Big areas of the city have no cultural buildings outside of the libraries, said a recent cultural audit commissioned by Dublin City Council.
Such as a swathe from St Anne’s Park west through Artane into Whitehall, as well as Coolock, Raheny and Kilbarrack. “This covers large parts of Dublin 3, 5, 9 and 11,” the report says.
Meanwhile since 2000, 32 high-profile cultural buildings have closed, mostly in the city centre, the audit says – among them many theatre and music venues.
In the new draft city development plan, for 2022–2028, the council has put forward how it plans to grow venues and cultural spaces in the future, while grappling with worsening affordability.
Debate so far has centred around what places should be sought, whether they should be buildings to repurpose, extend, or build anew, and whether the council’s vision relies too much on private developers to carve out corners for culture.
If the council makes good on the ideas in the plan, it would positively address some of the challenges facing culture in the city, says Cian O’Brien, artistic director of Project Arts Centre.
But challenges around housing and health would have to be dealt with too, O’Brien says. “It’s all very well and good having a vibrant cultural sector if no one can afford to live in the city.”
There’s not enough ambition at all, says Willie White, artistic director of the Dublin Theatre Festival. Over two decades, cultural spaces have been consumed by hotels and offices, he says.
“Largely what the council with its development plan is seeking to do is to influence others and not to do things itself,” says White.
Dublin City Council’s public consultation on the next development plan has been running since 25 November and lasts until 14 February. As of 1 February, there were five submissions online to the culture chapter.
What New Spaces?
Cat O’Driscoll, a Social Democrats councillor who is chairperson of the council’s arts and culture committee, says the council is taking the lack of cultural spaces seriously in the development plan. “They put a lot of effort into listening to people.”
In general, the development plan talks about the council supporting the development of new cultural resources and facilities, and supporting the upgrades of existing national cultural institutions such as the Irish Museum of Modern Art and the National Concert Hall.
It commits to supporting five cultural quarters around the city and talks a bunch about supporting other organisations’ visions – but also of delivering a few projects itself, such as the new city library at Parnell Square, a new cultural resource in the former Conservatory of Music and Drama at Chatham Row, and new cultural spaces and workspaces in Dublin 8 at Kilmainham Mills and the Creative Campus.
It seeks to deliver new civic arts and cultural spaces in urban villages where they’re lacking, it says, and to buy buildings of merit that could become important cultural spaces.
White, of the Dublin Theatre Festival, says museums and national cultural institutions seem to have too much focus.
(The draft plan mentions studying the possibility of three new museums: a Museum of Dublin, a Dublin Fire Brigade Museum, and a Dublin Music Resource Centre and Museum.)
For performers, mid-sized venues in which to step up gradually from smaller performances to large crowds, are lacking, he says.
“It’s a huge leap to go from 180 seats in [the Project Arts Centre], to over 1,000 seats in the Gaiety. Where do you go?” he says.
Previous venues like Tivoli Gardens, the SFX Hall and the John Player Theatre would have filled this gap. Without them, it makes it hard to sustain experimental theatre, he says.
“This is a city that has an international reputation for theatre, and we have fewer theatre seats now than we had 20 years ago,” he says.
Using What’s There?
Just 11 of 249 cultural buildings mapped in Dublin – which were those with some kind of public subsidy or grant aid – were of a high enough standard for making or experiencing professional cultural work, said the cultural audit commissioned by the council.
This presents an opportunity to upgrade some, the cultural audit says. “There is almost no provision for maker spaces in community/arts centres and libraries.”
White, of Dublin Theatre Company, says the city is leaning heavily on pre-independence infrastructure and more needs to be built.
“There’s been very little building of new cultural infrastructure in the city centre barring the Temple Bar project,” he says. “Everything else is repurposed. Or what was once in use is now gone.”
The cultural audit suggests some libraries and galleries could be used for night-time use.
The council’s draft city development plan does mention encouraging cultural institutions and amenities to regularly stay open into early evening time.
“And to explore the development of more regular evening cultural experiences on a pilot basis,” it says.
Says O’Driscoll, the Social Democrats councillor: “It’s always really reassuring to me that culture will happen wherever you provide the space for it.”
“A lot of people think culture happens in museums, and that culture is a really static thing. Whereas culture is anything that engages you, and is fun and creative,” she says.
Asking the Market
The council wants to ask more of private developers or private property owners to help with the deficit of culture spaces, too.
Applications to knock down or replace a cultural space must, in the rebuild, accommodate the same kind of use in a similar or larger space.
Masterplans for former industrial land bigger than 2 hectares would have to dedicate space for cultural uses, and details of how existing cultural uses can be accommodated in any redevelopment.
All new regeneration areas and big developments of more than 10,000 sqm would have to give 5 percent of the area over to community, arts and culture.
Vanessa Fielding, director of The Complex, a multipurpose arts space, says she’s happy to see that arts and culture is being prioritised at the design stage.
“At the planning stage it needs to be enforced,” she says. “So that developers aren’t given the opportunity to go back and change it again, which has been happening.”
Sebastian Adams, director of Kirkos Ensemble, a group which provides a venue and rehearsal space for musicians in Stoneybatter, says artist-led spaces are what is most needed.
He would worry about gatekeeping if the plan doesn’t specify who gets to run the space, he says.
“The same artists who are frozen out of the existing spaces because they don’t have the network or the financial means to get into them, will they end up being frozen out of these spaces as well?” he says.
O’Brien, from Project Arts, says there should be less of a reliance in the development plan on building new infrastructure in new housing developments, and more on collaborating with existing organisations.
“I think there are ways that that can be positive for that new development, but they don’t feel like the alien spaceship just landing in the middle of an area,” he says.
The developer’s budget for building a new cultural venue on former industrial lands could instead be spent on something existing, he says.
“Maybe it’s going well, what’s nearby. What can we invest in, what could be redeveloped, what could be supported in a different way?” he says.
Most arts and culture organisations won’t survive without state investments, he says. “If that’s going to be under-invested in, then you’re just exacerbating the problem.”
The draft city development plan also mentions that the council’s arts office will “continue to encourage owners of unused premises and landowners to use their vacant building for arts and culture”.
Adams, of Kirkos Ensemble, says the council could be doing a lot more to help artists, stretched for time and unsure how to go about it, to look for these spaces and help them negotiate with owners of unused premises.
“There’s no sort of obvious way for those relationships to be set up,” he says.
Says White, of Dublin Theatre Festival: “I’m not interested in the ground floor of an apartment block or a leftover space that they can’t figure out what to do with. That seems to be what the city council is relying on.”
The market won’t deliver cultural infrastructure, he says, unless there’s a sudden and genuine philanthropic turn.
“That’s actually what we need, genuine philanthropy, because people love Dublin and love the city that they want to invest in,” he says.
But he wants quick and ambitious solutions, not distant plans, he says. “Turn your car parks into performing arts centres.”