Council Proposes to Replace Artist Studios on Chatham Row with New Civic Museum

The crowd was upbeat at the launch of the Dean Arts Studios on Chatham Row in early August.

The reception of the building, the former DIT School of Music, was decorated with painted canvases, embroideries and a flat-screen looping a short piece of video art.

Given a citywide shortage of studio space for artists, Dublin City Council leased it to the Press Up Hospitality Group, which is providing 20 artist studio residencies, free of charge.

Drag performer Panti Bliss said in the inaugural speech that the city only cared about the arts when promoting the city.

“They promote, but don’t support,” she said. “And so, if the city isn’t going to do it, you need other people to step in and do it.”

The celebratory mood at the launch of the studios, however, came with an asterisk.

Dublin City Council has rented out Chatham Row to Press Up for “meanwhile use”, meaning it’s just a short-term set-up – in this case, for 12 months.

Councillors are already debating what should be next for the building.

The preferred option right now is a civic museum, said a memo to members of the council’s arts and culture committee in September.

It could host a Dublin Fire Brigade heritage centre, and display the lord mayor’s coach and various other objects from the council’s collections, like weights and measures or Wide Streets Commission maps, the memo says.

Councillors have expressed doubts over whether this is the best use for Chatham Row.

Not confident in the appeal or opportunities that might come of a municipal museum, a steering group has been established to thrash out possible futures.

At the Meeting

At the 19 September meeting, councillors and other committee members were cool on the idea of a civic museum.

Willie White, artistic director of the Dublin Theatre Festival, asked at the meeting if an inventory of the council’s civic collection could be provided to justify the proposals.

“I don’t know if you can make a museum out of that,” said White last Thursday. “I think it would be a challenge, not an insurmountable one, to animate those into an interesting museum display.”

According to the memo from Richard Shakespeare, the council’s assistant chief executive, the museum proposal was drawn up after work by a specialist museum consultancy.

It said it had identified a number of viable options that would be both attractive to a range of audiences, and linked to opportunities to earn income, the memo says.

At the meeting, White asked if the mention of earned income meant ticketing, instead of free public access.

There is no doubt going to be a net cost to the council to run it, he said. “In light of us talking about a desire for more funding for arts programme grants, where is this money going to come from?”

Green Party Councillor Claire Byrne asked when it had been decided that Chatham Row would be used as a museum.

“I’ve had motions agreed at an area committee level that this would continue to be used either as a school of music or as artist studios,” she said.

Shakespeare said about a year ago the council advised that it was looking at the building for various uses.

The civic museum is one potential use, he said. “If it works, that’s fine. If it doesn’t, we need to find another use.”

Byrne says the memo caught her by surprise, especially since the building had worked well to date as an artist workspace.

“This is a classic example of a council-owned building that would be perfect for the provision of artists,” she says, “and yet here we are with this left-field idea that has come from out of nowhere.”

To Be Determined

In recent times, the idea for a museum in the Chatham Row building was first raised in the South East Area Committee by its chairperson, Labour Councillor Dermot Lacey.

“It was more about raising the fact that we had this important building in the middle of the city and that it should be used for some positive productive cultural use,” he says.

Lacey didn’t propose a civic museum. What he suggested was one devoted to Irish musical history, although he says, it wasn’t a concept he was staunchly committed to.

“But I do believe Dublin should have a museum that is new, modern and innovative. It should be used for some form that is lively.”

The memo submitted was a disappointment in this respect, he says. “It just didn’t capture my imagination.”

Labour Party Councillor Mary Freehill says the proposal in the memo is static.

What she would hope for is a facility that is open to the public, but which could be combined with such features as workspaces for artists, she says. “We want something that is dynamic, participatory and animated.”

Artist Brian Teeling, who has a studio space in Chatham Row, says it is well-suited to that.

The building has a small venue for performances and exhibitions too, he says. “The space works really well, and every artist is well catered for.”

Talking It Out

After the arts and culture committee’s meeting, an internal council steering group was set up with councillors and officials to oversee the development of Chatham Row.

A spokesperson for Dublin City Council said the current proposals centre around a museum to display the various council collections as well as the Lord Mayor’s Coach.

“These proposals will be dependent on the outcome of the deliberations of the Working Group,” they said.

Still, Lacey is critical of the council’s move to develop proposals with a consultancy before approaching elected councillors.

“A dialogue should have been started first and foremost with the elected members, not the conclusion presented to elected members.”

Teeling, the artist, says he could not see evidence that any council officials or consultants had engaged with any of the studio’s current residents.

No council official has asked him how the residency is working out, he said. “It seems like they are steadfast with their decision it will change use.”

Says Teeling: “The memo itself is frankly insulting and just shows how insular and unambitious [the council’s] plans are for the city.”

Byrne, the Green Party councillor, who sits on the steering group, wonders if there is a demand for another museum in the city at present. The most viable option, she says, would be a mixed-use building.

“Hopefully, there isn’t just one option on the table here, because we should be looking at a whole range of options,” she says.

A museum might close off the possibility that Chatham Row could be used at night, she says. “The other thing we need now is more night-time spaces.”

“I think anything we do now needs to have a multipurpose aspect to it, that a space can be as flexible as possible. We’re looking at this across the board with all our cultural spaces.”

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Michael Lanigan: Michael Lanigan is a Dublin-based freelance journalist. His work appears in Vice, Totally Dublin, TheJournal.ie and the Business Post.

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