Sample-Studios/TACTIC: An Interview with Emily O’Flynn

One of Ireland’s largest artist studio complexes is being demolished to make way for a hotel. Originally founded in 2011, Sample-Studios and TACTIC gallery were always offered the building on a temporary basis, and didn’t expect to stay longer than the first summer. Both the studio and gallery shared the same building, a large former government owned building, and are now starting afresh in new premises.

Emily O’Flynn joined Sample-Studios in 2012, and is now the Visual Arts Programmer and in-house Curator of TACTIC. I spoke with her a few days before their first exhibition since the eviction, curious to discuss the legacy of Sample and TACTIC in the old building and their plans for the future.

Chris Hayes: You joined Sample-Studios quite early on, and are now at this major point in history for Sample and TACTIC. It’s been a huge journey. How did it all begin?

Emily O’Flynn: I became involved in 2012 when I graduated from Crawford College of Art [the main local art college]. At this time the studios were expanding, so I felt lucky to get a studio. That’s how I got involved. While I had a studio space in Sample I got involved with TACTIC, just through volunteering and invigilation of exhibitions. That was the whole start of it.

I stayed in Cork because Sample offered me an affordable space when I was on the dole after college, thus beginning my career. The people starting out were very young, only in their early twenties, not quite knowing what we’re doing either. It wasn’t like the organisation is now. There was a lot of hard work put in by the people who started it. I’ve seen how it’s gone from what felt like just people from college in a building – thinking, OK, let’s do this – and then snowball into something different. Sample and TACTIC just had their sixth birthday on March 11th.

CH: In the early days of Sample being founded, Ireland was still reeling from the economic collapse of 2008. Much of the artist-led movement of the recent decade found opportunities in the derelict spaces. How is Cork today?

EF: With the upturn in the economy it feels like everything is being redeveloped. There’s a recently developed part of Cork that is going to open next week and written on the advertising outside is “work, shop, dine.” That was it. I thought, was that all you’re supposed to do? This is all you’re supposed to do in this reimagined, redeveloped Cork? There’s nothing – no space for anything that isn’t working, shopping or eating.

CH: I love how much dine sounds like die. There’s all these subtle ways that the blandness of this kind of vision of a city reveals itself.

EF: Culture gives the city a lot of grit, y’know? Not just another Starbucks, another ten Starbucks, H&M, Dunnes Stores, and Pennies a thousand times over.

CH: There’s always this fight to retain an identity in a city, to stop it from just becoming the same as any other mid-sized European city.

EF: It’s horrible. This is what’s happening to Cork at the moment. The effect of this is that the city risks being homogenised. It could be any city. It could be no city. All the nice things about Cork are being pushed further and further out.

CH: … and the wider arts community?

EF: There’s an increase in the economy, and there’s a palpable increase of studios and others closing down in Cork – like, Camden Palace which was the other community arts centre that have also been given their notice recently. Also, some other musicians and people who would be putting on gigs, namely Southern Hospitality Board, have also stopped doing gigs recently. So the last few months, there’s been quite a serious decline in cultural prospects for 2017.

CH: And now Sample and TACTIC losing their space. Where does the problem lie?

EF: It’s difficult to say exactly where the problem lies. We were originally given the building on a temporary basis by the construction company that owned it. To be honest, they were fantastic landlords, we can’t say a word against them. They were straight up from day one that we had the building on a month to month basis. We can’t fault them on that; we knew exactly what the story was. We respected that.

CH: So the problem wasn’t with the company. It’s really the lack of other support, from local council, national government – lack of funding which forces artist-led spaces into this kind of precarious situation. What are the solutions?

EF: For example, over the last year, Cork City Council arts office has actually given me and Sample Studios an enormous amount of support. We were in more of a precious position when we didn’t know where we were going, but we were always really open to the council, had regular meetings, invited them to the studios, and made them very aware of our position. We were hoping that Cork City Council would have a building available to us, something that we could use – I just don’t think they have it. They have big constraints with their financial situation as well, I’m sure. It’s important to have connections with many other places, and to nurture those.

CH: Local councils are very restricted in how much of their own budget they’re really in control of. A huge proportion of their budget comes from national government, which hasn’t been particularly supportive.

EF: Yeah – Ireland funds the arts the least within the EU.1 But there is still huge value to developing a good relationship with your local council – it really can be instrumental to the continuing well-being of your project. Even just to let your local council know what’s going on, what you’re doing – even just that you are doing it. Keeping the conversation open is enormously important. The organisation can’t be an island.

CH: Yes absolutely – we can’t go it alone. You’ve done a number of collaborative projects with other artist-led spaces, artists and curators across the country too. For example, I’m thinking of The Digital Gaze, in Platform Arts, Belfast.

EF: That was last September – would you believe that? I’ll actually be going back up to Belfast, for the second half of that project. These kinds of collaborations and curatorial swaps have been a great vehicle by which we’ve been collaborating and sharing resources. That has been a huge, huge thing for TACTIC and Sample, and something I’m still trying to build on. With collaborative projects, it means artists don’t stay in a local bubble. They can travel, meet other people and have other opportunities, and exhibit outside their usual turf.

I was really worried that without a space, TACTIC wouldn’t continue. It does mean the world to me that we can continue. So, starting up the collaborative projects means that we’re not tied to a space, it becomes more than just a space. It’s about collaboration, about making possibilities for artists and curators to do things.

CH: Yes absolutely – any kind of decent space is about more than the building, it’s about the people and the ambitions of the project.

EF: That’s the mission statement. That’s the whole thing we’re trying to do.

CH: And what does the future look like for TACTIC?

EF: For TACTIC to stay alive, to be able to continue to provide graduates, emerging artists, young curators, a place to do projects, a space in Cork that is there for them, I have to find a business model that will allow us to pay for a space and everything else. When TACTIC was in Sample-Studios, in the old building, it was fantastic because the gallery and studio were within one building. Because Sample-Studios has had to move, they’re moving outside the city now. That’s not as suitable for a gallery space. It needs to be in a city centre location where people will have access to it, for footfall and visibility.

Knowing what we have to do, I’ve had to really look into rent and rates for different sized spaces in the city. Part of the business model will be about TACTIC becoming a professional development facility as well. It would be my hope that what I have been doing since 2015 with the curatorial graduate residence (teaching curation and such) that I’m hoping to continue to develop this as a more professional development course. Plenty of people who finish college don’t know how to write a funding application – even just the basic simple things you learn along the way. Being able to provide a course in this stuff can be really fundamental to people’s practices, which would also help support the gallery. Also, a lot of the artists in sample already run courses, but they do it all over the place, so if they had access to a public space to run them it, that would be an important support. This is what I’m looking towards at the moment. This is very early days yet.

CH: There’s no point in salvaging the organisation if it just stays the same.

EF: Yeah, that’s the thing. I don’t think it would survive if it stayed the same. It’s an exciting time, but a really stressful time. We’re having to redevelop our whole dynamic. This is the moment where we are with Sample and TACTIC. We’re just overcoming the chaos that was the move. We’re just settling into the new place. Thankfully, there’s a buzz back in the studios. We’re about to launch a new exhibition. We’re a lot more settled; it was a very bizarre experience going through that kind of displacement.



Image courtesy of Sample-Studios/TACTIC.

  1.  Public funding for the Arts and Culture represents just 0.11% of GDP and puts Ireland at the bottom of the European league table compared to an average of 0.6%.

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