Owners of vacant properties can register with Dublin City Council as a vacant space since the end of 2011 and make it available to creative individuals or groups who may need a home for one to six months. Posing as a match-maker, Dublin City Council proposes to put both parties in contact so they can work out the details of the rental through the Cultural Use of Vacant Spaces initiative.

Dublin City arts officer Ray Yeates launched the initiative shortly after his appointment in August 2011 and launched the registry that December to encourage both landlords and artists to make contact. He explained that historically, the council’s property unit has always tried to match people and the properties it owns.

“Dublin hasn’t had as much difficulty up to now with empty properties,” he said. “But we have increasing amount of empty spaces now. We would like to increase artistic activity and visibility, while offering a new social and commercial purpose to the owners of the buildings. That way, the arts continue to make the great contribution to the city that they do, it’s just another avenue.”

In March, Mr Yeates described the progress as slow but steady. In March there were 300 artists signed up to the scheme and around 10 property owners, some with multiple properties. Now, they have 12 landlords and 400 artistic applicants and one of their workshops in May is sold out.

“The role of the city is still being debated,” he said. “The project is aimed at short term letting from one to six months perhaps. We facilitate the conversation. The artist has to speak to the owner and decide what rent and utilities is, we’re like a dating agency, we simply matchmake owners and artists.”

Mr Yeates pointed to a local group linked to Phibsboro’s Phizzfest or to Limerick City as an inspiration for the Dublin City Council project. Limerick City Council pioneered a similar scheme called Creative Limerick two years ago, which Limerick City arts officer Sheila Deegan described as a success, despite some bumps in the road linked to issues such as health and safety.

Faber studios in Limerick (photo courtesy of Faber Studios)

Faber studios in Limerick (photo courtesy of Faber Studios)

Sheila Deegan explained that the Limerick initiative was actually set up by the planning and development office and more specifically the property management section, which was concerned about the city looking drab due to empty buildings and wanted to incentivise occupancy.

“We have 180 art students coming out of the college every year looking for a space,” she explained. “There is a 250 euro deposit and a contract is in place. The occupier must cover all of the core costs but there is no rent.”

Ms Deegan explained that the occupiers do everything else themselves, which ensures a regular maintenance of the property. To put this in perspective she gives the example of one set of occupants who recently told her that the core cost of keeping their building powered for the last year was 2,500 euro. Just to keep the doors open, without rent.

“It’s given some people a career inspiration, some have given up their studios to curate and manage spaces. They are all so inventive, so pragmatic, the spaces cooperate in terms of opening hours and exhibitions,” she said.

Examples of successful venues include Ormston House which operates a membership scheme, the Occupy Space gallery and project space involving three people and Faber studios which involves 10 people, mainly sculptors and contemporary artists. Faber studios have recently moved to a new location.

“Every location in Ireland faces a unique set of circumstances,” says Ms Deegan when discussing the new Dublin scheme, saying that Dublin and Limerick have different challenges. “But nowadays, every owner wants a few bob, it’s tougher than it used to be now that the recession is fully underway. Rentals through the scheme are still free, but some people trying to negotiate something similar on their own have seen owners request a small rental charge.

She is quick to point out that the Creative Limerick scheme opened at a different time. “Every location has a specific set of circumstances and maybe it was a different time at the beginning of the recession, maybe there was not as much NAMA around, which can make owners fearful.”

Inside the Faber Studios (photo courtesy of Faber Studios)

Inside the Faber Studios (photo courtesy of Faber Studios)

She has only recently been interacting with NAMA about occupying buildings and has had very positive conversations with them so far. She points out that in many cases however, the success of a scheme like this would be linked to a philanthropic owner, of which there are a couple in Limerick.

Responding to criticism about the fact that participants in the Dublin scheme will not be guaranteed an exemption from rent like in Limerick, Ray Yeates felt that this concept was unrealistic: “Everyone thinks they can get something for nothing, but it wouldn’t be realistic, there are hidden or embedded costs for everyone,” he said.

“Use of space is not free, that’s the 64 thousand dollar question isn’t it. There’s nothing free about a building even if rent is free. Utilities, rates, maintenance; there are other costs for the landlord. Artists have to be able to fund the project they’re bringing in for example. I don’t want people to be discouraged but rather realise they have to step up and make something happen.”

Discussing the relationship with owners, he says artistic momentum can happen is if their confidence is gained. “For the owners, their properties are one of their long term investments so it’s not for me to say that they should give this property to the arts or handle it in a specific way.”

Dublin-based artist Jennette Donnelly, the director of Art for Art’s Sake who is currently examining this scheme as a way to access a premise for her growing venture, said that the scheme could potentially create the assistance that the art community has been waiting for:

“The occupant will have the ability to negotiate terms and conditions with the landlord. This is a definite advantage as it is quite difficult to negotiate terms of rent with an estate agent. It cuts out the middle man.”

So far in Dublin, there is a mix of properties available according to Mr Yeates: “Retail spaces with no fit-out, office spaces which may be suited to exhibitions or installations, some are better for meetings and get togethers, there’s even an old garage would that be good for a play,” he said.

His plan is that eventually, the owners and artists will take advantage of the scheme and run with it themselves.

Anyone interested in this scheme in Dublin and in an upcoming workshop around this topic in May should contact Dublin City Council.

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