One or two passersby and the crash could have been more tragic. Now the hope is that it wasn’t ominous or portentous.
Artist Kenny Scharf’s graffiti mural on the exterior of the Centre for the Living Arts (CLA) was marred when stucco panels fell three stories to the Jackson Street sidewalk in June. Though it can be repaired, the damage is already done to the work created by the world-famous street artist in May 2013.
Metaphorically, the same could be said for the rumors running rampant through the rest of downtown about goings on at the contemporary arts center’s future. It’s the latest in rumblings commonplace since local philanthropic maven and co-founder Ann Bedsole left the board in 2010 and took with her an inroad to funding.
Come late summer 2014 and whispers have magnified. J. L. Bedsole Foundation Director Chris Lee has departed the CLA board citing a conflict of interests.
“I had been there for a dozen years and I could no longer represent their interests and others at the same time,” Lee said. “It was suggested to me I submit a resignation.”
The board has added Mobile ad man Rich Sullivan and Wind Creek Casino Vice President of Marketing Michael Perhaes. CLA Board Chair Mike Dow said their presence is part of new marketing and branding efforts.
Locals are also talking about attrition among the ranks. Apparently CLA is making do without a development director, an events coordinator or educational director. Even Director Bob Sain’s executive assistant left July 31.
CLA has told some creditors payments won’t be made until a property sale is completed, but bills would be ultimately be paid.
The property deal appears to revolve the front portion of the old Press-Register building – CLA is established in the back section of the newspaper’s former home between Conti and Government Streets – but recent issues have arisen with possible toxic contamination on the site.
Board members have indicated that while they have unexpectedly extended the residence of the current show, PRE-GLO, they are working on a “new, big exciting thing.” It’s also known they are anxiously awaiting news from the City of Mobile about funding, which sounds dangerous in light of the winnowing performance contracts to arts organizations.
Gallery hours have been trimmed to just three days a week. Sain was unavailable for comment.
Dow admitted they hit a snag in selling the property priced at $650,000. The former mayor also said they have commitments to get past the current financial slog.
“Remember a couple of years ago when the Exploreum was having those financial issues? This is like that,” Dow said. “Unfortunately, arts is the first thing governments cut.”
The board chair noted the long drain of managing the Saenger Theatre, a responsibility CLA returned to the city in 2013. They oversaw its $6 million-plus renovation in the previous decade.
“We took a $2 million hit on managing that theater over the last 10 years,” Dow said. “It still affected us last year.”
As to the environmental aspect, Dow pointed to the site’s history. The Press-Register’s usage of ink and solvents are possible culprits along with other former residents.
“There used to be a laundry, there used to be a service station, the Press-Register had certain chemicals,” Dow said. “Like many of the buildings in the downtown area, we had to do Phase Twos to go into the historical tracts so we’re still in the process of getting information of what potential uses the building can have.”
Dow initially said he was due to have a report from Southern Earth Sciences in hand either Aug. 4 or Aug. 5, but later pushed that deadline back “a few weeks.”
Dow said a worst-case report on the Government Street property would change its purposing. A parking garage would likely result.
The board chair said gallery hours will “absolutely” be expanded again as soon as funding becomes available. He said funding for the current year has been resolved.
“If you look at most every organization in town, relative to our attractions and that kind of stuff there has been a level of adjustments to staffing,” Dow said of the vacant positions. “So we’re trying to figure out the appropriate level that we can come back so we can stay within budgetary limits we’re going to set for ourselves.”
“The CLA can potentially survive this downtown,” Lee said of the finances. He stressed his absence from the board since June as a barrier to further insight.
“We’re looking to diversify our funding base, moving into the next level of corporate and business sources,” Dow said. “Our aim is to build an endowment.” He said Perhaes’ addition to the board isn’t part of an investment by the casino.
As regular readers of this column can attest, Artifice has long been a proponent of CLA and feels its contribution to downtown is essential. The decision to widen the scope of the exhibits, to try and draw tourist dollars with vaunted names was a giant step for Mobile.
We also realize our local arts realm can be fraught with blind spots, backbiting, politics, cliquishness and self-defeat. It’s stirred enough eye rolling on this end to form gravitational and magnetic fields around my eye sockets.
This should be facile. If we can’t see the tantamount message CLA’s closure would send to our downtown and our arts community, then one has to wonder if we deserve it all.