’s work revels in the crossovers between her many areas of practice: the literary, music and art worlds. So the digital kit at the station is useful.
There is also the “real sense of community” between artists, staff, and visitors, she says. Through its visiting curator programme, the Fire Station invites international curators to stay for a while as residents.
That can lead to exchanges of shows. Walsh has shown work in both Poland and Belgium.
More than a hundred working artists from Ireland and internationally have made the Fire Station their home over the past-twenty five years.
Major contemporary artists working in a variety of media such as Alice Maher, Sean Hillen and Patrick Graham have all passed through its doors.
In 2014, the station added two more residential studios. But the demand for spaces still outstrips supply.
As many as 50 artists typically are vying for the nine studios on offer, with the lucky few selected by a judging panel of associates and experts, says Carey.
Carey describes the services they provide for working artists as representing “both a lot and a little” in the context of the ever-growing demands of Irish arts scene.
Living and working space is now regarded by the Arts Council as one of “the most critical infrastructural necessities for artists in Ireland”, according to its head of visual arts, Claire Doyle.
The Monto Arts Group
The decision to set up the Fire Station Studios in the north-east inner city shaped the ethos and ambitions of the project from the outset.
Rather than look to already established and affluent art centres around Grafton Street and Temple Bar, the Arts Council saw the Fire Station as supporting more diverse arts in one of Dublin’s most socially deprived inner-city areas, says Carey.
Twenty-five years on, this vision has in many ways been realised. There is now a vibrant cluster of art galleries and artist spaces, which regularly collaborate under the title of The Monto Arts Group.
“There’s a liveliness about the visual arts in the area now,” Carey says.
The Monto Arts Group includes in its umbrella five local arts spaces: the Fire Station Studios, the LAB Gallery, ArtBox, Oonagh Young Gallery and Talbot Gallery & Studios.
Carey says that the group is defined by a shared commitment to engaging with the surrounding community.
“There’s a moral responsibility to be connected, the very way of being here has contributed to making the Fire Station the kind of place it is now,” she says.
The group has led several cultural initiatives in the neighbourhood, often teaming up with council officials, the business-improvement district DublinTown, and local residents.
During its annual Monto Picnic, which has taken place every summer for three years, locals and visitors get to explore the cultural heritage of the area through tours, exhibitions and open-air public events.
This year, the Fire Station plans to build on that, opening its doors in new ways to the surrounding local community with several educational pilot schemes.
It plans to run a six-week course in digital storytelling for a local group of young adults beginning at the end of January.
Those who take part in the course, run in association with the North Centre City Community Action Programme, will get to choose what to pick up: 3D printing, or photography, or film.
Carey is firm in her belief that “what artists need to learn, young people need to learn as well”.
The schemes are about “weaving art into the fabric of people’s lives regardless of their artistic backgrounds or experience”, she says.
It might be rolled out further to bring in young adults recently released from prison, says Carey.
By allying practical and technical education with personal creativity, the schemes hope to encourage in young adults “both a way of skills building and a way of dreaming into the future about what they can do with their lives through education”, says Carey.
“You have to be brave and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do here,’” Carey says. “Not just for today or tomorrow, but that the project will continue to mature into the next twenty-five years, establishing for the area an artistic legacy of real and lasting value.”