Change comes in starts and stops, especially in Mobile’s cultural realm. A year-long streak of change continued this past week.
That’s when Alabama Contemporary Art Center Executive Director Bob Sain announced he will assume a new position as executive director of di Rosa, a contemporary art center in Napa Valley, California. His new job begins Jan. 15.
“This was a great opportunity I couldn’t turn down,” Sain said. By his account, national recruiters approached him months ago.
The 217-acre park in Northern California features three galleries with more than 2,000 works by 800 regional artists, a sculpture park and boasts an $8 million endowment. Namesake Rene di Rosa was the son of an heiress who became a journalist, art collector, vintner and philanthropist.
“Bob has made a lasting impact on our community by raising the bar and putting us on the path to being globally competitive,” ACAC Board Chairman Mike Dow said. “I think the fact he was hired by such a prestigious contemporary art museum as Napa Valley is evidence we had a good man.”
Dow estimates an interim director will be announced in the first two weeks of January, with another national search for a permanent successor to follow.
Sain assumed the helm at the then-Centre for the Living Arts in March 2011. His hire marked a sea change for the organization that was running the historic Saenger Theatre and a contemporary art gallery, Space 301 on Conti Street.
“The search committee and some of the people who were responsible for major funding wanted to become an international organization, and I felt the Centre should serve the people of this community first,” Ann Bedsole told Lagniappe in 2012. A politico, philanthropist and chief founder of CLA, Bedsole and then-chairman Carol Hunter resigned from the board.
Sain ran the Children’s Museum/Museo de los Niños in San Diego, LACMALab at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga, California, before coming to Mobile. As can be the case with transplants, he discovered tender local sensibilities.
In September 2011, Sain dismissed longtime Saenger Theatre employee Chris Penton. In response, one member of a Saenger advisory committee resigned, as did then-event manager Patty Thompson.
Sain told Lagniappe he wanted synergy with Space 301. He talked of more educational efforts and wider appeal.
“Everything from the kind of music, the type of music, the audience who comes, the ethnicity, the neighborhood, the geography and the age,” Sain said at the time. “Not just with music, but we’ll look at theater and we’ll look at dance.”
In response to backlash among locals, Sain and then-board chair Mike Rogers made public the sinking finances of the venue. Around that time, the annual Charlie Brown Christmas event moved from the Saenger to the Civic Center Theater, and producer John Milham voiced displeasure with changes in availability and pricing.
By the middle of 2012, the Saenger’s slate of programming failed to satisfy critics. They decried the absence of acts like Lyle Lovett, Allison Krauss and Robert Plant in favor of neo-soul up-and-comer Mayer Hawthorne and dance troupes from far-flung locales.
“You look at the fall schedule and you’d say, ‘Who booked that?’ Then you’d say, ‘Where do they live?’ It just doesn’t feel like anybody around here did it,” downtown business owner David Rasp told Lagniappe in 2012. “I want to know who hired these people. They say ‘CLA’ and that’s nice, but I want to know who are the decision-makers who brought this guy [Sain] in here to do this.”
In May 2013, CLA returned Saenger management to the city, which in turn contracted the operations out to corporate entities that rehired Penton for management.
Sain’s tenure was most notable for several excellent large-scale thematic shows such as the Memory Project, the Futures Project, Pre-Glo and the current show History Refused to Die, which is the largest show of African-American artists ever featured in Mobile. Internationally acclaimed artists like Californians Tom Leeser and Allison Saar, New Yorker Kenny Scharf, Paris’ Xavier de Richemont and Alabama’s Thonton Dial introduced their work and new perspectives to Mobile during that time.
It paid off, as ACAC has been the focus of articles in national and regional publications. Glowing comments have come from international visitors, even if it seems the facility is still slow to receive quick reference locally like other institutions.
Speaking of other facilities, Sain’s exit will mean the University of South Alabama Archaeology Museum will lose Associate Director Barbara Filion. Though a vital cog at the three-year-old facility, she is Sain’s wife.
‘We just had a meeting with the dean this morning [Dec. 11],” Filion told Artifice. “We have to work with Human Resources with job descriptions and all these other things, but I want to make sure there’s as smooth of a transition as possible. I’ll probably be leaving in late March, early April.”
Filion has been instrumental in various programming aimed at not only bringing in the public but reaching out to Mobilians. Off-campus efforts like their Science Cafes have furthered the spread of scientific and critical thinking in the local populace.
In the last 11 months, we’ve seen Bob Burnett and Charlie Smoke leave the Mobile Arts Council, Mobile Opera move their shows from the Civic Center to the Temple on Claiborne and a seismic shift at the History Museum of Mobile, including the departure of director David Alsobrook. If variety provides life’s spice, our cultural scene could give one a Cajun heartburn right about now.