For five decades now, one of Mobile’s biggest quandaries has been how to stop the outflow from downtown. It’s tied in with other aspects of urban identification, commerce and general vitality.
As evidenced by the route thus far – museums, hotels, cruise terminal, convention center – it’s obvious we’re betting on tourism. But every time we take steps in that direction, setbacks leave us in the same old spot.
Just this month, Kangal Gallery announced its closing. The bad news was preceded by Host Gallery’s recent demise and the exodus of Robertson Gallery to Oakleigh. Not exactly what we need for a thriving arts district, eh?
So what would have changed their fates? The obvious answer is buyers, they needed more people who actually laid down money for art.
How do we get that? Well, it’s apparent we have to turn somewhere other than local pockets for livelihood. That much has been evidenced.
So, what brings in outside buyers? That brings me to a conclusion I’ve fostered for a while now that Mobile is a prime candidate for an artists’ colony. A pile of traits weigh in our favor.
Foremost is our low cost of living. Artists tend toward the thrifty side, what with the “starving” and all. Turns out a dollar goes further here than in Greenwich Village or Santa Fe, Carmel or San Francisco.
That’s tied in with our size, small enough to be inexpensive but just large enough to offer most of the amenities of city life. We offer a place where the pace is a bit more laconic than inside a “beltway” or “perimeter” but you can still stop at a coffee house, catch an independent film then grab sushi at midnight if you like.
We have mild winters that cut down on not just discomfort but bills. The flip side is of course the battle with summer humidity that can wreak havoc on some art materials.
We have an abundance of natural beauty. The federal government isn’t intrigued by the idea of a local national park without cause.
Not only are we within a day’s drive of two major metropolitan areas – Houston and Atlanta – but our access to a more established cultural center in New Orleans can’t be discounted either. Not so much as a place to sell work to but as a starting point for tourism draw. If art-centric visitors can be lured up the coast to the Walter Anderson Museum in Ocean Springs, Miss., how hard would it be to pull them another hour into Mobile? Better yet, for those heading south on I-65, Mobile could be the first stop on a string of coastal artistic destinations.
The only real thing I can see in the “con” category are the periodic hurricanes and they come with so much warning, complete disaster can be averted. It’s easier to safeguard your works against danger than it would be with earthquakes or fire.
What do artists add to an area? They aren’t afraid of neighborhoods with economic variation. They know how to make do with less; DIY ethos and all. It’s a maxim in urban renewal canon they are an essential primary step toward revitalization.
And what does this do for our existing artists? Is it a rebuff? Not at all, as anything to increase exposure is good. There’s also the inspirational component. Among artistic types, density leads to good things as the best motivation is to surround yourself with others whose creativity is intimidating.
Some art colonies are completely organic, like what sprang from the high desert in Taos, N. M. When folks like Bert Geer Phillips and Mabel Dodge Luhan fell in love with the area, they spread their fervor through the grapevine. Their efforts eventually morphed into a commercial collective that transformed the little town into an international art hotspot.
Other colonies like Tannery Row in Buford, Ga., where former industrial facilities were converted, were more of a focused effort but it’s worked just the same. Cheap housing plus studio space equals an economic engine.
There’s other options as well. Just providing economically efficient living space in proximity to affordable studios – not necessarily under the same banner – does the trick.
When the Centre for the Living Arts opened the doors of its Conti Street showplace in 2003, one of their advisors told me the concept was akin to the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Va., along the lines of Tannery Row. Plans for the former Press-Register building have changed in the decade since then but recent news of residential space in unused portions revived my idealism. Could it somehow feed the overwhelming need for affordable rental space in downtown? Or will it join the list of condo developments that never reached fruition or were slow to fill?
What of the Buick Building on St. Louis Street, a sizable place in need of plenty of love? When Artspace – a non-profit who makes these type facilities – visited in 2011 and found Mobile ripe for it, they looked at the old Red Cross building, the Gayfers building and City Hall North. There’s no shortage of vacant space.
As with most other things in Mobile, this once again becomes a question of capital. The aforementioned Artspace visit hinged on the availability of public funds, something one downtown developer told me withered to drought conditions in the last seven years.
I don’t have a quick answer for this, I just know opportunity when I see it and this one is screaming for attention. I also know this is a longer-term solution than a hurricane simulator isolated from downtown by eight lanes of high-flow traffic…well, except for the defunct cruise terminal next door.
It’s low tech, depending on old-fashioned human creativity for its appeal. Which makes its price tag the best attraction we’ve seen in a long time.