If there was a theme for the 2017 Arty Awards on Jan. 27, it was undoubtedly “mixed emotions.” Hello award winners, goodbye Hillary.

Before the ceremony, the biggest news buzzing through the sold-out crowd inside the Alabama Contemporary Arts Center was the departure of Mobile Arts Council Operations Director Hillary Anaya. A fixture at MAC for six years now, Anaya leaves Jan. 31 for a job as assistant manager for Candlewood Suites in downtown Mobile.

“I start Feb. 6 and it’s sort of a big change. I’ll go from two staff members to 20 but the team over there is great,” Anaya told Lagniappe last week.

She joined MAC as an intern in 2010 and worked her way up through the organization. When previous Executive Director Bob Burnett left in January 2015, Anaya’s responsibilities increased. When Associate Director Charlie Smoke departed midway through that same year, Anaya became interim executive director, then shifted back to operations director last year.

Lucy Gafford was added as program director. Then administrative assistant Kathleen Kirk Stoves was bumped up to program assistant. Other staff changes loom.

“This has allowed us to reconsider the structure and, based on our strategic plan we wrote about nine months ago, it included an executive director so we made the decision to start a search. We’re going to look within and outside of Mobile. It may or may not be somebody with experience with nonprofits,” MAC Board President Jeff Marcus said.

He pointed to greater funding enabling the search. The opening will be posted soon.

“We’re going to hire another full-time person who will be very good at meeting planning, at financial analysis, that kind of stuff. I won’t call it an operations manager because that’s not our plan to hire an operations manager,” Marcus said.

From the awards stage, Marcus thanked Anaya along with Gafford, Stoves and Arty Awards Chair Devin Ford.

Marcus also noted arts as a cornerstone of tourism industries in Charleston, South Carolina, as well as Savannah and New Orleans. He nodded to his “friend Mike Dow,” former Mobile mayor and ACAC board president, who joins Marcus in wanting the same for the Azalea City.

The award winners?

• Art educator: Paige Vitulli

• Artistic design: Ron Barrett

• Arts soldier: Dr. Steven Alsip

• Artistic innovation: Frye Building Project

• Business: Wind Creek Hospitality

• Literary artist: John Sledge

• Performing artist: Thomas Rowell

• Visual artist: J.D. Crowe

• Organization: Mobile Museum of Art

The Jake Peavy Foundation snagged the Patron’s Award and was represented by Luke Peavy, brother of the namesake baseball player.
“This is an honor. We’re excited about Mobile,” Peavy told the crowd. He alluded to One Mobile and a downtown mural painted by four kids from the Boys and Girls Club as evidence of the difference being made by the arts.

Lifetime Achievement Award winner Tut Altman Riddick was warmly received. The visual artist and writer who has influenced and sponsored so many in the arts community was also the most poignant and poetic.

“Mobile is a diamond. I spent years looking for gold mines in other cities. Then I woke up one day and realized I had a diamond the whole time,” Riddick said.

She characterized all great art as “spiritual” and said that was why it meshed with Mobile so well. She told of the abundance of artists who fostered her growth and encouraged the same with others.

After Riddick, a short song and dance routine by Vernardos Circus performers reflected their “Broadway-level talent” accolades. The troupe will occupy ACAC Feb. 1-14.

Altogether, the evening displayed incredible growth from the awards’ modest 2004 beginnings. The ceremony and atmosphere is easily more momentous now than a decade ago.

Part of it is the date and setting. Cold weather makes for fancier dress and greater variety. You saw everything from white tie and tails to furs and sparkling evening gowns, from funky artists’ couture to one fellow donned in a keyboard-inspired silky suit with short pants and sock garters.

Drawbacks? The area with the hors d’oeuvres and bar was a bit too — cozy? Nah, more like claustrophobic at times. They could have more fully utilized the cavernous interior of the gallery now devoid of artwork.

The same huge room filled with hard surfaces amplified the decibel level of the live entertainment. Conversation could be difficult.

Which brings up the best problem: the overwhelming abundance of faces and names with whom Artifice wanted interaction, but lacked the time for it. It’s indicative of the vitality, variety and value in our cultural community.

Even so, there’s always room for more participants. Excelsior, Artys, excelsior.