OCEAN SPRINGS, Miss. (WLOX) - The Mary C. O’Keefe Cultural Center will soon fall under the organizational control of the city of Ocean Springs.
Amid the controversy swirling around the Mary C. is a successful non-profit group, a well-known theatre company, and a mayor and board of aldermen that all have a vision for the future but disagree on how to get there.
The Friends of the Mary C., for many years, have worked to foster a community that values and engages in creative expression through exposure to arts, culture, history and education.
According Mayor Shea Dobson, he would like that work to continue. However, city leaders voted unanimously to relinquish the Friends of the Mary C. of their day-to-day operational responsibility of the nearly 100-year old building.
The reason behind the move: A newly hired director of the Parks and Recreation Department wants to incorporate and implement more of the arts within the department with the help of a not-yet-hired facility coordinator.
“The Friends of the Mary C., we want them to be involved. We want them to work with all of these organizations and still provide all for the great content. It’s just that they won’t have to worry about the administrative side as that will be on the city to handle,” said Dobson.
“The new coordinator will have an expanded scope. What this is, in reality, is expanding arts and expanding the culture and such so that all of our efforts that we don inside the city of Ocean Springs to include more projects, innovative projects, innovative art and expand it into all of the city.”
Now that a new Parks and Recreation Director is in place in Ocean Springs, city leaders want to hire a coordinator for the Mary C. O’Keefe Cultural Center in an effort to create a South Mississippi arts and culture center right here in Ocean Springs.
“By the city really putting it in with the Parks Department, and saying, hey the arts is just as important as the parks, that arts are just as important as the recreation and the sports and all that, this is a pillar of our community and I think this direction will go a long way into solidifying that,” Dobson said.
To make sure that this won’t become another example of governmental overreach, Dobson plans to keep artists engaged.
“We’re talking about putting together an advisory board made up of artists. We want ensure that the Mary C. is artist-led and artist-moved. That will be an important aspect, this advisory board,” Dobson told WLOX.
According to the Friends of the Mary C., that’s what they’ve been doing for 20 years.
“The mission began to restore this historic building and the Friends’ job is to be an ambassador and steward of this building as well as provide arts and cultural programming for the city,” said board chair of the Friends of the Mary C., Elizabeth Feder-Hosey.
And the Friends couldn’t accomplish this task without an experienced staff.
“We rely on two full-time volunteers, we have contracted instructors, arts instructors, culinary instructors, we have an executive director to oversee the finances, we have a marketing director and we have other employees who work on education and outreach,” Feder-Hosey said.
Even though the city will now only manage the day-to-day operations of the Mary C., those connections are still vital to the success of the programming, said Dobson.
“I’ve informed the Friends that we want to work with them and make sure this transition goes as smooth as possible that we can ensure that their great programs and their great classes and such is, you know, we maintain it and we work with them to keep it going,” said Dobson.
Feder-Hosey says that the mayor hasn’t explained how this relationship will work. “In effect, all he has asked from us is to hand over our programming data and said that he wants to take over our mission. So, at this point, you know, it really just feels like a take-over that’s trying to be pushed through rather quickly,” she said.
Prior to this side of the story, a contract dispute between the Friends of the Mary C and the Walter Anderson Theatre Project was also brewing.
“At some point we received a notification from them that they were cancelling our contract,” said Susan Agnelly, Board President of the Walter Anderson Theatre Project. “We were upset. We were very upset. We felt like we had nowhere to turn. We were told to come get our stuff out.”
The Friends of the Mary C voted to end the contract with the Walter Anderson Theatre Project on June 24 because of a perceived lack of organizational structure among other issues.
On the same day, the city of Ocean Springs demanded that the Friends of the Mary C cease and desist the vote and decision to end the contract with the Walter Anderson Theatre Project. Then, 16 days later, the city informed the Friends that their administrative services were no longer needed at the historic building and gave them 90 days to vacate.
For now, the whole situation leaves the South Mississippi art community in limbo.
“We just put on shows. That’s all we do. I’m neither for it or against it. I just wanted to have a place for us to do our shows,” Agnelly said.
According to documents, the agreement between the city of Ocean Springs and the Friends of the Mary C ends on October 10. As of now, no timeline has been given for the hiring of the new city coordinator that will oversee the building.