Culture Irelands Vital Role

Increasingly, those in the artistic community have been more vocal and persuasive that their work is a very meaningful mirror on the society that it springs from.

Their work comes to us in sophisticated forms through all the media and outlets that are available to the other political, social and economic communities familiar to us globally as the worldwide community interacts.

That convergence and realization gave rise to Culture Ireland in 2005 under John O'Donoghue, the then Irish minister for arts, sports and tourism who dedicated over *2 million from his budget that first year to increase Ireland's profile throughout the cultural realm of the broad-based artistic community in Ireland.

In 2007 that amount more than doubled to *4.5 million, and also necessitated the need for a steward to guide and lead the growing government entity on a full-time basis.

Eight months ago, Dubliner Eugene Downes was appointed to be the chief executive officer of Culture Ireland with a mandate to make it grow and become an effective modern organization tending to the needs of Ireland's vast and varied artistic community.

He recently organized and led a 50-person task force representing Ireland at the 51st annual Association for Performing Arts Presenters at the New York Hilton over an action-packed January weekend.

Not surprisingly, the youthful 35 year-old fits the prototype of what has become the norm as Ireland has stepped into worldwide prominence. Reared in a musical household and educated in the arts with a concentration in music at Trinity College, he got valuable international exposure through the Irish Foreign Service after leaving college.

While assigned as the cultural attaché in Moscow and exposed to the massive Russian arts scene daily and nightly, he recognized the power of culture to help define a people. The opportunity to pioneer in broadcasting at RTE's Lyric FM radio in the 1990s afforded him the chance to study and pursue more personal goals, though it seemed like the lure of governmental involvement in promoting the Irish arts loomed over the horizon.

He entered into a consultancy role in advising the Irish government how to augment presidential or ministerial trad missions abroad through the inclusion of artists, including many traditional music groups or performers, that lightened up the usual protocol or diplomatic bill of fare.

Whether it was sheer serendipity or vision, that increasingly important and expanding role that accompanied these diplomatic forays abroad developed by Downes validated the need to recognize a significant role for the Irish arts abroad.

The quality of the entertainment was critical because doors were being opened, and frequent return visits and opportunities were the endgame in this gambit. This played into the skills sets that Downes was amassing.

"When Anuna went to Buenos Aires on a presidential visit, one day they played in the subway in a cultural series and the next night before the presidents of Ireland and Argentina," Downes told me by phone after returning from the APAP affair, recalling one of his overseas placements.

Long-range planning and promotion production values were becoming equally necessary components to missions that offered the most promise and prospects for Ireland, and Downes was able to provide that assistance.

In hindsight, it almost seems like Downes was engineered for the role of the first CEO of Culture Ireland. His foreign department experience, which even included work on the challenging Northern Ireland desk in the 1990s, and his evolving awareness of contemporary artistic needs seem to dovetail in way that his appointment seemed pre-ordained.

Tackling an experience like an arts presenters trade show is a daunting affair, but Downes felt that a team approach might be best rather than see 30 artists or groups foraging for themselves at what can be a very expensive Big Apple visit.

Galvanizing a broad array of contemporary theater, dance, music and traditional music groups or individuals meant for a more unified presentation that could justify an investment of over *100,000 (almost half of which underwrote an avant-garde presentation of the play Terminus by the newly re-organized Abbey Theatre, Ireland's National Theater).

The one-stop shopping stall in one of the smaller exhibition halls at the Hilton flew the flag of Culture Ireland, announcing in a proud way that the island nation had much to offer on its artistic palette and the government entity would be happy to assist building a short or long term relationship for its representatives.

That it offered a mentoring or solidarity bonus to the exhibiting artists was a very significant by-product as well, and all within the remit of the nascent government body that hopes to grow along with its cultural ambassadors abroad.

"One of the benefits from the APAP weekend was an excitement and energy on the road from artists who had not spent time with one another from other fields as they developed an esprit de corps for Team Ireland that you couldn't put a price on," Downes remarked afterwards.

"Primarily, it gave us direct access to thousands of venues, festivals and promoters in the U.S. so we cast our net wider than we ever had in the past. The message definitely circulated that the Irish were there in force with a strong signal that we mean business. It wasn't a once-off wonder either and like the governor of California is known to say, we'll be back."

Whether it is business or government, when money is spent on the arts there is a need to see that it is well spent and that sponsorship is as effective as it is transparent. so Downes realizes that the proper evaluations need to follow such a mission.

Farming instincts and building skills seem to follow the Irish wherever they go, so whatever seeds were sown or foundations laid at APAP won't be long in coming back home to the Emerald Island. And when that happens, the Irish arts community will return to Culture Ireland and realize that they are not alone.

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