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  • Crossroads of Art and Design:Musically Curating and Mediating Irish Cultural Artifacts in Chicago
  • Aileen Dillane (bio)

In 2015 the Art Institute of Chicago staged an exhibition entitled Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690–1840 in which glassware, paintings, books, furniture, musical instruments, and a variety of other art-and-craft objects from the long eighteenth century were put on display for a three-month period in downtown Chicago. The exhibition was significant for three reasons. Firstly, never before had artifacts from this period of Irish history been presented together on such a large scale outside of Ireland. Secondly, the three-hundred-plus displayed items celebrating the art-and-craft heritage of Ireland were procured from North American sources, not directly from Ireland. And thirdly, in a reversal of the Art Institute's practice and informal policy of not featuring music in an exhibition, it allowed the exhibition's curators to commission a CD of period music from the eighteenth century, along with newly composed music, to amplify the mission and message of this one-off exhibition. This essay focuses on how and why the resulting Crossroads CD came into being, and what this reveals about the role of music in the public and cultural life of Chicago in relation to the consumption and reception of Irish culture in the long twentieth century. It argues that the Crossroads CD performs two functions: it (re)creates an eighteenth-century soundscape to compliment the materials of the exhibition, and it fashions a receptive environment for contemporary, Chicago-based audiences. While having some experience of nineteenth- and twentieth-century traditional and popular Irish music, these audiences are largely unfamiliar with this period of Irish history. I contend that the pragmatic, creative approach taken by the musical curators and performers on the Crossroads CD is a [End Page 82] reflection of, and a response to, over 150 years of the musical mediation of Ireland for Chicago audiences.

The Crossroads exhibition comprised a cross section of Ascendancy material culture found in rural eighteenth-century big houses and their equivalent urban counterparts, thereby constituting part of the British colonial project in Ireland. Chicago was an important nineteenth-century post-Famine destination for the largely impoverished Catholic Irish, many of whom subsequently climbed educational, political, and business ranks in the city and found themselves shored up by further waves of Irish migration in the twentieth cen tury. While the Crossroads exhibition did not frame its objects as sectarian, the extent to which the Crossroads CD may have been a product of Irish American nationalism or a means of mediating any surviving nationalist inclinations in audiences and curators in Chicago informs this discussion. To this end, the Crossroads CD is placed within the broader context of Chicago's long history of publicly staging Ireland and Irish music and culture.

The Crossroads CD project was funded by the O'Briens, a multi-generational Irish American family from Chicago who made their fortune in the financial-futures business. Heading up the initiative was Marty Fahey (1961– ), Irish musician and curator of the O'Brien Collection. Fahey's vision of curating and producing a CD to accompany the exhibition was largely realized through the creative work of Irish fiddler and composer Liz Carroll (1956– ), a longtime friend and collaborator. Fahey and Carroll are second-generation Irish Americans and Chicagoans, and this article draws extensively on personal interviews with both musicians, acknowledging the importance of their voices here and within the broader context of Irish Studies research. Crucially, while music was not part of the original exhibition concept, the subsequent commission of the CD created unantici pated synergies within the project. Organizers featured live music at the gala fundraising dinner performance prior to the Crossroads exhibition, tracks from the CD played in exhibition rooms as part of the viewing experience, and there was a celebratory concert performance toward the end of the exhibition's run for all involved in putting Crossroads together.

The first section of this essay offers a brief overview of the Art Institute and of the Irish in Chicago. This is interpolated with a closer [End Page 83] examination of the contents and contextual essays of the...


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