Yeah, yeah, we know: Mardi Gras organizations will have to find new confines for their 2016 soirees. Bye bye Civic Center.
The mayor’s office sprang that feline from the croaker sack well over a month ago when they told Carnival organizations to find new venues for their pre-Lenten balls. Hence the Infant Mystics’ newly found interest in historic preservation.
But lost in the clutching of the plastic pearls was the disastrous effect this might have on a pair of fine arts mainstays and the ripples it could create through the cultural community. It’s just too bad they weren’t debriefed as well.
Long ago, Mobile Opera performed its solo work at Murphy High School auditorium then moved to the Civic Center Theater after its mid-1960s construction. In 1978, the venerable cultural institution, one of the nation’s oldest, doubled its annual performance slate where it has remained ever since.
Mobile Ballet was born in 1986 from a fractious 8-year history that featured the salacious murder of a founding member. Aside from a joint performance with Jackson Ballet at the Saenger during an earlier incarnation, Mobile Ballet has made a home at Mobile Civic Center Theater.
The reasons they use the aging venue are obvious. The backstage accommodations, equipment and facility, in addition to stage size and an orchestra pit, eclipse any other in town. The Saenger is a tight squeeze for the Mobile Symphony Orchestra, so getting a symphonic unit in there along with dancers or singers would be pretty difficult.
Now, personnel from Mobile Opera tell Artifice neither they nor Mobile Ballet were included in the demolition pow-wow. They found out about their imminent homelessness through media reports.
Finally, a Mobile Opera board member wrote the mayor’s Chief of Staff Colby Cooper to inquire as to the future of the venue. She explained their dilemma.
“If the civic center theater closes so goes Mobile Opera,” Sheryl Bates wrote in email. “We have discussed at many a meeting where else we could hold our performances because of the expense and have not come up with an alternative.”
Cooper commiserated but explained the Civic Center had “outlived its usefulness” to the tune of a $2 million annual drain on city finances. He acknowledged the lack of facilities that could accommodate their demands.
“We are committed to a smooth transition and to helping those organizations who may be displaced (and possibly only temporarily) find alternative locations for their purposes,” Cooper wrote. “We recognize the need for large venue space and world-class performing arts space.”
Cooper mentioned near-term consequences that might “inconvenience” citizens and organizations. He said diligent planning and thoughtful engagement would provide alternatives with “whatever replaces the Civic Center” making “us more complete as a city.” He had no specific time frame for the conversation.
Cooper asked whether the University of South Alabama’s Laidlaw Performing Arts Center could serve as a temporary replacement venue. But the auditorium in west Mobile seats roughly 250 compared to approximately 2,000 at the Civic Center.
The opera advocate wrote back with news Mobile Opera Director Scott Wright volunteered for any conversation with the administration. She also said the Saenger’s lack of an orchestra pit was a major hindrance and asked if the the money saved by the Civic Center’s eradication could be used to build one.
“The city will look at all options once it decides to take action on the Civic Center,” Cooper wrote back. “That said, I am not making a firm commitment. As I said, we want this to go smoothly and are sensitive to all those affected by this.”
One of the concerns from Mobile Opera orbits the multi-year planning process for their shows. This isn’t Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland deciding on the fly to stage a show in the barn — look it up, kids. They said the evaporation of the Civic Center Theater might just be the death knell for both them and Mobile Ballet.
Opera board members also wonder if their dissolution could negatively affect the Mobile Symphony Orchestra (MSO). While MSO uses the Saenger, they share office space with the opera. The Josephine Larkins Music Center in LoDa was built specifically for those two arts organizations and the opera still holds long-term debts MSO would have to assume. There’s also the issue of Mobile Opera’s equity in that building.
When asked what might happen in such a situation, MSO CEO Celia Mann Baehr declined to speculate on hypothetical questions.
“We of course wish all to remain financially healthy and viable since our arts organizations are part of what makes Mobile the wonderful city it is,” Baehr wrote.
“So who is the one who gets to hold the meter telling Mobile what it needs and doesn’t?” an opera board member asked Artifice. Some would quickly say because he was elected to lead, that power is granted solely to the mayor and his staff.
So we’ve seen those decisions unfold, slicing performance contracts for arts while throwing cash at the tennis center, putting Hank Aaron Stadium on life support while possibly swinging a wrecking ball at the Civic Center. Combined with a failure of courtesy for the opera and ballet the mayor gave to mystic societies, it sends a message — intentional or not — that the arts are way down on the priorities list.
Rule of thumb has classical cultural entities adding allure to a city when courting new business. Europeans especially, popular wisdom maintains, are keen on such things.
Yet, judging from the overseas investors we seem bent on attracting, lackluster education and an easily exploited labor pool appear to be the real calling cards. Strong backs and low pay are the bait for steel mills and assembly lines.
If arias and Arabesques don’t make the cut, so be it. We’ve been there before but the question is do we want to be there again?
This story’s not over yet, but the ending of this chapter is certainly a cliffhanger. As Artifice knows, so will you.