Grangegorman site, March 2021. Photo: Barrow Coakley Photography

Artists at the Heart of the City: Grangegorman Public Art (Part 1)

Over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, Grangegorman, which had been an agricultural hamlet of Dublin, was radically transformed into a working class urban center dominated by penal and welfare institutions, including workhouses for adults and children, a foundling hospital, a surgical hospital, a penitentiary, and a mental hospital serving much of the region. By 2005, the surviving successors to those institutions were in need of modernization, and the area itself had become practically cut off from the rest of the city. To address these concerns, the Irish Government established the Grangegorman Development Agency (GDA) to redevelop the 73-acre site of the former St. Brendan’s Hospital while improving connections to surrounding neighborhoods. 

In 2015, as part of the regeneration, the GDA appointed Jenny Haughton as public art coordinator overseeing the Per Cent for Art program. Supported by a Public Art Working Group, Haughton took an unconventional approach to selecting artists and projects, identifying six “pathways” related to the theme “…the lives we live.” These pathways have allowed her to accommodate a wide range of contemporary art practices, as well as a higher level of meaningful civic engagement. (One pathway involves an international conference, Public Art Now, taking place online June 24–26, 2021, at To date, more than 64 artists and 50 communities (both pre-existing and new) have participated in ephemeral, sporadic, permanent, and evolving projects.

Grangegorman site, c. 1940s. Photo: Courtesy GDA

Brian McAvera: What was the context of the Grangegorman public art project?
Jenny Haughton: In 2005, the Republic of Ireland set up a Statutory Act to form the Grangegorman Development Agency (GDA). The agency appointed Moore Ruble Yudell and DMOD Architects to prepare a master plan that would open up this part of Dublin for the first time. The site is 73 acres. Its primary stakeholders are the Health Services Executive (HSE), Technological University Dublin, and the community. The idea was to develop new healthcare facilities for the HSE and create a new urban campus for TU Dublin. There would also be a new TU Dublin School of Creative Arts. The local primary school, D7 Educate Together, was also to be relocated to the site, which would be opened to the general public.

One of the prime thinkers behind the master plan was James Mary O’Connor, an architect originally from the nearby Phibsboro area of north inner-city Dublin. One of his early sketches shows how to metaphorically break down the walls of this physically closed site and open it up to the surrounding neighborhoods by using the shape of an outstretched hand, with buildings as fingers separated by green space and retaining open views south to the Dublin mountains. O’Connor’s simple, visionary sketch remained a guide and reference throughout the complex implementation process. Instead of moving people out, the redevelopment embraced what existed. In the book that we produced about the project, John Mitchell, DMOD director, notes that a master plan is the setting of the table, not the serving of the menu. As he points out, “We don’t go on and just ‘fill the place,’ rather we create an environment for creativity.”

BM: How did you approach the public art aspect of the project?
JH: The same foundational principle was applied to the arts. Provision for public art was integral to the Grangegorman Master Plan. The GDA commissioned the Grangegorman Arts Strategy, researched by Sarah Searson and Claire Nidecker. A significant number of local communities, artists, and arts organizations participated. Then a Public Art Working Group (PAWG) was appointed to oversee the implementation of the strategy. This group was of a very high level, with Ciarán Benson, a former chair of the Arts Council, as the chair; it also included the Senior Curator and Head of Collections at the Irish Museum of Modern Art and the Deputy Art Advisor in the Office of Public Works. Then I was appointed public art coordinator. Having learned from previous work with regeneration in South Dublin and in the Ballymun and Temple Bar districts, my approach was to avoid over-framing the environment for artists; instead, we created opportunities through open calls. Ciarán came up with a theme, a quotation from the Irish poet Derek Mahon: “…the lives we live” Grangegorman Public Art.

The aim of Grangegorman Public Art reflects the project’s Arts Strategy, which is to engage artists with ambition, innovation, and relevance. Before this, Grangegorman was colloquially known as an area associated with confinement. Mothers would say, “If you’re bold, you’ll be sent to Grangegorman.” Alan Counihan’s Personal Effects (2012–16)—on exhibit in the HSE Primary Care Centre—includes letters, spectacles, rosary beads, and purses reflective of probably painful personal histories. There were still people living there who had sheltered in the hospital during the 1916 uprising. Our original offices in the GDA were located in the Clock Tower, a building designed along the same lines as the Pentonville Gaol in London. The past is hugely present.

Alan Phelan, The Possibility of an Archive (detail), 2015. Outdoor video projection, 7 min. Photo: Courtesy the artist

BM: What were some of the things that inspired your approach?
JH: One of the first documents that informed my work was a socioeconomic profile of the area. In 2015, the population of Ireland was about 4.8 million, and nearly 20 percent of those lived within 10 kilometers of the Grangegorman site. There is a diversity of ethnic minorities in the area. I knew that all of these factors would influence the nature of artist engagement. My approach to curation is influenced by Mary Parker Follett’s The New State (1918). She writes about working actively to build democracy. Here, we appointed a number of juries and committees, each with five members, including nominated stakeholder and community representatives; these committees were responsible for selecting the artists and partnerships. To date, more than 80 people have been involved in a variety of selection processes.

My initial research involved spending time informally with people in and from the area, to gain a sense of what would be possible and desirable. I believe that artists are at the heart of any city, and they need to be. So, the challenge is not to impose oneself but to work with what is. The arrival of students in the Fine Art program provided space to focus on nurturing and making new connections between the stakeholders and surrounding communities. This would provide a foundation for future initiatives.

BM: Where did the money come from?
JH: Funding came through the Irish Government’s Per Cent for Art scheme, which has been running for over 30 years. Up to one percent of any capital construction project is set aside to commission artists to create art. It’s the biggest democratic mechanism for funding the arts. The PAWG wisely decided to pool funds, which provided for flexible commissioning and funding. The PAWG adopted an open approach and advertised through a variety of networks and media to make the best use of public money.

BM: The projects are very diverse in approach and subject matter. Could you discuss some of them? What were you looking for?
JH: We announced ”…the lives we live” with new works by two artists. Alan Phelan’s The Possibility of an Archive (2015) consisted of a scrolling projection that revealed the categorizations of patients confined in the asylum over the years. Justine McDonnell, a recent graduate in Fine Art, performed Breaking the Rule of Silence (2016) in the basement of the Clock Tower. 

Over the past five years, a greater awareness has emerged about Grangegorman’s rich and complex history through the lens of art. There are six pathways in which artists and art workers could participate in “…the lives we live.” The PAWG commissioned a number of bespoke, “legacy” works, which are now coming to fruition. One is Alexandra Carr’s Solaris Nexum, a physical sculpture that will cascade down the atrium in TU Dublin’s new Central Quad. Another, Garrett Phelan’s THE GOLDEN BANDSTAND—Sculpture, references the creative approach taken by one of Ireland’s most esteemed leaders in psychiatry, Dr. Lalor. It will be situated among meadow grasses on one of the green spaces, beside an innovation center called the Greenway Hub, close to the primary school and HSE Primary Care Centre. This functional artwork will only reveal its meaning through people’s engagement with it, and few doubt that it will attract lots of locals as well as visitors from afar.

Janine Davidson, Stories Between Us, 2018. Bespoke memory box (carpenter, Martin Brennan) of objects to encourage play and interaction between intergenerational groups. Photo: Lori Keeve

BM: What about some of the ephemeral, less expected projects?
JH: For five years, this was a shifting and changing environment, essentially a construction site, so the PAWG provided modest “supporting” funds for socially engaging and aesthetically challenging processes that threaded through various communities in the area and beyond. For example, every year, Brian Cregan’s The Glass Garden brings teenagers from neighborhood communities to work in TU Dublin’s print and photography studios. There was the opening of the gates to the colorful Smashing Times Winter Solstice Celebration Festival of storytelling, fire, and magic. Janine Davidson’s Stories Between Us (2018) was a cross-generational art project linked to the neighboring National Museum at Collins Barracks.

We tried to drop a lot of the bureaucracy associated with engaging artists. For instance, when Clodagh Emoe came to meet the jury, she brought along a representative from her collaborating organization, which deals with people claiming asylum because of torture. The jury assessed the potential of a partnership, collaboration, or way of working, not the potential of the idea or proposal. This provided for a range of contemporary art practices, in keeping with 21st-century thinking. As a result, some arts actions like Alan Phelan’s outdoor projection were short-lived in duration but with the potential for traction, while other projects continue over the years, to this day.

BM: Are there other ways for artists to participate?
JH: Artist engagement can also be intermittent. Louis Haugh, for instance, has a studio in the area. He decided to engage in a kind of residency with a local knitting group established by Alice Fitzharris in Aughrim Court. Initially he thought that he would record them, but the camera turned out to be an imposition. Slowly, imperceptibly, he built trust and, in the end, followers. These people know the area, and they have seen the changes. So, we have a young artist working with a group of over-70s. For One Hour Archive (2019), he devised an app that allows us to hear their stories, which are full of humor and color. Projects like these endure and remind us to pay attention to what matters. To date, the PAWG has supported over 27 community-based projects directly involving 64 artists and 50 organizations, each going at their own pace. The fifth of the six pathways is a conference about public art—Public Art Now—an opportunity to reflect critically on what has been done and to situate public art practice in the wider world.

Louis Haugh, One Hour Archive, 2019. Audio-guided walking tour, 1 hr. Photo: Louis Haugh

BM: In a big public art program, we would normally expect a signature sculpture from an international artist, one from an important Irish artist, and then infilling. Why have you opted for a different approach?
JH: I would argue that the signature here is essentially about adopting a constellar view of the place of artists in the world. I chose not to be directly involved in the selection. This way, I felt I could work with whomever and with whatever—that’s what matters. I understand my job as contributing to ensuring that artists and associated collaborators can actualize their intent without compromise. Support groups formed around each arts action and self-organized. I would take part as necessary or by invitation. I think that my position also allowed me to ask difficult questions, about how this process and this work are relevant now. The approach also gave space for artist-curators to work with their own collectives. For example, the Create organization brought the theater company Brokentalkers to the inner city, to forge What Does He Need (2018–ongoing), a radical method of socially engaged performance about urgent issues around gender. My contribution—on the premise that only the community can decide with whom they work—was to broker a link with a key community contact who would be the primary voice of acceptance and engagement.

We also initiated an art-lending scheme for the HSE Primary Care Centre. This started in response to the economic downturn in 2017 and has been extended through Covid-19 into 2022. Artists had work piling up in their studios, so we found a way to show it in newly refurbished buildings. We started with 10 artists, each one in effect having a mini exhibition. They were given 300 euros for the loan of work. If it sells, they replace the work. We have a mix of well-known and not-so-well-known artists, including recent TU Dublin graduates and artists from the adjacent HSE Phoenix Care Centre mental health services.

BM: So you’re an enabler?
JH: Yes and no. I don’t categorize myself, though it’s definitely a coordinating role that involves enabling. To be honest, being close to contemporary art is where I feel most alive.

Read Part 2 of this feature here.