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Column: Here's why we turn empty properties into art spaces

“Raise the shutters on a vacant unit, and life returns to an area”: Arts initiative PrettyvacanT Dublin on bringing energy through art back to abandoned buildings.

Louise Marlborough

IN 2009 I returned to live in my home town of Dublin. While I had been away, the landscape had changed.

All I could see was empty properties. Everywhere. Not just hidden down side streets and in darkened alleys, but across the city and in every suburb and street; thousands of empty offices, retail units, houses and apartments.

We all know the story: recession, foreclosures and bankruptcy leading to vacated premises, empty shops and vacant properties.

But I knew these properties still had great potential. And so whilst some saw them as a blight on the landscape and a visual reminder of Ireland’s financial woes, I saw an opportunity. As Hillary Clinton said, “Never waste a good crisis”.

So, using my background in visual arts, I set up PrettyvacanT Dublin, an arts initiative repurposing vacant properties as temporary exhibition spaces for artists.

The challenge is to make people think about the way vacant space is being under-used in Ireland

The aim of PrettyvacanT Dublin is to enliven Dublin’s empty buildings through painting, photography and installation, to bring art on to the high street, and to the public, in a more disarming and unexpected way. The challenge is to make people think about the way vacant space is being under-used in Ireland.

Raise the shutters on a vacant unit, and life returns to an area. Use art to make buildings more aesthetically appealing, and you demonstrate a property is fit for purpose. Create positive attention for a building otherwise ignored, and you advertise its availability to potential suitors.

Furthermore, provide artists with an alternative platform to display their work, and you give them a place to meet, exchange ideas, and hone their craft.

To date, despite not being in receipt of any funding, PrettyvacanT Dublin has grown over the last three years, and has organised 12 highly successful events across 10 locations, worked with over sixty individual artists and received thousands of visitors. We’ve transformed former supermarkets, repurposed disused travel agents’ shops, and reworked abandoned office.

Like a cross between The Wombles and The A-Team locked in a garage, we’ve recycled, reused and re-employed the materials we’ve found on the floor to help deliver our exhibitions. We’ve used leftover furniture, utilised shop fittings to hang artwork and even refitted existing wall panels to create gallery walls.

In keeping with the DIY ethos, we find our artists via social media. The digital space is the perfect place to cultivate relationships and research potential shows because it’s free. Twitter and Facebook allow us issue open calls, before launching a show into the real world.

Whilst there does not seem to be a national strategy to tackle the national issue of vacant properties in Ireland, arts collectives and arts organisations taking it upon themselves to lead the conversation and fuel the fire. And it’s working. Recently, PrettyvacanT Dublin was asked take the mic at a conference held by Dublin City Council on the use of vacant spaces in the city, evidencing an authority beginning to wake up to the potential of such schemes – incidentally ones which have are already successful in other cities around the world.

Of course, NAMA is the motherlode. If these properties were opened up to alternative cultural use it would be recognition of the potential in vacant spaces.

All of this isn’t meant to sound self-aggrandising, rather it’s to highlight that solutions never need be expensive, and that open and collaborative dialogue encourages people to think of new, and cheap, ways of addressing a problem. PrettyvacanT Dublin provides one such solution, but no doubt there are many more.

The take-out is this: think about every empty shop. Every office. Every house. Think about its potential.

What could happen there?

Louise Marlborough is Founder and Director of PrettyvacanT Dublin. More information on prettyvacantdublin.com Their current show ‘Shoot the Tiger’ is taking place at Unit 3, James Joyce Street, Dublin 1 until 31 March, open Tues – Sat, 12 -5pm.

Read: Ghost estates brought to book in post-Tiger exhibition>

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