In times of economic stress there are always concerns in the wider arts community about government funding allocations and programs that play a vital part in making them available to their constituents.

With Ireland’s well-documented financial woes in the past two years those fears surfaced as people braced themselves for massive cutbacks or total shutdowns of important agencies like the Arts Council, Culture Ireland and even the Department for the Gaelthacht and Heritage in the worst case.

Ireland’s image abroad is very closely associated with its artistic creative forces which could and should be harnessed to help restore some health to the ailing economy of the once-dominant Celtic tiger.

Those concepts seem to win the day from the September Farmleigh conference to the December budget, and helped provide a more positive backdrop to the New York City visit last weekend of 90 artists and representatives under the auspices of Culture Ireland carrying the green banner to the Association of Performing Arts Presenters Conference held at the Hilton Hotel and around New York.

The whole delegation under the leadership of Culture Ireland’s CEO Eugene Downes was welcomed to New York by City Council Speaker Christine Quinn on a snowy Friday morning at City Hall, and also feted in Consul General Niall Burgess’ East Side residence on Sunday on a calmer, clearer evening that displayed the glorious New York City skyline to the visiting Irish artistic community assembled.

The message to both the U.S. and Ireland was the same that cultural tourism has always played a major role in stimulating the economies of both countries. Acknowledging that point in the heart of New York City while over 4,000 were in town to promote the arts at APAP was as strong a declaration as you could make.

Among those were over 20 musicians who were steeped in the traditional well who got support from Culture Ireland to present themselves over here in search of greater employment to booking agents and venues on the prowl for entertainment in 2010 and beyond.

Most performed at Manhattan’s Irish Arts Center in Hell’s Kitchen (see photo above) on Saturday and Sunday, where five of the acts were showcased in more of a concert setting than back at the Hilton Hotel, home base for the APAP Conference.

The Irish Arts Center made news itself for the December announcement of $3.5 million commitment of Irish government money to move towards a much-needed expansion of its operations at the limited three-story walkup premises they have occupied for over 35 years. Their partnering work with Culture Ireland and the wider Irish Artistic community has drawn welcome attention to them under the guidance of former executive director Pauline Turley and current executive director Aidan Connolly.

Culture Ireland’s project director Madeline Boughton and showcase curator Margaret O’Sullivan paneled the presentation with a mix of mostly seasoned performers better known in Ireland but looking for further inroads in America plus an up and coming act.

On the bill were duet Brendan Begley and Caoimhin O Raghallaigh, Iarla O’Lionaird, “The Unwanted” trio comprised of Cathy Jordan and Seamie O’Dowd from Dervish along with a Yank, Rick Epping, singer-songwriter John Spillane from Cork and Caladh Nua, the newcomer quintet featuring Lisa Butler, Derek Morrissey, Colm O’Caoimh, Eoin O’Meachair and Paddy Tutty.
Back at the Hilton Hotel, the Moya Brennan Band and the David Munnelly Band performed showcases for the bookers in more customary hotel function rooms.

While the main objective is to secure future work in North America requiring the maximum number of key presenters, influential media reps and other opinion swayers to view the potential artists while swarming around the Hilton Hotel multi-level floors, the opportunity to see and judge talent in a more normal performance setting like the Donaghy Theater creates a better conducive atmosphere in my opinion and an obvious collaboration that helps both entities like the IAC and Culture Ireland and its artists.

On the other hand, since APAP is a hiring fair akin to going to market, Brendan Begley observed, “If you only have one goat, place him in the center of town.” This suggests that you have to work harder to get the right people to go further afield to view the talent on offer. Time and bookings will tell.

The opportunity to see and meet the artists there and at the 11th Street Bar Sunday night session along with so many other musicians in town who pitched up for more relaxed atmospherics was another welcome opportunity to observe how vibrant Irish Culture is these days as well as the ecosystem that supports it. Hope it continues to proper for a good long time.