Bridge House – A New Arts Space for Dungarvan Co. Waterford

Published in Visual Artists Ireland Oct/Nov Ed. 2012

Maria Tanner writes about opening of Dungarvan’s new independent arts space in the context of sustainable new economies and creative partnerships within the arts sector.

BackdropA direct consequence of the recent economic crises has been a shift in the outlook of artists and cultural workers. At the level of cultural interaction, creative responses to the ambiguous legacies of runaway inflation and subsequent property market collapse have opened up a new and challenging context for creative engagement. Using vacant urban buildings for the production and presentation of art is now one the key characteristic features of post-boom creative Ireland. Needless to say, artistic occupancy of vacant spaces is not a new phenomenon and has occured in Ireland since the 1970s. But what marks out the contemporary movement is the way it has been physically presented to us. In an essay responding to the housing crisis, published in New Strategies, Claire Barliant wrote, “This is possibly the first crisis of our times that has a distinctive architectural aesthetic.”[i]Rising in number since the onset of recession in 2008, empty retail units, offices, houses, and apartments have continued to blot our local urban landscapes.

Yet Initiatives across country, artists led or otherwise, have added considerably to a restructuring of the notion of collapse, by transforming economically determined vacant spaces into sites of concrete practice, interaction and mobilisation for creative communities.

New Developments – Bridge House Arts Space

Bridge House is the most recent development of this kind: a former bank building in Dungarvan, Co Waterford that has been transformed into a new arts space and studios. The doors officially opened on August 2nd,marking a new phase in the cultural life of the town. The development process began after the success of the Storytelling Southeast Festival 2011, which ran for the first time in Dungarvan last autumn. Cultural anthropologist, film maker and Storytelling Southeast’s Festival Director, Bo Mandeville, became aware of the need to establish an active art space within the town through conversations with local artists. As a consequence, Mandeville identified Bridge House as an economically viable way for artists to sustain studio spaces, while also establishing a permanent HQ for Storytelling Southeast. Mandeville stated;

“It took a lot of negotiation and perseverance to get the initial contract for a year. I think the owners were not confident that we would manage to find artists to make it work. We are now full – with 11 residents – and have made it clear that we’re here to stay. We have had some early discussions about a second lease, hopefully for two years.”[ii]

Bridge House arts space now features as part of the festival’s ongoing permanent programme and there are plans to run inter-disciplinary events within the space. The aim is to acheive synergy between literature, film and visual arts alongside informal educational programming. This is intetnded to reflect Storytelling Southeast’s core concept: “to observe and explore how we tell stories today”.

Rather than responding to selection criteria, the Bridge House artists came together through an organic process that began with conversations between the artists. According to Bo Mandeville, it was necessary that the artists could connect with the whole concept of Bridge House, which he believes is “as much a community and an exploration as it is a set of studios”.

Resident artist, Tony Hayes, emphasised that “Dungarvan has been long overdue a location which will showcase the diverse range of local artistic talent. The prospect of an environment which serves as a platform for local artists, film makers and writers is a very exciting and appealing one”.[iii] Rayleen Clancy, also a resident artist, stated, “For centuries artists have been in collectives, bouncing ideas off each other, supporting each other and pooling their energies in order to have a louder voice. When asked if I would like to join Bridge House I jumped at the opportunity, not only to have a wonderful work environment but to be amongst like minded-people who are also dedicated to the arts.”[iv]

 

A Growing Trend

Bridge House arts is part of a growing trend among larger Irish art organisations – such as Project Arts Center, Monster Truck and Temple Bar Gallery and Studios – in devising visual art programming that intersects either permanently or sporadically with music, film, dance and theatre. This alignment of visual arts with a widened spectrum of art forms is beginning, in places, to represent a necessary galvanizing of the cultural assets within our creative economy. Serious shortfalls in the funding available to independent arts spaces, has resulted in an increased willingness to share the resources at hand. This, in turn, has led to more varied approaches to the question of sustainability. A recent example of this was ‘The Border’, an exhibition held at The Dock, Carrick-on-Shannon, which featured a highy successful ‘associated events’ programme of poetry and Irish music.

These trends in creative alternatives are as valuable for the problems they expose as the solutions they provide. As such, complex and conflicting pictures emerge. The recent closure of Occupy Space, Limerick and SOMA Contemporary, Waterford were significant losses in terms of maintaining an evolving platform for contemporary art in those regions. The provisional and contingent grounds on which independent arts centres are so often based led me to question Bo Mandeville on his ideas about the sustainability of Bridge House:

“The arts space can be made sustainable but it will continue to require inventiveness. Status quo is simply not an option. There is the practical side, with regard to local authorities, but partnerships with other creative groups will be essential. Our international partnerships are more developed than our national partnerships but that is mostly because of the festival’s focus programmes. The former take longer to build up, so now can to shift our focus somewhat and continue the discussion closer to home.”

Mandeville has been working in connection with other festivals such as March Hare in Canada and developing an exchange with Le Nombril du Monde in France. Storytelling Southeast and Bridge House are intended to entrench arts practices in the locality and to form part of a wider international project, connecting multiple audiences. This ethos was strongly reflected during this year’s Storytelling Southeast festival which ran from the 26th-30th of September. Creating hives of cultural activity in venues throughout the town, arts forms of all kinds were celebrated. For the duration of the festival, Bridge House opened its studios to the public and hosted number events in the space. Poets John Ennis, and Randall Maggs of Newfoundland Canada, both read from and talked about their work. While the Documentary Film Club, featuring filmmakers, Armand G Ruffo, Paul Bolger and Peter Conway- introduced film making as a form of contemporary storytelling to gathered audiences. Melinda Coogan also animated the gallery space, sharing her adventures from Alaska with local children’s groups, in “Tales from the wild”. While writer Eoin McNamee along with saxophonist Keith Donald came together in reading and music. Photographer Mark Henderson ran a two day studio in Bridge House titled “Street portraits” in photographic observation and reflection of the local people attending the event. Then moving outdoors  “My street is my canvas”, took place lower Main Street Dungarvan, as a collaborative visual arts project that set about involving local children in the street painting and decorating of an Enchanted Forest.

Evolving Stories

From productive intersections to long term survival, what appears to be at stake for independent arts spaces across Europe and Ireland in particular, is addressed in Michael Brenson’s essay “Where do we go from here – securing a place for the artist in society”. Reflecting of Guillermo Gomez Pena’s statement that we are “living in a state of emergency” For Brenson it follows that it is “very much about infrastructure; it works on a grass roots level to listen and mobilise and construct a kind of foundation for art, which powerful art institutions cannot now build”.[v]

At street level the relevance and resiliency of the arts continues to recreate itself. Precarious economic conditions have raised new questions and the development of alternative systems has become a necessity. Grass root organisations represent a crucial part of ongoing practice and discussion. The opening of Bridge House has created a new atmosphere of possibility for the town of Dungarvan. It marks a continuation of the conversation and belongs to a developing national story whose range of characters and outcomes has not yet been written.

[i] Afterall, Adaptive Reuse: New Strategies in Response to the Housing Crisis –Clair Barliant p109

[ii] From interview Bridge House and Storytelling Southeast director, Bo Mandeville ,Bridge House Sept 2012

[iii] Bridge House arts space artists statement

[iv] ibid

[v] The Artist In society: Rights Roles and Responsibilities, Carol Becker and Ann Wiens (ed) New Art Examiner Press 1995 p75