Last week’s Artifice found us at a table with Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s Chief of Staff Colby Cooper discussing the History Museum of Mobile. Cooper became de facto cultural administrator for a scattering of Mobile institutions when the new administration eliminated the Office of Cultural Development in 2013.
Among the subjects broached was the state of Mobile’s cultural scene as a whole, the issues it faces and possible solutions based on what’s worked in other towns. The possibilities sounded familiar yet new.
Though not a Mobile native, Cooper has managed to grasp some of the area’s longtime difficulties. Many have historical precedent, such as Mobile’s constant issues with capital.
“We all recognize that in Mobile, until we have an outlier situation where someone of exorbitant wealth moves into this area, there is only a certain amount of benevolent money in the city of Mobile every year,” Cooper said. “And all we do is cannibalize from one organization to another, and city government is also one of the biggest benevolent-giving organizations every year.”
The reference stirred memories of the widespread outcry a year ago when the administration’s proposed 2015 budget disappointed several arts organizations. The shrinking or disappearing financial support provoked public outcry by groups like Mobile Arts Council, Mobile Opera and the Gulf Coast Exploreum.
The chief of staff is quite aware of the factionalism that often works against arts groups and sees room for a new approach.
“One of the things Mobile could possibly explore — other great cities have used this model very effectively — is essentially an arts and culture commission, which, if you look at a San Diego, or a Charlotte or a New Orleans, you have an umbrella organization whose sole responsibility is the promotion and advocacy of the arts and cultural entities,” Cooper said. “They work hard to streamline them both in a functional role, accessibility, not necessarily programming because you leave that up to the independent organizations, but then they really work hard to coordinate fundraising.”
Cooper mentioned “fundraising capability with large-scale national grants,” which sounded like a governmental version of the Mobile Arts Council. If locals are as bent toward streamlining as they seem to be, wouldn’t resistance be a likely result?
“The question is, is that resistance worth it because it’s actually making it better?” Cooper said. “Right now, who is the advocate for the arts and cultural entities in the city of Mobile?”
Cooper thinks with such an entity Mobile could be a cultural epicenter for the region. He said the administration is passionate about the goal but would need the city council and community to share that zeal.
“Arguably you want to create a buffer from government so that you don’t have the political skepticism that often surrounds decisions made within government. Then you get the right people, meaning people who know the industries, who know how to [raise funds], who know how to do development, who have networks that stand all across this country and this world to bring in the resources.”
He readily admits investments in museums are an investment in quality of life with no real hope for financial remuneration of the typical sort. Making the city a place that keeps its best citizens and attracts even more, along with better business, is the return.
Cooper’s vision also includes some type of “quality control.” When government has no restraint on growth, he emphasized, it becomes too adversarial.
“In performance contracts, it’s us versus 80 organizations out there and you could really do some good if there was a filter of sorts, not a filter to make it easier, a filter that makes it better,” Cooper said. “What is that empowering mechanism that says, this year Organization X, because of their programming, deserves this and you have a liaison out there that can work with these organizations rather than doing what government has done de facto, they just level fund and they’ve done it for 20 years.”
Since administration of the Mobile History Museum has been handed to its board of directors, Cooper has at least cleared enough of his plate to possibly make plans toward that end. With the amount of change in the air, it wouldn’t be the most surprising thing.