There are times to cherish and others you just want to forget. Chalk up this late summer in the latter category.
Expectations for art fans normally renew around Labor Day as cultural organizations get ready for a new season. However, going on a month since that gateway and hopes haven’t arisen yet.
The reasons are obvious. We’re all well acquainted with the tug-of-war over performance contracts from the city. Still, a more in-depth look at groups like the opera, symphony and arts council show that while they might have to tighten belts, their complete eradication isn’t looming right now.
That might not be the case with the Gulf Coast Exploreum, the hands-on science museum at the foot of Government Street. New director Jan McKay has been candid about their budget woes saying the loss of money from the city of Mobile coupled with the evaporation of BP funds has not only halved their budget, but also made the immediate future shakier.
As a recent Lagniappe article by Dale Liesch explained, the Exploreum originally drew up expectations of $2.41 million in expenditures and revenue of $2.61 million for 2015. After adjustments, they evened out revenues and expenses at $2.35 million.
The $210,000 change came from the Exploreum shouldering utility expenses whereas in previous years, their landlord – the city of Mobile – paid those. The museum asked for $600,000 from the city in 2015 performance contracts but the administration wants to cut away more than three-quarters of that, offering $135,000 in Stimpson’s initial plans.
So the Exploreum has discussed further changes to pinch pennies such as trimming down the number of days the Exploreum is open, from seven days to four. For their 17 full-time employees and assorted part-timers it wouldn’t be ideal but as is too eagerly said in these parts, “it’s better than not having a job at all.”
The picture hasn’t clarified yet. The Exploreum has a board meeting planned Sept. 22 and a fundraiser planned in October.
It reminds me of the situation with the Centre for the Living Arts (CLA), which has scrambled to keep things humming along in spite of indications and rumors they’ve seen better times. Artifice told you this summer the contemporary arts facility has admitted to a fiscal crunch and is striving to complete a real estate transaction to add to their operating reserves. More unfortunate than the Exploreum, CLA was entirely axed from the mayor’s proposed budget.
These institutions didn’t just arrive at this point overnight. The philosophy that brought them into existence – supplying the attraction before the demand – has given us some wonderful treasures like the History Museum of Mobile, the Mobile Museum of Art in addition to the aforementioned spots but it’s been costly and convoluted. To see why, look westward.
It’s easy to stumble across comparisons between Mobile and New Orleans. With our common heritage, architectural elements, landmark names and the like, it’s a natural association.
Among that hubbub, I hear questions about Crescent City tourism. “Why there and not here? What do we do to grab a piece of that?”
The answer is their attractions, their museums and galleries and restaurants and music venues weren’t erected on mere hopes for future demand. They were built on the foundation of an existing phenomenon.
One by one, you could shutter all those current facilities in New Orleans – like Katrina nearly did – and it wouldn’t slow their tourism at all. Why? Not because of Bourbon Street but because you would never be able to shut down the true attraction of New Orleans which is its culture.
Close the fine arts or history museums and local demand would build more. Raze the restaurants and local demand would open more. Stop the music venues and local demand would create others. Their culture has an inseparable love of these things and that’s what keeps them churning along. That’s what keeps the visitors streaming into town and tourist money spent there.
So let’s be honest, if we’re going to insist on amassing our revenues from regressive taxes such as sales taxes, then tourism is absolutely vital. What will make tourism swell?
It’s obvious what will not as we recall the responses on cruise websites when that industry was still in town.
Visitors repeatedly remarked on a downtown Mobile that seemed inactive and sedate, on vacant storefronts and empty sidewalks as discouraging. They could have noted the same slow influx at cultural institutions.
If we’re going to build tourism, it has to be anchored in what we already support, not what we hope we can keep afloat artificially. That’s the only way such things can seem appealing to visitors and the only assurance we have of its longevity. Mardi Gras wasn’t a gamble.
The Exploreum has done a good job of pulling in tourists with some of their exhibits. The Dead Sea Scrolls was a blockbuster as was the Pompeii show but that hasn’t been the norm.
Don’t dismiss this as a condemnation of these places. As much as anyone else in town, I want the Exploreum and CLA to thrive. Art and science deserve a more prominent profile in Mobile.
But if they’re going to do so, it’s not going to be elected officials, nor just wealthy families charging over the hill. It’s going to take every one of our average citizens to rescue ourselves.