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Vanessa Fielding on the challenges of renovating The Complex

"The council says it wants people to open more Arts spaces, but one woman says her experience shows how tough it is."

Vanessa Fielding in her office at The Complex. Photo Credit Claudia Dalby.

The Draft Dublin City Development Plan stated that the city would seek to encourage owners to allow their buildings to be converted into art spaces. In a recent interview with Claudia Dalby from the Dublin InQuirer, Vanessa Fielding, Artistic Director of The Complex, spoke about the reality of doing that, and the challenges she faced leading the renovation of The Complex.

The Complex has been housed on Arran Street East and Mary's Abbey since June 2017, and building works began not long after. Overcoming obstacles surrounding planning permission, fire regulations, and finances, construction is almost complete.

When Fielding and her team moved to the Complex's current home in 2017, the roof in the warehouse space in Mary's Abbey had fallen in, and needed extensive work. The western side of the building on Arran Street East was in better shape, so in 2019, after refurbishments costing approximately €600,000, 16 artists studios and a gallery space were opened. The initial quote for the work was a prohibitive €1.8 million, and Fielding went about reducing the costs herself, coming up with inventive ways to make it affordable, such as using timber instead of stainless steel for a rail outside the gallery.

In November 2018, The Complex applied for planning permission for change of use. They were approved in June 2019, when Fielding could begin making fire certification applications. They were refused twice, before finally being approved. Fielding remarked that this all takes time that arts originations may not have.

The Complex does not have a long lease on the building, “We don’t own it. We’ve got three or four more years here.” The landlords may choose to extend the lease, or the government or council could buy the building, but the future is uncertain. Despite this, Fielding says she didn’t have an option but to put the work and money into the Smithfield building, as The Complex, had nowhere else to go.

There's still more work to be done on the building to ensure that regulations are met. Fielding feels that the Dublin City Development Plan does not take into account the lack of support for people trying to fit-out spaces with no experience making planning applications and managing regulations. “They are doing a good thing by putting it out there. But I think it’s just unthought and it sounds great. But my experience is miles from that,” she says. “You need somebody in the middle to help.”

Vanessa Fielding in The Complex. Photo credit Claudia Dalby.

Fielding remarked that more funding for the arts is needed too, and suggested increasing the Per Cent for Art Scheme. “For the size of the city, it’s ridiculous really. I think everyone feels like that.”


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