On the surface it was handshakes and camera flashes. At its core was something less tangible but far more valuable.
The occasion was the tenth version of the Greater Mobile Art Awards, an honor established by the Mobile Arts Council that has provided a great boost to this town’s creative community. To mark the 10-year milestone, some particulars were changed.
Normally presented in Cathedral Square during the September LoDa Artwalk – to coincide with the beginning of a new “arts season” – the setting was moved to the 1927 Room next to the Saenger Theatre on Joachim Street. It was also scheduled two weeks prior to its normal date, in order to give it a night all to itself, when cultural players wouldn’t be distracted by Artwalk responsibilities.
The scheduling shift worked in that regard. Turnout was good and people seemed compelled to dress a bit fancier than is customary for Artwalk. A lone saxophonist subtly riffing in an elevated corner of the room gave the evening a very urban and cosmopolitan vibe, as if he were warming up for a night’s performance and his exercises were bleeding through the walls of the apartment building. All that was missing was the elevated train.
When Mobile Arts Council Executive Director Bob Burnett stepped behind the podium, the crowd obediently hushed to accommodate the lack of a microphone. The award winners beamed in anticipation.
As Burnett explained to the assembly, “these are the people that built our community and have made a huge difference in so many people’s lives.” It’s not just an acknowledgement of their efforts, a notch on their belt, it’s meager note of appreciation for giving part of themselves to enrich the world in which they live.
Artist Award recipient Mike McKee was the man who shaped Mobile Theatre Guild into what it currently is, a small house that emphasizes quality over quantity and their national awards testify to that success. McKee also passed on his love of the stage to students at Davidson and LeFlore high schools.
Business Award winner the Crescent Theater has made a strong impact in a short time. When Max Morey opened the doors in 2008, he gave Mobile a home for arthouse-style screenings, a venue for adventuresome collaborations and student projects and nestled himself into the local backdrop. How integral is the Crescent? When they needed an emergency infusion of cash for a costly requisite technical transition, they were able to raise $75,000 in 11 days.
Educator Award honoree Lori Bilbrey-Vaghefi has spent the past 25 years as a principle dancer for Mobile Ballet but it’s her work passing that on to others that earned her kudos. She was not only a specialist for the Mobile County Public Schools and in magnet school programs but is on the faculty of Southern Edge Dance Center and is artistic director of Project Mouvement in Art.
It’s way overdue that the Mobile Symphony Orchestra be honored with the Organization Award. They’ve remained a stalwart force in Mobile’s cultural scene for the last 14 years and brought some astounding world-class talent to Mobile crowds.
Dr. Thomas Rosandich was honored with the Patron Award for his work with the United States Sports Academy. The collection he has amassed has benefited both art lovers and artists.
Volunteer Award recipient Dr. Dan Silver was thanked for more than two decades of work with Mobile Chamber Music, which encompasses more than half of the life of the organization. He’s filled every role imaginable in service to little more than a love for art.
Riley Brenes was honored with a new award for Emerging Artist due in part to several projects. There was his involvement with the Boys and Girls Clubs, his formation of a guerilla gallery on Dauphin Street but what Burnett called to mind was work in conjunction with Mobile’s Christmas Tornadoes and the tearful thanks Brenes received from victims who felt his work helped them cope with the impact.
Carmen Brown’s Lifetime Achievement Award might have drawn the largest ovation of the evening. For decades, she has been involved in numerous cultural pursuits, whether on stage with South of the Salt Line, on the radio exposing us to local artists and music, volunteering in a variety of capacities or serving on the boards of several organizations.
The physical awards – glass bowls by Rachel Wright – were easily as spectacular as any they’ve handed out. Inspired by the patterns on nature’s wings, they certainly made the heart take flight.
The evening had its quibbles, too. The venue could have been a tad larger. A microphone would have helped. What Artifice missed most of all was acceptance speeches from the recipients, likely influenced by the lack of amplification. I wanted to hear their reflections and emotions in the moment. For me, that’s what imbues the ceremony with its meaning is the gratitude passed back and forth from community to individual and back again.
The event’s timing seemed particularly poignant, too. Days removed from a mayoral election that exposed a lot of ugliness in our town, we need these things that make us realize we need each other.
Nearly two years ago, a Mobile stage introduced us to the concept that what gave the 20th century hope was that “This century, the achievements of artists and scientists outshone those of politicians and governments.” That same light radiated on Joachim Street and now it’s up to us to carry it forward.