Arts and civic leaders poured out tributes Friday to Mai Bell Hurley, a passionate, dedicated advocate for the arts in Chattanooga for decades and a respected public servant who died Friday morning at age 87.
Hurley was honored in March with ArtsBuild's 2015 Ruth Holmberg Arts Leadership Award for her contributions to the arts in Chattanooga and her involvement in the cultural life of the community.
A founding member of Allied Arts (the precursor to ArtsBuild), she was chairwoman of the organization's board and led its fundraising campaign twice. Hurley also served as chairwoman of the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera and the Tennessee Arts Commission.
"Tennessee has lost a tremendous champion of the arts," said Anne B. Pope, executive director of the Tennessee Arts Commission. "Her significant service has greatly impacted countless people and helped communities become stronger by improving quality of life, economic development and arts education."
"She was a special friend to the arts and to so many people in our community," ArtsBuild President Dan Bowers said. "She was visionary and a bold thinker who was ahead of her time. So many of the things that we see today in Chattanooga trace back to work that she had a huge hand in starting."
She was the first woman elected to the Chattanooga City Council and served on the council for 11 years.
"I had the great fortune to be mayor of Chattanooga while Mai Bell was one of the stalwarts of the City Council, and there was nothing accomplished during the time I was in office that Mai Bell was not a key part of," said former Mayor Jon Kinsey. "Her time on the City Council was just a continuation of her great service she provided this community for many decades."
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, former Chattanooga businessman and mayor, worked closely with Hurley on downtown revitalization issues starting in the 1980s.
"Looking back on the revitalization of Chattanooga and the many positive things that have happened in our great city over the past few decades, so much of it has Mai Bell's fingerprints on it," Corker said in a statement Friday.
"As a young businessman, I had the great privilege of working closely with Mai Bell through our work with Chattanooga Venture, and later, she played an important role in the creation of Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise. I cannot overstate what she has meant to me personally and to our community, and I feel honored to have had the opportunity to work with her over the years. Elizabeth and I extend our thoughts and prayers to all who were touched by Mai Bell's life."
Virginia Anne Sharber, executive director of the Hunter Museum of American Art, said Hurley served as a "true mentor" throughout the years.
"She was an absolute institution and she is going to be so missed," Sharber said. "When I think of people involved in the arts in our community, she is at the top. She was a rock on so many levels."
Sharber added that she is especially "thankful that ArtsBuild honored her recently for her work, and that she knew how highly people in the arts regarded her."
Hurley was the first female community campaign chairwoman for United Way in 1988 and was board chairwoman in 2004-2005. She also served on the board for many years, and on numerous other committees and advisory panels.
"Mai Bell was adamant that Chattanooga should be the best place to raise a child," said Lesley Scearce, United Way of Greater Chattanooga's president/CEO. "Her work on behalf of our children will have tremendous impact on generations to come."
Funeral services are set for Thursday at First-Centenary United Methodist Church.
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