Iconic Office’s ‘competition’ is everything that’s wrong with how business treats art

The rest of the builders would walk away with nothing. Companies should afford artists the same respect they pay other workers or contractors. At the end of the competition I would give one or two a fair wage for their office blocks, but I would get to keep all 20. It says it is “Ireland’s leading flexible workspace provider”, an extremely competitive market, and it is planning to expand into the United States and the rest of Europe. James Earley did not respond to requests for a comment. Each artwork, it says, will have a name plaque beside it, and the company will “profile the winners in the media and via our own social channels”. There is even an office bulldog called Jackson, which the company says is its “director of fun”. “While not actively encouraging engagement by students, the process of presenting ones work for competitions of this nature presents a valuable learning experience for emerging artists.”

Thankfully, everyone I speak to avoids the phrase “it will be good for exposure”, perhaps the most hated sentence in the arts world. It will also be familiar to any artist. Iconic Offices does not appear to fit these descriptions. This kind of behaviour is rife in the arts industries. Beams and pipes are mostly exposed; lots of naked glass gleams amid industrial metal frames; period rooms are filled with modernist furniture. The Arts Council of Ireland insists that artists be paid for their work, a principle it has been more vocal about in recent years. The logic of this competition is depressing. Most acts last year played free of charge and we have over 20 acts already confirmed this year, the majority of which are willing to pay [sic] for free or for their expenses covered.”

Plenty of people work for free early in their careers, through freelance work or internships. So far, so standard. There are, of course, better ways to run this sort of competition. At the time of writing, Iconic has 738 followers on Twitter. Transport it to any other industry and no worker would ever agree to it. The promoter asked the band to be “as considerate as possible when quoting us for the performance, given our current situation. “Workspace for rockstars,” its website says, and it’s easy to see why. Iconic Offices seems like a fine place to do a day’s work. Sarah Harte, a spokesperson for NCAD, says that Iconic’s competiton was shared via noticeboards in the college. Iconic Offices says it will keep all the art on its walls. The three winners will get the cash, but all other entrants, after working for perhaps a week or more on a concept, the submission and the creation of an original piece, will get nothing. Iconic Offices could pay for the work it insists on keeping. The vital part of that bargain is that they gain valuable experience and mentorship or set themselves on paths that will build to more permanent positions. Iconic Offices has been running a competition for students of Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology (IADT) and the National College of Art and Design (NCAD). Or it could hold a competition based on the proposals, and commission the best works. The company specialises in shared office spaces at a number of plush addresses around Dublin. Iconic Offices says it set up the competition to “showcase up-and-coming talent in Dublin” and that “some students are using this project as a submission piece for course assessment”. Dublin band Bad Sea recently tweeted a snippet of an email from a festival promoter that ran along similar lines. It will annouce the winners on Monday. And if a company thinks art isn’t worth paying for, then that company clearly isn’t good enough to have art on its walls. Imagine that I were to ask 20 people to make me the best office block they could, and I would cover their costs but not their labour. The competition is being judged by Róisín Lafferty, founder and managing director of Kingston Lafferty Design; the urban artist James Earley; John Redmond, the creative director of Brown Thomas; and Joe McGinley, founder and chief executive of Iconic Offices. Many small arts organisations and festivals rely on people working without pay to keep the lights on and the show open. Ruth Barry, head of marketing at IADT, says the college views the contest as a “genuine benefit” that will give students “good first-hand experience of dealing with clients”. Imagine, for example, that I were to run a competition for building flexible workspaces. For €3,500 plus costs, Iconic Offices will get 20 original works of art by students at two of the best art colleges in the country. Three prizes are on offer, of €2,000, €1,000 and €500, and the company will cover the cost of materials. Or it could, after a period of time, and having benefited from the art and the attendant PR, simply give back the artworks that is has not paid for. It invited students to submit ideas for pieces, then drew up a shortlist of 20, whom it invited to spend two days creating the work at Iconic’s Brickhouse office space, on Baggot Street, where a dedicated desk costs €449 a month plus VAT. But what happens afterwards is typical of how the business world often treats the arts world.