As the space squeeze continues, the plight of artists is often be shaded by larger-scale crisis. Mart Studios persists in trying to provide affordable spaces for a disparate range of artists across its network of studios.
“I think to become creative, you need a dedicated space”
In the last decade, Mart has become one of the most vital forces in Ireland’s art scene. It’s the largest studio provider in the capital, providing affordable studio space to 150 artists. Onwards is the latest group show to highlight the diverse work Mart members are producing, featuring over 30 artists with pieces ranging from photography to painting to sculpture.
Mart began when co-directors Matthew Nevin and Ciara Scanlon decided to hold an exhibition in 2007. From there the two established studios all over Dublin, and in 2012, they opened the Mart Gallery in Rathmines.
“It’s very hard to be an artist and create work without a studio if you don’t have the space at home, especially in Dublin,” says Nevin. “So it’s about trying to find an affordable option for artists to do that. It’s this constant drive of doing stuff and creating work.”
Work space is of course a huge issue in a city like Dublin, which has seen rents skyrocket in the recent years. Fintan Wall, a graphic designer based in Rathmines, knows that all too well.
“It sounds kind of tragic, but with the way the housing market is at the moment, I’ve been working from my apartment for the last seven years,” he says. “It was getting to the point where my flatmate was like ‘what the hell are you doing, the place is like an Amazon warehouse!’”
“I live in the apartments right beside the studio that I’m in. Every day I would walk past it and think ‘God it’d be great to have a studio in there.’ And then last year I got an email saying one of the studios in that building was available. I’d recently been let go from a full-time job so the planets aligned.”
Since moving into Mart’s studio, Wall has been able to expand his business in ways he couldn’t have dreamed of before, setting up an e-shop with a wide array of his work. Three of those prints are on display in Onwards, offering a delightful fusion of retro design with vivid colours and humour.
The exhibition is only loosely based around the theme of an artist’s development. Mart’s members are occupied with commercial work or personal projects, so the lack of a specific theme prevents any entry barrier. It also gives an immediate impression of what Mart’s members are working on.
“We put out the open call at the start of April, so it’s not even two months,” says co-curator Deirdre Morrissey. “Everyone sent us their submissions within about two or three weeks of that. It’s really just about giving people a snapshot of people’s practices.”
Of course when you make an open call to 150 artists, it can be challenging to present such wildly distinct work on different themes. “It’s a very mixed group, so it’s only when you start to hang the pieces that you can make decisions about what works well together and what doesn’t,” says Morrissey.
One of those pieces is by Niamh Hannaford, a self-portrait painter who has been working in a Mart studio for the last two years. In that time, her practice has developed and her work has reached an international audience.
“I did a few of the group shows and then last year Mart took me to Art Market Budapest in October, which was really, really good for my confidence,” she says. “Because I think that’s something I struggled with for a long time, the confidence to call myself an artist and be one.”
“Sometimes I feel the art world can be a little stiff and I don’t really feel that way here, I feel at home,” she continues. “There’s that sense of community. I’m trying to push myself into performance art so I’ve come to a couple of the performance art events here which has given me the confidence to pursue it. I talk to people at them and they say ‘Give it a go, why not?’ whereas before I would have just said ‘Oh I only paint, that’s what I do.”
It’s not just Hannaford who’s developed her practices since joining Mart. Elise Missall is a sculptor and mosaic artist whose latest piece Tempered combines original mosaic techniques with a technicolour pallet. Onwards marks the first time that her work has been displayed in a permanent exhibition.
Missall returned to Ireland after living in Dublin five years previously. Perhaps, more than any other art form, sculpture demands a dedicated space to work. When Missall realised how bad the housing crisis had become, it seemed like she would have to set aside her sculpture for the unforeseen future.
Thankfully she became aware of Mart, and now rents a studio above the Mart Gallery in Rathmines. The shelves in her studio are filled with jars full of old broken ceramics found in charity shops and auction houses. On her table lies a Roman style mosaic that she has been working on.
“I think to become creative, you need a dedicated space,” Missall says. If you don’t have a space for yourself, then you can’t create and you can’t become creative. Making that space and making it affordable is one of the great things that Mart has done”
Mart is coming to the end of an 18 month long program that’s been funded by the Arts Council. This month the council will decide what funds it will award the organization in the future. That seems to weigh heavily on Nevin, who works seven days a week with Ciara Scanlon to make Mart what it is.
“We self-generate 90% of our income and I think 10% through government funding. That gives you an example of how little we’re funded to actually do what we do,” he says. “It’s the kind of thing that if the Arts Council don’t fund us, or don’t fund us correctly, then we can’t support the hundreds of people we work with. And that’s the hardest thing.”
The past few years have seen the closing of so many art spaces, and Nevin admits that it’s incredibly difficult to keep the lights on. When the Arts Council visits the exhibition this month, he hopes that they will see what Mart can achieve, and how much it means to its members.
“If it wasn’t for Mart you wouldn’t see any of this stuff on the walls,” says Fintan Wall, gesturing at the exhibition. “They’re such a vital, vital part of the city’s creative spirit. I cannot praise them enough.
Mart’s annual Studio Members’ exhibition, ‘Onwards’ showcases the work of 32 artists from their network of studios and runs until June 27. Open Tuesday – Saturday (1pm -6pm)
190a Rathmines Road Lower, Rathmines, Dublin 6
Words: Jack O’Higgins