Celtic Junction Arts Review

NICCONA 2023: A gathering of Irish cultural centers

Natalie Nugent O'Shea

As part of the Network of Irish Cultural Centers of North America (NICCONA), Celtic Junction Arts Center convened again at NYC’s Consul General of Ireland on Park Avenue with thirty-two other representatives from Irish cultural centers across North America. (Culture Ireland’s post on the event can be seen here.)  We met together to connect, to hear updates from Ireland’s government/cultural entities, and to hear from some VIPS, including Ireland’s Ambassador to the U.S. Geraldine Byrne Nason; the Director of Global Ireland, John Concannon; Sharon Barry and Ciaran Walsh from Culture Ireland; Eugene Downes from DFA Department of Culture, the Consul General of NYC, Helena Nolan & her staff, and Vice-Consuls from across the 8 missions in the U.S.

NICCONA commences

The purpose of the gathering was to continue the international work towards the Global Ireland 2025 goal which seeks to double Ireland’s cultural footprint across the world. Government funding includes support to Culture Ireland, which will benefit fifty-eight projects presenting Irish work in 27 countries, covering circus, dance, film, literature, music, theatre, and visual arts. Its purpose is also to enable the members of NICCONA to continue to show artists as widely as possible across all art forms to gain wider audiences and to be a part of future international touring opportunities for Irish artists.

Proposed Midwest Tour

In support of this goal, through the course of the year, CJAC has been convening quarterly meetings together with the four other brick and mortar Irish Centers nearest to our home in the Twin Cities; Milwaukee’s Celtic MKE, Chicago’s Irish American Heritage Center, Missouri’s Kansas City Irish Center and Cincinnati’s Irish Heritage Center. Our regular order of business is to work at coordinating communications about tours coming through, about best practices, and to connect together (more on that below).

The issues that NICCONA has been addressing since its inaugural gathering in 2018 (see CJAC article Imbolc, 2018) are, in part, the lack of a central directory of cultural venues; complications with government funding and access; and a disconnect between artists, agents, and venues. NICCONA has been convened annually since 2018 (in-person in NYC in 2019, 2020, virtually in 2021, and at the Folk Alliance Festival in 2022). In this 6th annual meeting Culture Ireland’s newly appointed Director Sharon Barry was driven and concise in her purpose and goals, organizations were supported with a small stipend to attend a fully-packed day of discussion and showcases ($100 for locals, $250 for out-of-towners), and the two recently appointed Cultural officers (Nik Quaife, NYC & Siobhra Quinlan, LA, CA) were in attendance together to help guide the meeting process, to make notes, and to create an action plan. Irish government representatives addressed the gathering as follows (disclaimer – edited with ellipses for brevity, by N.N.O.)

We began with a welcome by Consul General of NYC, Helena Nolan:

I’m delighted to welcome you all to the consulate and to kick off NICCONA 2023 – lovely to have you here. As you know, Culture is one of the many ways in which Ireland gets to share her story.  It’s a pleasure to be able to welcome so many presenters and programmers of Irish culture from all across the US to our Irish home here in NYC. I hope many of you had a great time at NICCONA in Kansas City last year – this is the 6th NICCONA and the first full in-person meeting since 2020, as well as our first one with our wonderful new director of Culture Ireland, Sharon Barry.

Followed by a short greeting from Culture Ireland Director Sharon Barry

Irish Artists deserve a global audience. Irish government values and champions arts…”  ”We are getting to the business end of today which is setting out our vision for NICCONA and how we can work together to really deliver and bring Irish Arts to North America. We see NICCONA as a partnership to help us showcase all that Ireland has to offer.

An address by Ireland’s Ambassador to the U.S. Geraldine Byrne Nason:

Ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason

It’s a real pleasure to be here with you, I wouldn’t miss this for the world. It is an absolutely critical gathering this morning and frankly the work you do is a critical part of what Ireland does in the states every single day. I know many of you see culture as an important way to express our values and I would argue that is something that we did over the last two years sitting on the Security Council. The whole expression of Ireland through culture has been a key part of talking about international business security… It is absolutely a key part of how I speak about who and what we are in Ireland whether on Capitol Hill, at the White House, or in the business meetings that we do. 

Culture and your role, in terms of expressing the very nature of Ireland in the 21st Century, is fundamental to our mission right across the United States  – our mandate is to do so. First of all, know that – that we see you as a critical part of the Irish team here in the United States. To know that you, along with Culture Ireland, have really opened windows on the world to us. You are its key ambassadors for Ireland on the ground on an ongoing and daily basis. I mean that also in terms of your own engagement with the artistic world here. 

I think in such a toxic environment – politically and internationally, but also here in the United States that it behooves us all to speak to the spirit of the country that we represent and to touch that through the arts and artists. I know that you are going to work in a very concrete way, which is important as well, which is that you are enabling Irish artists into the United States and are networking all of your operations. That will then have a multiplier effect in terms of our capacity nationally here in North America, to ensure that our extraordinary footprint globally is seen for what it is…

James Colcannon

The vision of Global Ireland by John Concannon – Director General Global Ireland:

This meeting today is such a pivotally important part of what Ireland’s government is trying to do. In 2018, we launched the program for Global Ireland and the agenda was to talk about its input and influence on the world and that’s a very big ambition. How we are going to do it is in three ways. First of all, Ireland is a trade nation. We have to drive our economies to get people to visit, to be based in Ireland, to trade in Ireland, to study in Ireland and there has been a huge amount of work in that.  

The second dimension is about building Partnerships, which is key – in how we collaborate. The easiest way to think about that is with our missions, for example here in New York, in this consulate.  We have about 80 of these consular missions around the world. It took us about 95 years to get to 80, and the last three years we’ve opened another 20…  This is driving our partnerships all around the world. At the larger, international and multilateral stage we are looking at building European Union partnerships – a big part of our identity.  This year is our 50th anniversary of that partnership with the United Nations… The third part of that plan is our contribution. In 1923 we joined the League of Nations. 

The idea is that for Ireland, 100 years on, that it is not about what we can get from the world but how we engage with the world… The core dimension of that is our culture. It is something that differentiates us. In this country we have such a phenomenal experience of art, drama, literature and music, dance, poetry, writing – so many brave stories, and most recently some incredible films… Huge work is happening. In the dimension of culture, if you think about it, that really makes sense but it is very much about collaboration… It is about how we can work together and enable more. There is no more important room in North America today than right here in this room with all of the people who are here, and all of the work that you do. We can help, support, drive, enable all of that great work and ambitions that are there.

Mr. Concannon went on to thank many of the departments and persons involved, and to recognize the North American entities he has visited recently. Eugene Downes spoke about the deep partnership between the Department of Culture and Culture Ireland.

Sharon Berry

Sharon Barry took the lead from this point, turning to the critical work regarding how to develop NICCONA, posing questions such as: What can we do differently? How can we increase our impact? What is the best strategy for sustainability? Reduction of our carbon footprint with the touring network? How can we increase our EDI (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion)? She also noted improvements in the grant funding process with additional opportunities through the year, the creation of a stipend for members, a fund for Cultural attachés to facilitate additional tour dates with the goal to “enable you to do what you do.” Ciaran Walsh, Culture Ireland’s Director of Programming addressed their international showcase calendar, CI’s goal to increase sustainability, measure impact, and to reduce their environmental impact.

Two NICCONA members were asked to present their current practices that are addressing some of those questions. Miranda Driscoll, outgoing Executive Director of Washington DC’s Solas Nua does not have a permanent “brick and mortar” facility, and they are exceptional in that they produce exclusively new and contemporary Irish art.  She described the ways in which Solas Nua works with other institutions to present all manner of arts events, from theaters to opera to visual arts.  In this format, partnerships within their district are the key to successful production.  Natalie Nugent O’Shea of Celtic Junction Arts Center represented a coalition of five Midwest-based “brick and mortar” Irish centers that possess a different set of challenges in that they each operate 365 days a year as “an archipelago of islands in the midwest prairies.” As multi-disciplinary arts venues, they program all types of arts and events but have the difficulty of being fly-over states between coasts that are too frequently skipped over by tours. Together they are meeting quarterly, working together to coordinate artists & tours moving between them, discussing best practices, and finding a collective camaraderie (more on their activities below.)

Natalie at the Irish Arts Center in New York City

Sharon Barry and Cultural officers Nik and Siobhra conducted break-out table sessions with a mix of festivals, theaters, and multidisciplinary cultural center representatives in each group to brainstorm big-sky thinking, and how we can work together in support of our shared goals. Items include general formalization of NICCONA, improvement in communication, dissemination of information and visa advocacy. It was recognized that different representatives/types of centers have different issues and require a range of support. Officers collated notes and action items and directed members to lunch followed by a trip across Manhattan to Hell’s Kitchen area, the site of NYC’s brand new Irish Arts Center, IAC/NYC.

The lobby of the new Irish Arts Center in New York City

Joined by many other local arts and theater representatives from the area, IAC Executive Director Aidan Connolly and Associate Director Barry Ó Séanáin conducted tours of the facility.  Attendees settled into their beautiful new theater space for a two hour series of pitches presented by artists and producers showcasing new works of theater and modern dance from Ireland. The purpose of this was for production houses to meet Irish artists, producers and companies from Ireland and to hear about the range of Irish work ready to tour the USA including the Irish National Opera, Big Telly Theater Company, Fishamble, Once-off Productions, Straymaker, Abbey Theatre, Irish Modern Dance Theater, Field Arts, PanPan Theatre, Pemberley Productions, Our Steps, and finishing with a presentation by Rachel Gilkey on the IAC/NYC facility with program highlights. The formal gathering ended with a reception in the open lobby.

Abbey Theatre presentation
Auditorium at the Irish Arts Center

Author’s Note: It’s “just the facts” as I dutifully note the meetings, speeches, and activities of the convention-related events to the best of my ability, but I wish to share some more personal experiences and details as a postscript.  The Midwest group that has been convening regularly extended their weekend activities in the company of some additional colleagues from Toronto, San Francisco and Albany. Natalie (CJAC) organized the hotel stay for the NICCONA members at the Fitzpatrick hotel, Meg Buchanan (Chicago) bought us all tickets to see the vibrant Wallis Bird at the Rockwood Music Hall, Paul Keating (Catskills Irish Arts Week, NY) took us around the corner to Katz’s deli for a late-night snack and made sure Cormac, Natalie (Irish Fair, MN/ CJAC) and friends finished up at Paddy O’Reilly’s pub at the session Thursday night before it closes for good this March.  We went for dinner after the reception Friday night, out to buy our Powerball tickets together (none of us won, boo,) and finished the night out at a piano bar, thanks to Mike Mitchell (Celtic MKE). Saturday night some of us stayed to see HEAVEN, a stunning, two-handed theater production with Fishamble’s director Jim Culleton. The camaraderie transformed the weekend, and I very much look forward to continuing to connect with all these incredible, dedicated folks again.