A dapper crowd and haunted conversation made for a strange mix at the 11th annual Greater Mobile Art Awards last week. Perhaps the only thing missing was the string quartet from the HMS Titanic.
As the crowd milled and celebrated in the Larkins Center, the downtown home for the Mobile Symphony and Mobile Opera offices, the undercurrent repeatedly washed across was Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s proposed budget cuts to performance contracts for area arts and charitable entities disclosed in the weeks previous. It was inescapable.
It was the second public gathering for the award-sponsoring Mobile Arts Council (MAC) in the week, the first being a quickly called convention of arts supporters and organizations interested in battling the mayor’s proposed cuts. The success of the previous event was mixed.
The crowd of around 60 responded to MAC’s emails and exceeded the seats provided but when asked by MAC Executive Director Bob Burnett asked how many were there representing organizations, a minority responded. A forest of raised hands showed how many were simply there as interested individuals.
Stimpson’s recommended contract cuts were set to directly affect about 10 arts and cultural entities. They were either reduced or zeroed out in FY 2015, then all axed in FY 2016 as a response to capital needs elsewhere in the city. But there are about 60 member organizations in MAC and it didn’t appear as if even a majority of them bothered to send a representative though MAC was due to have their city contract cut by nearly half.
Burnett addressed the crowd and recommended they contact respective City Council members to lobby for a change to the mayor’s plans. The budget hasn’t met council approval as of yet, but a public hearing was held earlier this week.
Things grew more confusing when he opened the floor to questions. A gentleman stood and voiced skepticism, saying it would take political muscle to thwart the inevitable determination of city leaders to withdraw funds. He advised threatening to vote for future opponents.
A lady told the crowd she saw the change as an opportunity for arts organizations to more thoroughly canvas the business community for support. If the first attendee’s remarks were correct, then she was being proactive and getting in front of the imminent.
“That would have been possible in the 1980s when the economy was strong or during the Clinton administration but we’re still in an economic recession,” attendee and South of the Salt Line Foundation founder Tom Perez told Artifice in email. “Our box office revenue covers only 70 percent of production expenses. We must raise the remainder from government and corporate donations. Due to this horrific economy (and the lack of any major corporations headquartered in Mobile), it’s difficult finding any money.”
From there the meeting devolved. One attendee attempted to steer conversation into discussion of petroleum industry development and environmental danger, complete with charts and maps. His hijack was thwarted.
Another verbose attendee berated Burnett, saying MAC was inaccessible and aloof. I don’t know whether it’s the free gallery or open doors at street level that gave her the feeling of seclusion but she was eventually asked to cede the floor.
MAC followed with emails to attendees and regular subscribers which explained their position, that funding on the city budget should return to 2014 levels for arts entities holding performance contracts. They asked readers to pass along those sentiments to elected officials before Sept. 9 and supplied links to an economic report on the state’s creative industries.
Even the awards ceremony began with Burnett’s direct reference to media coverage of the budget situation and some self-effacing humor. Other aspects of the evening were constant reminders.
Patrons Harold and Carlos Parkman were honored for years of fundraising activities most physically evident in the Mobile Museum of Art and the Saenger Theatre. Similar efforts will bear more necessity in changing times.
Corporate sponsor PNC Bank hasn’t been in town long but has made the cultural investment arts advocates say businesses with wandering eyes appreciate. It’s likely they’ll be targeted for more giving now.
Emerging artist honoree Lucy Gafford – illustrating Burnett’s note of her “high energy” with her nervously twitching legs – teaches a program at the Boys and Girls Clubs made possible by the investment of fellow award winner PNC Bank. Boys and Girls Clubs have also been circled for exclusion from future city budgets.
And throughout the evening a similar question blossomed in nearly every conversation: if the performance contract total was trimmed by 43 percent, then why didn’t the mayor’s office just recommend across-the-board cuts of 45 percent to everyone rather than play favorites by keeping some and cutting others? Why were sports spared when arts and social services came under the knife?
Artifice has no answer. What I do know is that there has never been a more opportune time for the pettiness, cliquishness and cattiness that fractures our arts community to end so a united, cohesive cultural community can confront this problem like adults who realize they’re all in the same boat.
As a tall Republican with a bent for stovepipe hats once said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Especially when you don’t have the money for repairs.