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Regeneration & City Development - Public & Socially Engaged Art
byTara Byrne. November 2013

Discusses; Regeneration. Instrumentalisation. Public/Private space. Breaking Ground, Ballymun, Dublin. National Sculpture Factory, Cork. Upstart, Granby Park, Dublin1.  Wish, Belfast. Community consultation and collaboration.




This essay is intended to provide a brief account of selected public art projects that have taken place in an urban or social regeneration context in recent years, in the cities of Dublin, Cork and Belfast. It is not intended to provide a critique or evaluation of those projects, or of public art. Nonetheless, any attempt to describe public art and regeneration projects in a vacuum, risks disavowing one of the most contested uses to which the publically-funded arts has been put. That use is the deployment of the arts and wider creative industries in the social, economic and material regeneration of cities and regions, whether as a primary motivation or by-product of public art projects. As such, before introducing particular public art projects, this essay will touch on some of the issues and questions surrounding art and regeneration, and public art or art in the public domain. Specifically, these questions concern the emergence of art in regeneration contexts, urban imperatives and the influence of this on the development of artworks or art projects and localities, ethical (or moral) questions in relation to public monies and public/private developments, and understandings of the public in public art. It is also necessary to declare an interest in relation to projects cited which I devised while Director of the National Sculpture Factory in Cork (2003 – 2009) and to acknowledge the projects I did not experience first-hand, specifically the Granby Park (Dublin) and Wish (Belfast) projects. 

For many, both in the artworld[1] and outside of it, the role of art in urban or regional regeneration projects and in public contexts, from major infrastructural developments to more socially engaged processes, is self-evident. In this context, advocates for the subsidised arts have variously championed art (and culture more widely) as a social and civic instrument that facilitates expressions of identities, enhances community cohesion, generates micro-economies, adds visual interest to cities (in respect of the visual arts) and more generally, is a public good that confers well-being and should be available to all. This recognition of the value conferred on cities by the arts has been historically demonstrated in the use of art and architecture to glorify cities over the centuries. However, it took until the 19th century for culture to be used in a “conscious” and “long-term” way to brand and promote urban areas and regions, specifically that of Bavaria in Germany (Lind, 2007, p. 56). This was followed by the 20th century’s global interest in and phenomenon of city branding (also linked to the US tradition of civic boosterism associated with the expansion of the American West), which arose out of the movement to rebuild and re-invigorate depleted and declining American and British cities, following the devastation of the Second World War.

Boosted by the recessions and thus economic pressures of the subsequent 1970s and 1980s, this new and international city regeneration movement led to an increasing awareness of the role of art and artists in the development and economy of cities, either through symbolically conferring prestige and helping to brand and sell those cities to private investors or other commercial interests (Zukin, 1988) or by creating micro economic (creative) clusters (O’Connor, 2007). This municipal recognition of a role for art in urban development took place as part of a new entrepreneurial focus in city management more generally in the 1980s, concerned with the maximising of economic opportunities and competition in cities (Harvey, 1989, p. 4). The entrepreneurial use of art in urban development also added heft to those arguing for publically-funded culture.

However, over the last thirty years or so, the use of the arts as an instrument to help regenerate or identify cities has increased, whether via public art commissioning (famously exemplified in Anthony Gormley’s 1998 Angel of the North Sculpture, more recently, Damien Hirst’s Installation at Ifracomb, Verity, and Anish Kapoor’s Olympic Orbit Tower, both from 2012) major architectural projects (Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim) or urban paradigms such as the creative city.[2] Equally, the establishing of “Public Art” as a separate genre within visual arts practice has grown alongside this increase in city cultural branding, and has become a key part of city planning and regeneration initiatives. These factors have led to an increased, public and accepted role for artists, art and iconic architecture in urban development and regeneration processes (as demonstrated in Dublin’s Temple Bar initiative, Nantes in Northern France, and Tampere in Finland) and has become the focus of countless municipal conferences, networks and European policies.[3] This activity has also created close links between urban and cultural policies across Europe.

Not surprisingly, this role for art has been particularly highlighted during the recent global recession and has been linked to the economic potential of cities competing against one another for residents, workers and investment on the basis of attractive and culturally distinctive cities (as demonstrated in the creative cities phenomenon), the economic and social contribution of creative clusters and a consequent policy focus on the role of art in urban public and public/private developments.

Projects taking place within these regeneration or development contexts have involved a number of scenarios and approaches, from cultural regeneration, where cultural activity is the objective rather than an instrument to achieve regeneration (The International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies, 2006), a less common phenomenon in Ireland, to culture-led regeneration where cultural activity is “the catalyst and engine of regeneration” (Evans, 2001, p. 7) and is thus in the service of regeneration. Temple Bar and the new proposal for the Parnell Square Cultural Quarter (both Dublin) can be considered examples of culture-led regeneration (though some might argue they are also examples of cultural regeneration). Together, these approaches form part of a city’s approach to cultural planning, an under-developed and under-used term in Ireland (though actively practised in some local authorities) which refers to the “wider integration of arts and cultural expression in urban society” throughout a range of urban features such as “design, public art, transport, safety, cultural workspace and industry quarters” (ibid.).

Within these terms and in addition to private commissions, there are a number of public art approaches of which the most dominant are the local authority or art agency-managed per cent for art[4] commissions, using state capital monies to locate public sculptures or cultural projects in particular locations or communities throughout the country. In addition, individual public art commissions are curated and managed through publicly funded arts organisations (such as the National Sculpture Factory or the Fire Station Artists’ Studios) using funds from various public sources. Nevertheless, between the late 1990s and 2000s, Ireland’s economic boom created the unique conditions for the development of more considered, long-term, durational, and strategic public art programmes which were curated and took place in the context of specific regeneration initiatives, the most ambitious example of which was Breaking Ground in Ballymun (2000 – 2009).[5] Similarly, the Dublin Dockland Development Authority (DDDA) commissioned a number of public artworks over a ten year period from the late 1990s as part of the East Dockland’s regeneration.[6] These commissioning programmes were mostly funded through local authority-administered per cent for art schemes, though sometimes in tandem with private developers. Other long-term public art initiatives taking place in the context of regeneration comprise grass-roots cultural projects funded by city councils or local housing associations. Fatima Groups United  in Dublin’s inner city is an example of this and has an arts and cultural strategy that is deeply woven into the fabric of its community and specifically focussed on community development through culture rather than the enhancement of localities or regeneration (though this may be an objective of those funding the projects).[7]

More recently again, as a response to the recent recession, Ireland is part of European-wide development that comprises often voluntary and independent social entrepreneurs (which may or may not be working with local authorities) initiating urban projects that can be described as operating within a public art and regeneration context. The groups that arise out of this movement typically comprise artists, designers and social entrepreneurs working with communities to develop public initiatives and services that focus on city liveability, quality of life and civic agency. These projects, which can be associated with the ‘pop-up’ movement, represent a restorative and utopian approach to rethinking urban life and often attempt to reinvigorate under-used or neglected city sites, which may or may not be owned by the state. By commandeering vacant spaces in the public domain, the projects offer creative possibilities for practitioners while satisfying local authority and public domain (community/economic) needs. Examples of these initiatives include: The Creative Limerick project,[8] Designing Dublin[9] (both collaborations with local authorities), The Creative Polices for Creative Cities project (in Dun Laoghaire),[10] and Upstart’s Granby Park project in North Dublin (as below).

This interest in the role of artists or designated ‘creatives’ in city development has increasingly offered badly paid practitioners the opportunity to work alongside city authorities who are attracted by the social prestige and economic connotations of creativity associated with artists, and their capacity to contribute to either the local planning of cities or public commissions and projects. The involvement of artists in city processes, therefore, not only contributes to the prestige, identity, community development, and (potentially) local property values, but gives artists greater visibility while making their practice more sustainable.

However, although culture-led regeneration offers obvious benefits for artists and cities, a number of critiques have arisen which underline the difficulties of reconciling the potentially conflicting imperatives of the state, the artist and the private sector. These critiques include: the spectacular aspect of public art commissions and projects, charged with being selected for their striking (and branding friendly) visuals rather than other potential qualities;  the potential for urban cultural projects or developments to focus on the outcome rather than processes of public art projects (i.e. more exhibition than studio or engagement-led); the business and specialisation that has developed from public art commissions and consequent emphasis on artists who can deal with the administrative machinations of the processes at the expense of the diversification of practitioners (often indicated by a template-driven approach to public art commissions); the role of artists in gentrification and rising property prices (as famously indicated by Temple Bar in Dublin); the linking of state funding with private wealth generation in terms of the knock-on impact of publically subsidised public art projects on the commercial value of adjacent private businesses, land and property (even if those projects occur on public land);  and the commercially rather than municipally-planned nature of developments that can co-opt cultural practitioners into quantitative rather than qualitative outcomes.

In addition, the growth of interest in public art, art in the public domain and public commissioning, has given rise to critiques of who or what is meant by the term public. The concept of the public has been defined by philosopher and sociology Jurgen Habermas as “open to all, in contrast to closed or exclusive affairs” (Habermas, 1989, p. 1) and the “collective life” that exists “outside of market transactions and power” (Giorgi, von Homeyer and Parsons, 2006, p. 5). Equally, Habermas has described the practice of addressing a discrete or known body of opinion that we call public (with parallels for the artwork addressing a known public) as a “fiction” (Habermas, 1989, p. 245), which can necessarily only be attributed to members of the “same social group” (ibid., p. 241). This interpretation renders the concept of the public contingent and multiple and therefore suggests that artists and artworks cannot claim to address the public per se, or to be public, without a consideration of how artworks create publics (one out of many) in the moment of their realisation and reception, which cannot always be known in advance or addressed singularly. This question also addresses the thorny issue of whether works that are located in lands owned privately and other commercial spaces can be called public.

As a consequence of these criticisms of urban cultural developments, chiefly that of reconciling commercial (development and city competition) with public or state imperatives (not for profit and working towards the common good) and critical interpretations of the publicness of public artworks, the role of artists and artworks in urban development is political and problematic. This does not disavow the sincere aspirations and positive possibilities around which many public art projects are created, including the situating of critical art practices in dialogue with various publics and the public domain, community engagement, cohesion and the creation of new publics; and the visual and social enhancement of cities than can arise from (though not lead) cultural practices (with the secondary potential for economies to result from this). However, these factors provide a critical context with which to review the development of public art projects more generally, and equally, necessitate a case by case approach to analysing the imperatives and ethics behind public art and culture-led developments.

As indicated above, Dublin has a number of examples of public art and regeneration projects, including recent projects driven by the physical and commercial devastation of the economic recession. The Granby Park project in Dublin’s north inner city, which opened for a month between August-September 2013, is an example of this and concerned the transformation of a “vacant Dublin site on Dominick Street Lower into a pop up park, a place of creativity, nature, imagination, play and beauty for everyone” for one month of “free arts events, outdoor cinema & theatre performances, live music, educational activities and a pop-up café open to the public”. [11] Having been devised by Upstart, a non-profit voluntary arts collective (who had previously developed a notable public poster project during the 2010 General Election campaign), the park was developed through a series of consultations and collaborations with local residents, youth groups and the arts community based on expressed local need (in the context of Dublin City Council). Like many public art initiatives, the collaborative and community nature of this approach, involving workshops with local kids, community planting and local businesses building and caring for the park, rendered the mediation of the project a key part of its realisation, rather than a separate component. Upstart report working with approximately 1000 formal and informal volunteers and recorded 40,000 people visiting the park during the month it was open.[12] In addition, there has also been a strong effort to maintain a relationship with the local community and to disseminate best practice, having kept the website running after the project was over and by compiling an information toolkit for use by other social and urban entrepreneurs.

For many, however, one of most ambitious and committed programme of socially engaged art commissions  to have ever taken place in Ireland, seeking to coalesce artistic and social practices with wider regeneration imperatives has been the Ballymun Breaking Ground project (2001 – 2009). Breaking Ground represented an unprecedented financial investment by Ballymun Regeneration Limited (BRL) into a model of culture-led development for the town of Ballymun in north Dublin, a place that had become a byword for bad planning in Ireland. Like many public art projects, Breaking Ground involved extensive community consultation, planning and investment, negotiating issues of elitism, rights and ethics, as well as ownership and the ideologies represented by artworks.

One of the later projects to take place during Breaking Ground was Seamus Nolan’s unashamedly complex Hotel Ballymun. Hotel Ballymun, curated by Aisling Prior, took place for a month in 2007 and involved the conversion of the top floor of one of the soon t be demolishes Ballymun tower blocks, Clarke Tower, into a short-stay hotel. The idea for this project was to contest the State’s decision to demolish rather than refurbish the tower blocks, while contributing to subverting the widely held preconception in Ireland of Ballymun as a run-down, hostile environment, the antithesis of where people might choose to spend their holidays. Since Nolan’s practice is based around coalitions of consensus and local knowledge, Hotel Ballymun involved a year-long process of consultation and negotiation with communities and authorities in seeking a location for the hotel, originally conceived as a guest house. Using the trope of the hotel as a stylish and welcoming place to stay, the project referenced the utopian vision of the original Ballymun development, aiming to emphasise the “architecture of 1960’s Ballymun” while encouraging “the practice of salvaging and re-imagining objects, spaces and resources from the past”... “to meet contemporary needs”.[13]

In this respect, interested local people took part in professionally-led craft and design workshops where they learnt upcycling skills, ultimately making a vast array of original and bespoke furniture which was used thoughout the hotel (which was later auctioned off at a public auction and the resulting funds were re-invested into a new scheme of local artists’ bursaries). Local people also staffed and managed the hotel and hosted events held in the evenings and at weekends. Like Granby Park, therefore, the embedded and long-term process of Hotel Ballymun (through the extensive consultation on the location of the hotel, the furniture workshops and the local staffing), in addition to the mediation ethos of Breaking Ground in the first instance (and Art In the Life World 2008 international exhibition and conference on notions of the bind of autonomy and instrumentalisation), obviated the need for a separately conceived engagement or mediation process. The legacy of Seamus Nolan's Hotel Ballymun continues to be visible through the presence of its dedicated website (, hosting photographs and information about the work and complementing the significant internet presence of reviews, articles and responses to the project (including If judged by the ambition of the project, the level of media and critical attention the project received, and the intense interest and competition for Hotel rooms during its live period, Hotel Ballymun might be considered one of the most successful public art projects ever seen in Ireland.

Cork City and County also has a number of public art projects, from a surfeit of per cent for art commissions, major culture-led regeneration projects (at Wandesford Quay involving the Fenton Gallery and CIT Crawford School of Arts), one- off sculptural Projects (such as Eilis O Connell’s Reed Pod on Lavitt’s Quay), site-specific theatre on the streets of Cork city (Corcadorca) and various public commissions by agencies like the National Sculpture Factory.  One of these latter commissions comprised a series of three temporary installations in Cork’s Docklands, an area of the city that was poised for regeneration in 2008, before proposals stalled due to the precipitous global recession. Though now ironic, the aim behind the project was to mark a transitional moment in time in advance of the transformation of this valuable city land, and thus the project was based around the theme of transition and change.

The project resulted in three temporary installations from locally, nationally and internationally-based artists, comprising: Weather Station (After Beckett) by Inigo Manglano Ovalle, consisting of a modified shipping container encasing a weather station precariously suspended (and thus in a state of transition) on the edge of the Docks between the river (Lee) and the land (concerned with micro cultures, globalisation and extinction); Balloon by Sorcha O’Brien and Eli Caamano, a large-scale series of red points in the form of balloons suspended above Docklands structures and visible for miles around (concerned with the Dockland’s architecture, temporality, and exclamation); and Docks Tour by Hotel Ballymun’s Seamus Nolan, a live and daily tour of the Docklands during the duration of the exhibition led by a former dockyard worker in a 19th century horse drawn cab (concerning the transient history of the site and its workers).

These commissions involved different research approaches from the three artists each dealing with the theme of change, consisting of an unashamedly spectacular and visual response to the architecture of the Docks (Balloon) and historical, political, social and economic responses to the politics of the site (Docks Tours and Weather Station). Of the three projects, one was conducted and researched at a local level, one national and one international, and thus the last two operated at different degrees of remoteness from Cork. Though space does not allow the full interrogation of this issue, the separation between the artist and site that working with international artists often brings, results in challenges (locatedness, relevance) as well as advantages (perspective, alternative views, feasibility). Notwithstanding these issues, the Docks project was primarily mediated through a one-day seminar devised to tackle some of the issues generated by the scale, public nature and regeneration context of the commissions, entitled ‘The Expectation of Spectacle in Public Art’.[14] Mediation of the project, therefore, depended on consultation and collaboration with Docklands stakeholders (authorities, safety officers, workers etc.), the dockyard tour guide, student-led tours, public participation in the Docks Tours, public discussion via the seminar, and, as in Ballymun, a residual website presence.

Belfast has a similarly prolific history of both street art (murals) and public commissioning, [15]  with a more recent regeneration focus linked to the difficult political, cultural and social conditions of the last forty years and consequent local authority interests in the city’s reinvention. Most recently, attention has focussed on the development of “one of the world’s largest urban-waterfront regeneration schemes”,[16] the historically themed and named Titanic Quarter, a newly developing area of Belfast’s Docklands designed to commemorate Belfast’s shipbuilding tradition, the Titanic itself, and aiming to “provide homes and employment for tens of thousands of people” with a hi-tech and financial services focus.[17]

The ambition of this major development project, as indicated by expectations set for the Titanic Centre, has recently become evident through a series of public art commissions.[18] The most notable example of this is a monumental site-specific installation by Cuban-American artist Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada, called Wish, the result of a collaboration with the Belfast Festival at Queen’s (October  – December 2013). This sculpture is credited as the “largest land art portrait” in the UK or Ireland[19] and comprises an earth-based image of “an anonymous Belfast girl” ... “so large” as to claim that “it can only be viewed from the highest points in Belfast or an airplane”. 14As the title suggests, Wish is intended to convey the hope and innocence of the young girl, and the artists’ stated aim to represent the “purity of hope and hope for the future” of Belfast.[20] The work was made from the efforts of volunteers who manually placed the 30,000 wooden stakes needed for the installation and is reported to have been conducted in “close partnership with the local community”, comprising local firms, the Lagan construction group and the donation of the land by Titanic Quarter.[21] Viewings of the work were bookable through the festival’s website.

A notable feature of Wish, as a public art project, has been the explicit and public criticism of the work based on what is perceived as its emphasis on monumental rather than communicative values, the artist’s entrepreneurial roll-out of a tried and tested project format, its assumption of public/s and its generally weak idea.[22] Both Rodriguez-Gerada in Belfast and Manglano Ovalle’s work (in Cork) have also been criticised in relation to (what is perceived as) the parachuting in of dislocated artists and artworks onto unsuspecting and unwilling locations and the replication of branded artistic approaches across different cities.[23] While it is not the place of this essay to evaluate these claims, these criticisms are common in relation to public art projects (particularly those that involve international artists) and raise necessary questions of situatedness, audience, public/s and relevance.

In summation, this essay has attempted to give an overview of the rationales, issues and perils surrounding the now commonplace entangling of public art projects in urban development and regeneration contexts, and has described rather than evaluated three projects in Dublin, Cork and Belfast. Before concluding, however, it is useful to reflect on the contested nature of art in urban development.  As suggested above, the ethical difficulty of developing projects in public environments, particularly those with a regeneration (rather than cultural) focus and which involve the private sector (with arguably different priorities and demands on the artwork), should not disavow the sincere, committed and important public art projects taking place in Ireland and other countries, and the potential that always exists for public artworks to be elevated beyond fulfilling economic and instrumentally social needs. Nevertheless, in planning public art projects or projects that take place in the public domain, or describing projects as public, it is worth reflecting on what we mean by public, who benefits from these projects and the putative role of public art as “a service provided through the local authorities” (Molloy, 2012,  p. 198).


Tara Byrne is an arts manager and cultural policy researcher based in Dublin. She has just completed a PHD concerning legitimation discourses in national cultural policies, with a focus on the creative cities movement.


Evans, G (2001) Cultural Planning: An Urban Renaissance? Routledge, London.

The International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies/ IFACCA (2006) Arts and Culture in Regeneration, D'Art Topics in Arts Policy, 25.

Giorgi, L, von Homeyer, I, and Parsons, W (2006) Democracy and the European Union: Towards the Emergence of a Public Sphere, Routledge, Oxfordshire.

Habermas, J (1989) The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, translated from German by T Burger, Polity Press, MIT.

Harvey, D (1989) From Managerialism to Entrepreneurialism: The Transformation in Urban Governance in Late Capitalism, Geografiska Annaler, 71(1), The Roots of Geographical Change: 1973 to the Present, 3-17.

The International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies, (2006), Arts and culture in regeneration, D'Art Topics in Arts Policy, number 25, August 2006

Lind, M (2007) Difference Between Avoiding Instrumentalism and Believing in Autonomy of Art, Framework, The Finnish Art Review, 6.

Molloy, J (2012) Making a Show of Ourselves: Art, Community and the Pedagogics of identity, In G Granville (ed.) Art Education and Contemporary Culture: Irish Experiences, International Perspectives, Intellect, Bristol.

O’Connor, J (2007) The Cultural and Creative Industries: A Review of the Literature. A report for creative partnerships, Arts Council of England, November 2007, School of Performance and Cultural Industries, The University of Leeds.

Zukin, S (1988) Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change, Century Hutchinson


[1] The use of ‘artworld’ here refers to those engaging with art in professional contexts as practitioners, critics, managers or workers.

[2] The creative city movement is linked to a number of authors including Richard Florida and Charles Landry, and concerns the use of culture and creativity in developing and promoting cities.

[3] This is demonstrated in organisations such as Les Rencontres, the association of European Regions and Cities of Culture, Available: See also the EU’s Structural Funds. Available:

[4] This scheme involves a percentage of structural developments was set aside for the commissioning of public artworks. See the “Commissioning” pages of for guidelines and procedures/

[5] Breaking Ground (below also), was a ten year art commissions programme, developed and produced in consultation and collaboration with the local host community in Ballymun, and was directed by Aisling Prior for Ballymun Regeneration Limited. "Breaking Ground 2001 – 2009". ISBN 978-0-9557386-3-0

[6] The Dublin Dockland’s Development Authority was created in 1997 to “lead a major project of physical, social and economic regeneration in the East side of Dublin”. In 2005 it appointed  Arts Manager Mary McCarthy as part of its “strategy for Arts and Culture” in the Dockland’s area, Available:

[7] Fatima Groups United is the “representative body of residents and community groups through which the grassroots energy, needs and views of the (Fatima) community are represented and supported”. It has a dedicated culture coordinator (Niall O Baoill) and has just held a Creative Times Summit Two Day conference to discuss socially engaged arts practices (October 25/26 2013). Available: In 2010, Fatima Groups United and Vagabond Reviews (an interdisciplinary platform for socially engaged art and research practice ( completed a two year review called The Cultural Archaeology, a ”collaborative, arts-based research initiative focused on the rich history of arts and cultural practice in Fatima/Rialto”. Available:




[11] and

[12] This information was contained in a private email to the author from a member of Upstart, on 21 October, 2013.


[14] This seminar included the commissioned artists and speakers Ailbhe Murphy (artist and researcher from Vagabond Reviews), artist and lecturer Daniel Jewesbury, and cultural manager Caoimhin Corrigan.

[15] There are many examples of public art commissions in Belfast, including various works at Laganside and individual commissions. These include the recent sculpture Rise, at Broadway Roundabout, or “the tallest public artwork in Ireland”. Available:



[18] Examples of Titanic Quarter or themed commissions include: Kit by Tony Stallard (2009), Titanic Yardmen by Ross Wilson and Titanica by Rowan Gillespie (both 2012).




[22] See artist and lecturer Daniel Jewesbury’s blog on Wish. Available: See also

[23]  Rodriguez Gerada  is “known for his monumentally scaled portraits in public spaces”. See