The Art of Working: How Dublin’s artist studios are weathering the pandemic

Posted June 17, 2020 in Arts and Culture

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On Tuesday 16th June, the government promised new funds to help Ireland’s art and culture industry prepare for post-lockdown society. In light of this announcement, we explore one of the sectors most likely to be impacted by the pandemic: Dublin’s artist studios.

Dublin’s artist studios are used to keeping calm in the face of adversity.

Black Church Print Studio is one of Ireland’s oldest artist collectives, and David McGinn has been the Technical Manager there for twelve years. An alumnus of Cork and Leipzig art programmes, McGinn describes how his predecessors spun success out of a catastrophic accident.

“The first Black Church Print Studio was established in a run-down warehouse on Ardee Street, in 1981. We had that studio until the late ‘80s, then one night a fire started and the building burnt to the ground. There was talk of kids breaking in, but nobody really knows. It was terrible. The whole place was completely gutted.” However, it was just at the time that city architects were planning the cultural quarter of Temple Bar. Black Church and Temple Bar Cultural Trust entered into a discussion about a site next to Temple Bar Studios, and in the end Black Church was offered its new location. Excitingly, the studio organisers were able to contribute to the architectural re-design of the premises. “Most print studios, given the nature of the equipment we use, have to co-opt industrial spaces far away from urban areas, whereas we were able to design a purpose-built print studio right in the centre of the city.”

The old warehouse and the accidental fire that acted as a catalyst are now distant memories for Black Church, which has since become a pillar of Dublin’s cultural landscape. The studio caters exclusively to artists who use print techniques like screen-printing and etching. Black Church is a model organisation for the sector at large, providing a template for what an artist studio is or aspires to be. Housed over four floors in the middle of Temple Bar, the studio is maintained by David, the General Manager Hazel Burke, and its 85 artist members. Once their application is successful, a member is provided their own workspace and “24-hour access to the studio.” If they join the studio’s Teaching Panel, members can increase their earnings by delivering workshops and tutorials to the public during the year. The members also have a key role in the governance of the studio: they sit on the studio’s Board of Directors and the Chairperson of the Board is always chosen from among their cohort. And the financial commitment is modest: by carefully managing their finances (a combination of public funding and private income streams), the studio keeps its fees affordable. “It works out quite cheap,” says David, “about €1.50 a day.”

Since its closure at the end of March, the studio’s highest priority has been “to maintain the social cohesion that exists in the studio under normal circumstances.” They set up a private Facebook page to keep in touch and inspire each other. “We’ve just been posting drawings, self-portraits, examples of book-binding, and I’m looking to send some lino out to each member. We’ve held Zoom gatherings too, which are more like social get-togethers – we had an art quiz last Friday.”

When I ask about the economic impact of the closure, David responds that their primary concern lies in the educational programme. “We will take a big hit, especially in the workshops. We run short weekend workshops and longer six-week workshops, in everything from book-binding to lithography. Right now we don’t think that we will be able to run any until September. Under normal circumstances we would have run roughly twelve workshops in the spring and summer period, with 7-10 people participating in each – now that income is gone.”

The loss of income David reports is symptomatic of the trouble facing the artist studio market in general. No-one knows for certain what the outcome of the closure will be, but the Irish culture industry expects a significant, if not severe, economic contraction.

The Arts Council released reports in March and April projecting the loss of revenue for artists and arts organisations. As their conclusions have been widely discussed already, it serves to only note the headline figures again. Artists are expected to lose 19,000 days of paid work and the total amount of their personal income already invested in art projects that have either been cancelled or postponed indefinitely is in the region of €2.5 million. The financial impact on arts organisations, including studios, is just as hair-raising: the Arts Council forecast a loss of €2.9 million in income for every month that the shut-down lasts.

Taking the above into consideration, the Department for Culture and the various state agencies with a stake in the arts initially focused their energy on securing the economic well-being of individual artists. The same focus motivated non-governmental interventions in the sector, as the case of the RHA’s #ReallyHelpingArtists GoFundMe campaign demonstrates: this publicly financed initiative is designed to provide small, easily accessible grants to struggling artists, ranging from €100 to €1,000 sums, and raised just over €63k since its inception on the 15th of May.

Any financial assistance received by artists indirectly supports the studio market. However, in May, questions about the benefits of this investment strategy for arts organisations were being raised. Angela Dorgan is the Chair of the National Campaign For the Arts. While supportive of some elements of the government’s plan, the NCFA were critical of its “very weak response to the pandemic’s impact on the arts.”

In a policy document published at the end of May, the NCFA called on the government to invest an additional €20 million in the Arts Council for 2020. One of the objectives of this additional funding was “for arts organisations like studios to keep all of their staff. Though the studios’ output might be smaller and their workshops might go online, the problem is that if you lose a significant percentage of organisational memory from the sector in 2021, it means that the come-back will be hindered. Organisations will spend 2022 recruiting and training, and the art economy will be sluggish. What we’re saying is that a little extra spending now will ensure greater economic and organisational benefits in the near future.”

One such organisation is Fire Station Artist Studios. This large red-brick building on Lower Buckingham Street in Dublin 1 was renovated by the Arts Council in the early ‘90s. Director Helen Carey took her post in 2014, after an international career in curation and exhibition management. “I was interested in switching my focus from the public-facing and display-oriented side of exhibition to the structures which support the making of art. Fire Station is a resource for artists, to create the conditions necessary for art-making. My role here is behind the scenes, if you like, watching and assisting artworks take shape.”

Fire Station boasts a large-scale sculpture workshop and a digital media suite, open to members and other professional artists. They run a curatorial programme, “which interrogates what Irish artists are doing and the national and international scene within which their work is contextualized.” And of course, the studio has a range of membership studios. These studios are unique: the members don’t just work at Fire Station, they live there too. “The leases for the apartment studios are generally two years and nine months in duration. Each artist is selected after a rigorous admission procedure.”

Though the government’s plan to lift restrictions has been brought forward, Fire Station doesn’t expect to re-open fully until August. In the meantime, “five months will have passed. That has very real implications for income. Our losses were starting to bite in May.” Nonetheless, Carey is adamant that the studio rental prices must remain fixed. “Fire Station hasn’t raised rents for about 12 years, in spite of our mounting costs. The Arts Council have recognised the importance of this effort, and our funding has increased to keep the rent where it is. Raising rent is absolutely the last resort.”

More recent additions to Dublin’s artist studio sector are D-Light Studios in Ballybough and BKB Studios in Glasnevin. At about the same time that David McGinn joined Black Church, Agata Stoinska founded D-Light Studios. “I’m a photographer by trade, though I trained as an architect. In 2008 I came across this huge warehouse, which was completely ruined, but because of my background I was able to see the potential of the building.” With the help of a Dublin City Board Enterprise grant, Stoinska turned a disused wool factory “into a multi-functional space, catering for exhibitions, performances, TV and film productions, in addition to the studios rented to our tenants, who are all artists and creatives.”

“We have 11 studios and two very large event rooms, which we rent to clients on a daily basis. We also offer a bi-annual artist residence programme – the awardee is given access to a studio for a period of six months and €1200 for materials. The only thing we require from our resident artist is that they run workshops in the community.”

BKB Studios, which opened its doors in August 2019, is one of Dublin’s newest artist studios. Its three founders met as students in the TU Dublin Fine Art department (formerly DIT). When I met them first in January 2020, Emily Brennan, Gemma Brown and Bianca Kennedy were finally starting to feel the ground under their feet. The trio began exploring the idea to run a studio in their second year, and jointly remembered a conversation they had with their lecturer Ben Readman, one of the founding directors of Block T, about the procedures involved. “As soon as we graduated in 2018 we kept meeting to discuss our options. Slowly we put our business plan together and then we drove around to look at places,” Gemma tells me.

“We wanted to be on the north-side – that was our only stipulation. Glasnevin was one of our favourite areas, partly because of the access to the Luas line, but there are also good links to the TU Dublin campus.”

They took out loans, borrowed from family, and paid the deposit for a property in an industrial estate. Once the lease was signed, Brennan, Kennedy and Brown had only a few trifling tasks left to complete before they could accept members: they cleaned out the building in six weeks, completed the paperwork to set up a company limited by guarantee, and, of course, they painted, furnished and decorated a dozen rooms. All the while Gemma looked after her new baby boy, born one month before they opened.

When I met BKB Studio in January, they had ten artists in situ and were planning to hold an official opening in April. Though they were still working voluntarily, the team was excited for the future, believing that the hard part was over. Agata Stoinska remarks on a similar sense of anticipation for 2020, which in the case of D-Light was long overdue: “In the decade following the financial crash, we were in a precarious position. I had to negotiate with NAMA and the City Council. For years we had to fight for the rights of the building, and fight for the regeneration of Dublin 1. In January we thought that the struggle was finally behind us, and we were excited for 2020.”

Now, thanks to the pandemic, a new sense of unease has invaded the artist studios. This unease is compounded by the fact that, of all the infrastructure dedicated to the arts, studios have traditionally been vulnerable to external shocks. “There has been massive pressure on the studio market in the past 10 years, and the availability of spaces suitable for artists to work in has reduced,” Ben Mulligan, Head of Visual Arts in the Arts Council, notes. “The sad fact is that we have lost studios – key infrastructural partners have had to close.”

Mulligan considers the possibility that the vulnerability of the artist studio market stems from its peculiar relationship with the economy. On the one hand, during periods of economic contraction, artists find it harder to work, meaning that there is less demand and less revenue for studios. At the same time, “something like a recession can often present opportunities, because spaces become vacant and prices fall, allowing groups of artists to pool their resources and set up a studio. But those economic trends can only continue for so long, and as with the housing market, the cost to rent suitable work spaces has risen, which means that the availability of spaces shrinks. Rises in rent aren’t matched by increases in the artist’s income, and the pressure gets too great.”

For Helen Carey of Fire Station, the loss of so many studios in the last ten years is an indictment of public policy. “The conversation we’re interested in having, and have engaged with in the past, is with city planners and architects involved in regeneration projects. We’ve had input into many such projects and schemes, but they would seem to go only so far and then be deferred. The Arts Office do their best, but until workspaces become an objective for the City Council in zoning and planning, our sector is forced to live on scraps. We have to introduce change on an infrastructural level. Nobody is saying that Dublin has to transform into a purist art city, just that art and culture are integral to the ecology of urban life, and those who make and sell artwork aren’t just entertainers – they have an economic part to play.”

When speaking about artist studios, ecological metaphors and allusions are constantly traded, such as when Angela Dorgan states that “artist studios are an essential part of the professional arts ecosystem.” Their obvious benefits have been touched on already: like offices and public libraries, studios offer their members a personalised workspace away from friends, family and the distractions of domestic life. These prepared, isolated rooms ensure that the noise and mess of artistic experiments won’t bother housemates or neighbours, and the artist’s inclusion within a community fosters professional relationships, which allows for the sharing of information and the possibility of collaboration.

However, their wider role in the arts and culture industry is equally important. Many studios retain a space for small-scale or seasonal exhibitions, providing a wider variety of opportunities for artists in the country to display their work. Studios run a range of inexpensive workshops and courses, teaching the history of art, curatorial practice and technical skills. They offer residencies to international artists who bring new ideas and influences to bear on the Irish art scene, which, like any small island population, is always threatened by the spectre of parochialism. Last but not least, they pay close attention to the final-year degree shows of graduating art students. Many studios hold contests for students and offer awards to the best performers in whatever category they deem relevant. These awards are often accompanied by cash stipends, administrative support, career advice, and free studio time, which boosts the young artists’ confidence and helps to bring new blood into the scene. The trio behind BKB were all beneficiaries of graduate awards: Emily and Gemma were selected by Fire Station and Bianca was selected by Black Church. In plain terms, the studio system is an invaluable link in the chain that leads from artists to galleries and museums; it stimulates output, creates connections and legitimises art practices.

Some of the government’s actions have already helped the artist studio market. According to Agata Stoinska,“it was a great help to draw on the government’s Income Support Scheme, the 70% wage subsidy. Without that, I wouldn’t have been able to keep the studio manager Aisling Reddin on the payroll, and her work is invaluable.” David McGinn and Hazel Burke of Black Church have availed of the same subsidy, and Helen Carey expects that staff at Fire Station may apply “in the next couple of weeks,” if the support is still available. Acknowledging the usefulness of this subsidy, the NCFA advise that income supports continue until arts and cultural events are viable again.

In addition, the Arts Council has extended the deadline for the Visual Artists Workspace Scheme grant until July, which is “the big grant for studios – it’s made exactly for our situation,” according to Emily Brennan. “It’s great how they extended the deadline, that’s helped.” Speaking of their decision to extend, Ben Mulligan asserts that the Arts Council is doing everything they can. “We’re working very hard to advocate for the arts and for support for the arts – the kind of support that is going to be needed for spaces to re-open and to thrive. I think there will be a lot of applications, and I hope that we’ll be able to expand our support, to bring new studios into the fold and give them the funding they need.”

What about fixed costs in the short-term? If the building is owned by Dublin City Council, the Arts Office strongly encourages any studio struggling with cash flow to come in and talk – after a brief conversation with Ray Yeates, City Arts Officer, it was clear that they would do everything they could to keep the studio afloat. Like many studios however, BKB rents from a private landlord. In May, they asked their landlord to forgo rent that month. Luckily, he agreed. “If the landlord had come back to us and said no, that would have been it – we knew we just weren’t going to be able to pay for May, and if he hadn’t agreed to our proposal, if he had taken it as a break in the lease, then we would have found ourselves in a very different position.”

Long-term fixed costs, such as building maintenance, are unsettling to think about. These costs can be deferred only for so long, until they become urgent. “Every storm, I’m thinking that the roof is going to fly away,” Agata Stoinska remarks, half-joking. “Prior to COVID-19 Dublin City Council agreed to help with the funding and planning. Since the shut-down they’ve been in touch, and basically they told us that they are still committed – as long as their budget isn’t drastically impacted, we’re on their list.”

“We have a lot of plans for the area and we’re embedded in the culture of Dublin 1, which is why the City Council are so supportive of the work we do. But we’ll have to see. If their funds aren’t available, we’ll just have to try to stay positive. These kind of things can change at any minute.”

At least when they re-open, the generous sizes of D-Light and BKB mean that the demands for social distancing won’t be an issue. But as Helen Carey points out, no matter what kind of space you have, there will be a requirement to make some “adaptations to your site, including signage, perspex, etc… It is going to cost us a lot to change our site into a safe site.” When asked about the cost of those adaptations, which may or not may involve renovation work, Ben Mulligan states that “the Arts Council doesn’t support major capital investment. We fund artists and arts organisations to make work, engage with audiences and programme events. There will absolutely be demands on our arts organisations to deal with COVID-19 by assessing and modifying their buildings, but they will have to draw on other supports for that.”

On this basis, the NCFA’s policy document also requested that the government develop a “dedicated capital scheme for arts centres, venues and cultural organisations to ensure they can meet the demands of creating safe spaces for artists, staff and audiences.”

While funding for the arts in the wake of a healthcare crisis might raise some complaints, Angela Dorgan was determined to represent the sector’s needs: “The truth is it’s a very minimal investment for great benefits. And if that minor level of investment is not maintained, the effects are catastrophic. The cost of the decimation of the arts is far greater than the cost of keeping them alive.”

Now, it seems that Dorgan’s determination has paid off. On the 16th of June, the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Josepha Madigan announced €25 million in extra supports to help the arts sector recover.

At a press statement, Varadkar acknowledged that the “pandemic hasn’t been easy for our artists and cultural institutions, and I know their livelihoods have been hit hard.” Merely talking about the “true value” of the arts wasn’t enough, the Taoiseach asserted: “the Government wants to match its words with actions.”

This additional government funding will doubtless have a huge impact on the sector at large, and on the artist studio market in particular. Credit for the achievement is split between the Minster for Culture and the Arts Council’s temporary Advisory Group, which gathered industry experts to plan against the worst outcomes of the pandemic. Angela Dorgan was a member of this group and she worked alongside key stakeholders such as filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson, journalist and author Fintan O’Toole and the Director of the Arts Council, Maureen Kennelly.

Nonetheless, caution is advisable. As welcome as this announcement is, it’s still early days. We don’t know how the extra supports will be distributed and therefore we can’t tell what its effects will be for studio owners, managers and members. Though Minister Madigan remains “confident” that the infrastructure for the arts “can weather this story,” she sounded a note of warning during the press statement, remarking that the arts “will continue to experience difficult and challenging times long after other sectors have returned to work.”

As important as the funding is, money is not the only factor which determines an organisation’s strength. To finish where we began, David McGinn has faith that the studio’s resistance to crisis is as robust now as thirty years ago, when its building was turned into ash overnight. He attributes this resilience to the strength and cohesion of the artist community. “We’ve been around for a while and we’ve come through a few recessions – we can weather this. The membership is very proactive. They have a lot invested in the studio: they’re on our Board, our subcommittees, our Teaching Panel. It’s their studio. When I speak to them now, they just want to get back in. They want to participate in the community again and produce artwork. There’s reason to be positive.”

Words: Tom Lordan

Image Credits:

Black Print Studio print copy

D-Light Studios by Eoin Kirwan Culture Night 2019


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