Along with the azaleas, rumors are blooming throughout Mobile; some good, some bad, all of them intriguing. Their validity is another matter.
The first? “The city [government] is getting rid of arts downtown. They pushed out LoDa Artwalk vendors from Cathedral Square. They even pushed out Mobile Arts Council to expand the police station.”
That one doesn’t really shake out. Since they announced their relocation, Mobile Arts Council (MAC) said they made the decision solely based on a rent increase, same as the now-departed church next door. Nothing shady there.
As far as the conspiratorial aspect, MAC personnel said officers from the neighboring mini-precinct only showed interest after imminent departure news broke. Their informal requests to look around MAC’s offices were happily met and the officers’ conversation sounded as if no grand scheme lurked.
Sure, Artwalk vendors were relocated to Bienville Square in January but it’s in keeping with Cathedral Square’s designation as a performing arts hub. It will be filled with dancers and singers from now until autumn.
“We wanted to freshen the entire event and utilize Cathedral Square specifically for performance art, whether it’s music or movies,” Events Coordinator for the City of Mobile Special Events Joanie Stiff said.
In the months with earlier sunsets, film screenings will be in place. When sunlight prevails, there will be performances. Pretty simple.
She thinks the transition of vendors to Bienville Square is natural with the upcoming relocation of MAC offices. She pointed to newer arts venues in sight of the square – The Haunted Book Shop, Sophiella Gallery and Sway Downtown – as advantageous.
“When I was down there [for March Artwalk], they had about 25 vendors and about 2,000 visitors, nearly double the number that came to previous arrangements,” Stiff said.
MAC Director Shellie Teague confirmed the visitor count, saying their clicker was humming along from 6:30 – 8:45 p.m. So a previously quieter section of Dauphin Street is livening up for Artwalk. Sounds positive to Artifice.
Second rumor? “Someone is building a live theater complex in midtown to be used by a handful of arts organizations.”
That tidbit is meatier. The “someone” is Chris Paragone, head honcho at Sunny Side Theater and Azalea City Center for the Arts who quickly affirmed his intentions.
“The building would be a combination of what we’re in right now, which is rehearsal space and practice rooms but then the other side of the building would be a 500-seat theater with an orchestra pit and a 100-seat black box,” Paragone said.
His educational outfit for a variety of disciplines and ages started over a decade back, utilizing Murphy High School auditorium, then St. Luke’s on University Boulevard for performance spaces. Their classes are in a Midtown Park East facility near Dauphin Street and I-65. He noted their five main stage shows a year, a competition show and a special needs program along with music concerts, voice recitals and summer camps that use assorted venues at area schools and community theaters.
“[A midsize theater] is something the city doesn’t have. If you don’t need 1,900 seats at the Saenger Theatre, then the closest thing you’ve got outside of the schools is 300 at Joe Jefferson Playhouse,” Paragone said.
He said interstate access is important as Sunny Side runs programs at far-flung county schools. He’s looked at a couple of undeveloped midtown sites.
Sunny Side will only need the stages for 14 or 15 weeks a year. He thinks other local arts entities could benefit from shared use and said he talked with Mobile Theatre Guild, Mobile Opera and University of Mobile. The first of those three is currently involved in crowdfunding to keep their modest Lafayette Street playhouse operating.
Paragone said a $5,000 Alabama State Council on the Arts grant in 2018 paid for initial work with a consultant and architect.
“The planning phase is a very broad stroke kind of thing so he drew up plans for an existing building and construction. The plans we have now, the fourth set, is basically just a nice rectangular building that can go anywhere,” Paragone said.
He declined to name a specific site, only saying there are a couple near their current location.
“We have a consultant heading up our capital campaign, which will kick off hopefully by the summer. Then a next round of grants would depend on us having property secured,” Paragone said.
Artifice heartily agrees on the venue void. Fundraising will be the linchpin.
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