Mobile’s arts community was shocked when Mobile Arts Council’s (MAC) Bob Burnett suddenly resigned Jan. 14. A search through records and news stories show the now-former executive director first reported for duty Nov. 3, 2003.
“We wish Bob all the best in this next chapter of his career,” MAC Board President Bunky Ralph said in a press release. “Our organization is grateful for his contribution to Mobile’s creative community and we thank him for his service.”
Burnett’s reign atop MAC was among the longest in the organization’s history. Former director Jean Galloway led the body for 17 years until she left in 2002.
In a conversation with Burnett, he attributed the decision to personal matters. He also acknowledged breaking the news to the board in a Jan. 12 meeting.
“We will keep our members, patrons, sponsors and stakeholders updated as plans are made to address the leadership of the organization,” Ralph said.
She said current staff will continue on and revealed her plans for an increased presence at MAC. There is no timetable for naming a successor.
Currently, MAC Associate Director Charlie Smoke finds himself at the helm. The remaining staff members are Director of Operations Hillary Anaya and Education Coordinator Riley Brenes.
Smoke has been in this position before. He took charge when previous executive director Robin Harvey was axed in January 2003 after just nine months on the job. Harvey and Smoke were both hired in the spring of 2002.
In a search for Harvey’s successor, the first selection turned down the job offer in July 2003. Burnett stepped in and quelled the resultant angst.
What the Indiana native brought to Mobile was fresh perspective from beyond Mobile’s fishbowl. He also carried experiences gained at the wheel of a larger vessel as he was director of the Columbus Area Arts Council, a similar group that served 11 counties in south-central Indiana, had a $750,000 budget, nine full-time and four part-time positions.
When he arrived in the Azalea City, Burnett took charge of an umbrella organization with an annual budget of around $300,000 and a staff of three. At this point, MAC boasts a membership of about 200 organizations and artists.
In perhaps the greatest of coincidental omens, the first Arts Alive festival unfolded five days after Burnett moved into his Mobile office. That night of singular magic made it seem as if the arts were finally ascendant in the Azalea City.
Burnett also oversaw overdue changes. Old notions of MAC as the reserve of wealthy housewives and a support agency for the pleasures of the ruling class needed to be addressed.
The MAC offices were moved from a previous perch in a hidden corner above Dauphin and Jackson to a highly visible street-level spot in sleek, modern and accessible environs on Dauphin at Cathedral Square. They added galleries and figuratively swung their doors open wider than they had ever been.
It wasn’t long before MAC re-evaluated their annual “Showcase on the Arts,” a performance-oriented Saenger event that had waned in attendance. Those energies were re-directed toward an Arts Forum and the Greater Mobile Art Awards. The awards in particular brought greater attention to the area’s cultural achievements.
Fundraisers were implemented in the fall and spring. The autumn version mutated into the popular and successful “Arts Throwdown,” a beat-the-clock challenge with climbing attendance and buzz.
During Burnett’s time, MAC membership grew from nearly 50 organizations to more than 200 member organizations and artists. MAC also published an artists’ directory spanning mediums and genres.
MAC coordinated the emergence of public sculptures throughout downtown, some of which doubled as bicycle racks. Mobile’s dearth of public art had been cited as a need in previous studies.
They began the Artbreakers program that helped curious Mobilians become active participants through group involvement. It boosted attendance at various arts happenings.
They began the ChARTing New Directions educational program that served at-risk youth at Mobile’s Strickland Youth Center. The program was expanded to the Boys and Girls Clubs.
They transitioned the arts calendar from a print format to an electronic one. That led to the establishment of Art Start, the email notices which remind members of the daily arts events.
MAC was a key player in the implementation and growth of the monthly LoDa Artwalks. They remain at the hub of those activities, with the crowd at its thickest around their location.
Through it all, Burnett delivered a message of inclusion. When Artifice recently asked him what he wanted to see for the arts in 2015, he was quick to list all the artists that need greater appreciation.
“So much of what we have in our community is taken for granted, from artists on the streets to garage bands and slam poets, from museum collections to what is on our walls at home, from church choirs to temple cantors, high school bands and second-line brass bands to classical musicians and opera singers,” Burnett offered.
Burnett’s era was rough on nonprofits. Over most of the last decade, corporate and individual giving has faded on a national level and locally as well. Last year’s tumult over the city of Mobile’s decision to cut back performance contracts to cultural players was only the latest salvo in what have become uncertain times for the arts community.
In a farewell statement released to the arts community, Burnett pointed to MAC’s approaching 60th anniversary and echoed familiar sentiments. He challenged locals.
“The time for complacency is over. This is your community, and you determine what is valued … the most important thing that you can do to shape the quality of life in our community is to be engaged,” Burnett wrote. “Support the local creative organizations by attending performances and exhibitions, purchase work by local artists and craftspeople, and more consciously integrate creativity into your life.”
Arts Alive premiered with his arrival. Coincidentally, the festival recently announced its departure from the arts and entertainment district to be folded into a bigger event at Brookley Industrial Complex.
A portentous bookend signaling a return to Mobile’s pre-2003 arts community? We best hope not.