We tend to think of creative pursuits as solo endeavors – the sculptor alone in their studio, the writer bent over a desk, the composer scrawling on sheet music – but to support these things, we have to come together and act in unison and that isn’t always as instinctive as many assume.
Over the years, patrons and members of our creative community have asked me what it takes to endure in Mobile. How do you build coalition and keep it? How do you maintain focus and circumvent the pettiness to which human personality is prone?
My assumption is their queries find me not only because I’m in a position as Lagniappe’s arts editor to have witnessed organizations thrive and fold, but also because I’ve been involved in a few groups that have weathered the storms of time – some literally – as well. That said, my observations are still prone to my biases.
I sit on the board of the Gulf Coast Ethnic and Heritage Jazz Festival (GCEHJF). Local attorney Creola Ruffin conceived the multi-day event at the close of the 1990s after attending a similar festival out of town. By the time I joined the board, it had established a proven track record and a string of successful events.
The board isn’t big, with fewer than 10 members and sometimes fewer than that attending meetings. With such a small size, it’s easy for people to join and have as big as an impact as Dr. Joseph Mitchell and his wife Janetta Whitt-Mitchell did during most of the last decade. That can be both beneficial and problematic.
The entire festival covers multiple events in downtown Mobile during early August, when most of us are seeking refuge from the oppressive summer weather. While the avoidance of football season and a cluttered spring calendar should have made success more attainable, it also presented obstacles.
The early model for GCEHJF’s main event was built on the ideal of open-air gatherings similar to those in New Orleans, Monterey and Newport. That was nearly impossible to achieve with any consistency in mid-summer Mobile. The festival was constantly battling either heat or deluge, sometimes having to scramble on the day of the event find shelter. Finally, the decision was made to move it indoors permanently, but that would have never been possible without the fortunate assistance of Scott Gonzalez, owner of the Scottish Rites Temple. Adaptation was key.
Now warming up for its 16th year, the festival is still churning along but mainly due to the endeavors of Ruffin. She’s applied for grants and made overtures that have kept it alive, but she’ll readily admit it’s been taxing. With a few new board members who boast specific experience with similar events in larger markets, we’re still hopeful GCEHJF will see 20 years.
As another model, there’s the Mystic Order of the Jazz Obsessed (MOJO), bearing stark contrasts to GCEHJF. The original concept of MOJO was to specifically and consciously focus efforts on supporting jazz in Mobile. It wasn’t to be an annual event but an ongoing coalition of like-minded individuals.
Our initial attempts at democratization of the group’s activities, though, were laborious. Group discussion would sometimes bog down, making action difficult. Newcomers would come to meetings expecting to encounter discussions of the art we loved, but would be turned off by the endless scrutiny of rules or procedure.
Finally, we hit upon a formula for monthly success that seemed somewhat self-perpetuating. However, had it not been for the benevolence of Bill Frazier, the manager of a historic club in downtown, MOJO likely would have folded long ago.
Realizing the average MOJO member didn’t care if they were privy to the inner-workings of the organization, we slowly dispensed of monthly nuts-and-bolts membership meetings in place of board meetings only. The members came together at the monthly “info-tainment” events, which is all they really wanted anyway, not to argue about how many saxophone-playing angels could stand on the head of a pin.
Our board stands in stark contrast to the GCEHJF model in that we have roughly 15 members who readily share most all responsibilities. We’ve been exceedingly fortunate to find individuals who are willing to put the aims of the organization above their own and that’s more rare than you might think.
Our monthly board meetings focus on speed, making the process last less than an hour. Often the board meetings are only 30 minutes. One member has long said in his notable life, the MOJO meetings are about the only board meetings he actually enjoys attending. The mood is collegial, bickering is non-existent and everyone leaves in good spirits. As a result, those most dedicated to seeing the organization endure stay fresh.
Looking across Mobile’s arts groups, it’s not hard to find bad examples. In some, petty power struggles emerge and it becomes about the individuals as heads roll to serve private agendas. Other groups become mired and the smallest decisions become unwieldy because of group dynamics and weak power structure. Neither extreme serves best.
The crux is finding individuals suited for leadership, not those who merely demand it. Coax the best from them and the benefits ripple beyond your group and across the whole community.