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August 25, 1998

Can the Arts Survive and Thrive in Mobile?

by Edmund Tsang

In a state and city imbued in the culture and tradition of spectator sports, can the arts survive or thrive in Mobile? That would require Mobilians to spend their disposable dollars and leisure time to support the arts.

Jean Galloway, executive director of Mobile Arts Council (MAC), the official umbrella organization representing arts group in the city, points to the result of a recent survey of local arts organization, which shows attendance at arts performance increased 74 percent from 1992-93 to 1996-97. She sees this statistics as a hopeful sign that more Mobilians are now appreciating art in enhancing the overall quality of life of the city.

Charlie Smoke, program director of WHIL-FM, the local classical-music public radio station, sees an exciting year ahead. "There seems to be a resurgence in the energies of the local art community," Smoke said in a telephone interview last week. "The Mobile Opera is presenting three programs this season as compared to two productions in past years. There is the rebirth of Mobile Symphony Orchestra and the expansion of Mobile Museum of Art. The new direction taken by Mobile Ballet last year in presenting Dracula was refreshing, and the international recognition received by Mobile Theatre Guild are all signs that the arts are doing exciting things."

For the arts to survive and thrive, Mike McKee, director of Mobile Theatre Guild, thinks Mobilians will have to develop a wider range of art appreciation and a greater sense of adventure. "When we put on plays with name recognition, we usually receive great support. But if the play is less well-known, there is not as much support," McKee added.

Jeremy Shannon, director of Mobile Opera, Inc., said his group has not trouble sustaining audience support. "Mobile Opera is the oldest art organization in Mobile at 53 years and the 15th oldest opera company in America," Shannon said. Without audience support, I don't think Mobile Opera would survive. As to whether we have enough support, of course we would like more support, especially among young people. But we do have an attendance rate between 85 to 90 percent in a 1,900-seat auditorium, and I think that's significant."

Shannon echoes the sentiment of McKee about Mobilians' taste for art. "Many people don't realize how accessible opera is," Shannon said. "Even though the opera is sung in German or Italian, there are English super-titles. Also, despite our production costs run over $100,000, our lowest-price ticket is only $15. It's the ultimate theater experience. People will like opera if they give it a try."

Dr. Robert Wermuth, professor of music at the University of South Alabama and for 30- plus years a classical violinist and an active member in the Mobile art community, is more reserved in his forecast of art's future in Port City.

"The arts have little sustaining power in Mobile," Wermuth said. "Compared to Pensacola, which has a smaller population, support for the arts here has traditionally been minimal, whereas in Pensacola people come out in droves."

Wermuth attributes one cause for poor participation by the public to the lack of marketing and publicity. "The summer film series at the Saenger Theater has been very successful. I saw lines forming outside the Saenger," Wermuth said. "I think people found out about these classic movies because they saw the ad in the daily newspaper every day for several days. For performances and presentations sponsored by local art organizations, all we have is a little blurb, and not particularly well-organized to effectively publicize the events."

Ms. Galloway told The Harbinger that the MAC Board has recently completed strategic planning in which marketing and publicity are among the goals that the board has adopted action plans for 1998-99.

"By the end of August our web page will come on-line," Galloway described one of the action plans. "We will also be responsible for putting together the arts and culture section of the City of Mobile web page on community events." The other three sections are business, sports, and special events.

Another event is the Showcase of the Arts in early September, which will feature various art mediums in a single program so the public can expand their taste and appreciation of the arts, Galloway explains. Tickets to the event are free, Galloway says, and can be obtained by contacting MAC.

"We have partnered a couple of times with the Boys and Girls Club of Mobile to provide art programs to a group which is traditionally under-served," Galloway said. "Another project is Arts in Education. You see, we have a generation of young people who graduated from our schools without having any arts experience, and it has taken its toll because many parents encounter their first art experience through their children."

The MAC has a grant pending with the National Endowment for the Arts' special program for traditionally under-funded states like Alabama that will be used to launch a community-outreach art project. "Part of the grant will be used to carry out an arts and culture assessment of neighborhoods and communities to find out the kinds of art programs that will excite them and get them to participate," Galloway said.

Galloway looks back at her 12-year tenure as executive director of MAC to speculate about the future of art in Mobile. "I don't have to elaborate on the changes in downtown Mobile in the seven years since our office moved to downtown," Galloway said. "Even though we have greater hopes that the art district around Cathedral Square would grow more as businesses in downtown grow, but I can't say I am disappointed. There is still an essence of art in downtown."

"I certainly would like to see more art galleries downtown because I think visitors and convention-goers would like to purchase a piece of art that is representative of this area," Galloway added. "I also like to see an array of after-school art activities for students in the Saenger Theater and other downtown spaces to animate the downtown areas in the afternoon with young people."

With the recent opening of the Cooper Riverfront Park and the imminent opening of the new Exploreum and Imax Theater and an expanded City of Mobile Museum in downtown,. Galloway sees an opportunity for the arts to become a permanent part of a revived downtown and to enhance the cultural life of Mobile.

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