‘Would you like to take my card?’
On a sunny Sunday morning in early spring, we’ve accepted business cards from 16 artists having browsed their works on the railings of Merrion Square Park. A card is not just a card here – it’s a magic ticket for these artists, and many of their lives have been changed by the people who accept them.
Merrion Square’s outdoor art market is a real Dublin institution. It was first formally regulated by Dublin City Council in 1985, but as some of its veterans tell us, they were tying paintings to the railings long before that. It takes place every Sunday from 10am to 6pm on three sides of the park, as dozens of license-holding artists set up shop to display and sell their work in the hail, rain, or shine. Anyone can apply to be an exhibiting artist, and licensees automatically become members of the Merrion Square Artists’ Association. This fantastically supportive organisation promotes the market and its members’ work.
Open-air art markets exist in major European cities – the Sunday shows of Amsterdam, Berlin and Paris come to mind – but Dublin’s offering is unique. As Elizabeth Prendergast explains, the Merrion Square art market stands out as a democratic model of casual trade. The public and the artists themselves curate the market. But why is this important? Prendergast highlights that the customer gets to “meet the artist, not the agent”, purchase their works without a middleman, commissions or markups, and hear about their creative process from the source. She says it’s “not being hijacked by the art world. It’s utterly open to whoever wants to [exhibit], & that’s what makes it special”. She is the artists’ association secretary and has traded at the market for decades, so she’s passionate about preserving and promoting its unique offering in the city. Only original paintings can be sold here – no prints or reproductions. Prendergast says this is an important yet vulnerable aspect of exhibiting here, as “it’s you [the artist] putting your own, original self on the railings”.