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Opinion: 'The recovery is at serious risk of creating a hostile environment for artists and creatives'

We need to address Dublin’s problems and call it a crisis before it’s too late, writes Roisin Agnew.

Roisin Agnew Writer and editor

DUBLIN HAS EVOLVED into a city where the life of the creative has become almost entirely unsustainable. As the “recovery” continues to unfold it’s clear that one of its hallmarks is a rise in inequality: homelessness, unaffordable rents, the impossibility to buy, rise in the cost of everything, a squeezing hardest of those with least.

And amid the collateral damage of the Irish recovery there’s one problem that seems to have gone completely ignored – how the recovery is at serious risk of creating a hostile environment for artists and creatives.

First world problems of creatives?

To talk about Dublin’s creative class earns you immediate scorn and a lively comments section.

After all, it is a first world problem that garners little to no sympathy comparatively when we talk about how the creative who enjoys themed club nights, Thursday night openings, the occasional Bello Bar gig, and Sunday morning flea markets, is finding it unsustainable to pay €200 a month for their studio and can’t afford their rent.

Hell hath no fury like the Irish public forced to consider the “notions”-ful creative class. But it is perhaps worth stopping to think what kind of a city Dublin will be when this section of the “precariat” continues to leave the city in favour of places that cater for individuals pursuing a sustainable lifestyle and career in the arts.

Vulnerability of the arts community 

Over the last three years a few events have captured the public imagination by how they illustrated the vulnerability of the arts community in Dublin. In particular there were the closures of three arts spaces: Mabos in Hanover Quay, The Exchange in Temple Bar, and Block T in Smithfield Square – all homes to studios and exhibition and event spaces.

While these cases were all well documented, over the past few years a number of other art spaces and studios were forced to shut their doors too – Broadstone Studios, The Joinery, South Studios, Moxie Studios, and Thirty Four, to name a few.

Eight art spaces and counting over a period of three years, all due to different mixtures of rent hikes, property development, and burnout.

The regeneration and redevelopment of Dublin we’re seeing in the recovery does not seem to include a provision that protects spaces that are deemed to have cultural value. A study done by the London Assembly Regeneration Committee called Creative tensions: optimising the benefits of culture through regeneration, shows that 30% of London’s artists, approximately 3,500, will lose their spaces of work by 2019.

It’s not hard to imagine something similar happening in Dublin where space is at a premium, and it’s telling that we don’t even have a body dedicated to monitoring changes of this kind in Ireland.

In fact, when debates temporarily turn to vanishing arts spaces, the conversation focuses on how we, the artists, should prove that culture can generate revenue and is therefore worthwhile. Whilst culture shouldn’t necessarily have to turn a profit, it’s important to note that in the case of Dublin it actually does.

Dublin’s reputation as a creative city

Dublin’s tourism relies in large part on its reputation as a creative city, and it’s obvious from the examples of cities like Berlin, Amsterdam, and Lisbon (where I currently live) that fostering a creative and culturally vibrant city can be a money-making exercise as well as simply the right thing to do. The recently controversial urbanist Richard Florida made that point a decade ago with his famous book, The Rise Of The Creative Class.

A few years ago I was involved in a project set up by a government board (that I won’t specify) which was interested in representing Dublin to the “cool”, travelling, moneyed millennial as a “sort-of Berlin.”

I wrote copy for the project. But as I watched venues shut down, friends move away, pop-up events get scuppered by resistance by the Vintners Association or by an obstructionist city council, I wondered why money was being spent “marketing” an idea instead of “realising” it.

How is it that no one in the council or government sees that by simply facilitating and allowing for creatives to exist (not even funding them) you will make Dublin a more vibrant place that people will want to visit and invest in? If money alone talks, then why aren’t our politicians hearing this?

We’re the poster child for austerity

Ireland is the poster-child for how austerity has led to recovery. Unemployment has hit a nine-year low of 6.2% according to CSO figures, youth unemployment is down at 12.9%. At the same time, by September 2016 rent had risen by €113 nation-wide, reaching an all-time high according to the RTB.

A glance at Numbeo, a platform that compares the cost of living across different cities, shows that average rent in Dublin in May 2017 is €1,350.79 for a 1-bedroom flat, a cappuccino costs €2.87, and an average monthly transport pass is €120. If the numbers seem bad, the anecdotes are worse.

This isn’t a Generation Emigration article, we don’t have a brain drain, what we have is the arts and culture of our city being forgotten as money flows back into the country. Recovery is transforming Dublin into a professionals’ playground where anyone earning a precarious wage is systematically squeezed out by economic pressures. It should be of concern to all of us who value and love Dublin.

My sense of Dublin is slipping away

I began interning and writing for cultural magazines like Le Cool and Totally Dublin in 2009, at the height of the recession. The mood then was to make-do and celebrate, and we did. I’ve since worked in Image Magazine, The Irish Times, Lonely Planet and started my own Dublin-specific literary zine, Guts.

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I’ve continued to celebrate what I feel is a highly unique and resilient art scene and community in Dublin. I mention these things not in order to reanimate the comments section with some more colourful name-calling and hipster-bashing, but because I think that when I speak of my sense of Dublin slipping away from me I speak on behalf of many others.

Where people had foggy notions of going somewhere else “better” a couple of years ago, they now have solid reasons and places – Amsterdam, Lisbon, Copenhagen, Berlin. Places where a decent quality of life and creativity can coexist.

Who is accountable for planning Dublin’s future as a creative city? What should be done?

Talking to Willie White, the Director of the Dublin Theatre Festival, previous Director of the Fringe Festival, and board member for the Dublin Chamber of Commerce, he sounds worried by some of these questions:

I am aware of a real issue around a space for culture. Everywhere seems earmarked for development,” he says. “Of course we need development, but it just seems the reliance is solely on private development to deliver culture or to not squeeze it out.

White believes that there needs to be a vision for the role of culture in the city’s urban planning:

Not much provision for culture is being made with regard the changing face of the city…There doesn’t seem to be any kind of foresight that says, ‘What should a 21st Century City have in order to foster culture’.

The problem too from White’s perspective is that there’s no accountability and no one who acting as an intermediary between the developers and the community:

Whose responsibility is it to provide for and safeguard these spaces? Is it the market? Or is it some more enlightened version of public funding? Or could it be suggested even to developers, to envision their projects more holistically… allow for things to develop more spontaneously?

He does believe that the free market has not worked:

There was the assumption that there’d be some form of cultural dividend from places like Barrow Street [where the Google headquarters are]. But look at Mabos – Airbnb are in there now. If you follow the logic of the market that’s what it will deliver.

If we want something other than what is currently on offer, what are the mechanics of that? Perhaps it’s something along the lines of what there is in Lisbon – rent caps, subsidies, and levies could be instituted to prevent everywhere turning into a high-street? Perhaps artist-specific residential rent caps and benefits could be instituted? Landlords and property developers could be given a tax break for renting spaces to cultural groups?

There are infinite possibilities and Dublin’s art community is resilient, so there’s reason to be hopeful. But we need to address it and call it a crisis before it’s too late.

Roisin Agnew is a writer and editor of Guts magazine.

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Roisin Agnew  / Writer and editor

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