In May, Mississippi had a very special visitor in from DC – NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman came for a whirlwind tour of the greater Jackson area! While he was here, he met with Greenville’s own Betsy Bradley at the Mississippi Museum of Art! The NEA loves blogging just as much as we do, so we wanted to share his reflection of the trip with y’all. Read the full story after the jump!
Postcard from North Carolina, Mississippi, and Georgia (Part One)
May 17, 2012
by Rocco Landesman
I’m just back from an Art Works tour of some of our southern states. We started Sunday in Greensboro, North Carolina, where we visited Elsewhere, which is this very odd and unique arts space. It was originally a store owned and run by this incredibly eccentric lady, Sylvia Gray, who collected everything. There are dolls and pottery and costumes and mechanical pieces and every kind of fabric and quilt. She collected everything and threw nothing out. When she died, the space fell into complete disrepair and was just closed for many, many years. After a while Stephanie Sherman, the creative director there, and George Scheer, the collaborative director there (and Sylvia’s grandson), went in and just organized everything into stacks and shelves. One shelf has nothing but books, another has pieces of clothing in a huge big pile. And it’s now become a museum, a residency space for artists, and a place for really innovative arts education activities. It’s part of the revitalization of downtown Greensboro and a great example of creative placemaking. During my visit I was glad to meet with Stephanie; George was unfortunately out of town. I also met Barbara Peck who’s the public art consultant for the Greensboro Downtown Greenway.
It was also great to have a chance to chat with Wayne Martin, the newNorth Carolina Arts Council executive director and Deputy Director Nancy Trovillion. I was glad they were able to be with us pretty much the whole time. And of course I connected again with Linda Carlisle, the state’s secretary of the Department of Cultural Resources. This is probably my third or fourth meeting with Linda; she’s a fantastic state culture person and just a dynamo. Linda—who’s a Greensboro native by the way—is a real leader and absolutely passionate about the arts. I should mention that I have my own personal association with Greensboro because my old friend from high school, Ellen Fisher, one of my best and oldest friends, lives there. She started off my time in Greensboro with a trip to Steak and Shake for a reunion lunch!
After touring Elsewhere, we drove to Morehead Park, which is the site of one of our MICD25 grants. This was a sort of ribbon cutting for the project, which really transformed the greenway that surrounds Greensboro. There’s an abandoned railroad underpass, and now, thanks to the project, as you go through the underpass, you now have works of art in place. I made some remarks there, as did Chuck Cornelio from the Lincoln Financial Group, which I think has been a big patron of this. This is a really neat project, which is now going to be a wonderful walking, biking, and running loop around the town. You know, this used to be a really tough part of town, and it’s now a big part of the revitalization of that part of Greensboro. This is another great creative placemaking example of what the arts can do in transforming a place. Some of the other elements now in place are art benches and also lighting works under these overpasses that are incredibly aesthetic and compelling. It’s just a great, aesthetic setting that you really want to visit.
From Greensboro, I headed to Jackson, Mississippi. Our first outing in the morning was to the Mississippi Museum of Art, which is run by Betsy Bradley, who is a star. She is a very engaging, very passionate, very inspiring museum director. What they’ve done there is they’ve built a public garden outside the museum that connects the museum with the town. And it’s a beautiful, peaceful oasis in the middle of downtown Jackson. Here we met Malcolm White, who is the director of the Mississippi Arts Commission. You know right away when you meet Malcolm that this guy is the real deal. He’s respected everywhere and among all state arts directors as one of their real leaders. He is a dynamo, he is smart, he is passionate, and he has done wonders for the arts in Mississippi. Mississippi is probably—I started to say it’s the greatest arts state in the country per capita—but forget the per capita and think of the long line of writers, musicians, visual artists who have come from Mississippi. I could name a dozen of them and not get halfway there. For writers there’s Faulkner, Richard Ford, Eudora Welty— there are so many. Tennessee Williams is from Mississippi, too, and that just scratches the surface. There’s a tremendous literary tradition in Mississippi. Of course then you have the blues, and the great musicians who’ve come from there, like our own NEA National Heritage Fellow B.B. King. It’s really one of the most arts-centric states there is, if not the most, especially in literature and music. Malcolm has harnessed that energy and that identity and has done a tremendous job.
I also met Jim Barksdale, the founder of Netscape and one of the very prominent citizens of Jackson. Jim’s currently the Interim Executive Director of the Mississippi Development Authority, and his wife Donna is a board member of the Mississippi Arts Commission. She and Jim are both very dedicated to the arts. They get it about the role the arts play in the revitalization of a city. They’re very committed to the arts, and they’re the kind of people that, immediately when you meet them, you want to spend a day with them. I’m looking forward to getting to know them better as time goes on. It was also terrific to meet Roy Campbell, who’s the museum’s board chair.
After breakfast I was able to tour the museum’s Art Garden, which is beautiful. Very aesthetic. Very artful. They received an Our Town grant that will support educational and performance activities in the garden area. Michael Raff who works for the city as the director of human and cultural services also joined the tour, which was great.
It was a warm day and we had our panel discussion outside. Betsy Bradley moderated it, and it was a really good back and forth. Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson was there and also Elizabeth Williams, who’s the Our Town project director at the museum. She’s a very winning and appealing woman. Michael Beattie, the president and CEO of the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, was also on the panel, along with Beth West, a teacher at Davis Elementary School who talked about arts education very eloquently and very passionately. Another panelist Kelvin Moore, the general manager of the Jackson Convention Complex, talked about the intersection of the convention and business center and art. Our final panelist was William Goodman, a visual artist. I’m pretty sure he worked on some of the murals that are part of the exterior garden area. It was an unusual panel in that it was a wide variety of participants. We had arts executives, of course, like Betsy and Michael Beattie, but we also had an artist, we had a mayor, we had a teacher, and we had someone from the business community. It was a very diverse group, and a very fun conversation.
After the panel discussion, we toured the Mississippi Children’s Museum, which is also in Jackson. It was quite a thrill. This is one of the neater children’s museums I’ve seen. It’s very interactive, very fresh, very light, very welcoming, and it’s really a wonderful museum. Our tour was conducted by Susan Garrard, the executive director, and she couldn’t have been nicer. I also met Alicen Blanchard who’s their director of education. Malcolm White made that stop with us as well. You know, I think if you encounter a museum like this as a child you’ll be a museum-goer the rest of your life. I got to fire paintballs onto a canvas, and joked that I was the next Jackson Pollock. There are lovely outdoor spaces, and it’s just a very welcoming place for kids.
We then drove to Port Gibson, a town of about 2,000 people, and we met with folks from Mississippi Cultural Crossroads, which is the local arts agency there. We visited with Tara Wren, the agency’s executive director and a dedicated and tireless and selfless advocate for the arts in Mississippi. There are quilts hanging all over the place, and it’s really a big quilting center. We actually awarded them a grant to support a quilting apprentice program there. During our visit it was neat to see not just the quilts themselves, but also to see quilters at work.
We had a panel discussion there called the Port Gibson Creative Economy Roundtable. The focus was on the fact that you can have a creative economy in a town of 2,000 people, just as you do in a large city like Chicago. In Port Gibson, they are very focused on using the arts as a tourist draw, and as a way of keeping people in town. We had a very interesting roundtable with Malcolm White, of course; anything that has to do with Mississippi has to do with Malcolm! Malcolm’s colleagues Susan Dobbs, Sallye Killebrew, and Allison Winstead were also there along with Tara Wren, and her agency’s Board President Felicia Harried. We also had Milton Chambliss who’s an economic developer there, and Michael Walker who represents AT&T. AT&T is very active in the arts in this community and has been a supporter of Mississippi Cultural Crossroads. Susanne Anderson and Amy Davidson were also panelists, representing Entergy. Entergy/Grand Gulf Nuclear is a corporate funder of Mississippi Cultural Crossroads and a big driver of the economy in Gibson. Rounding out the panel were Kenneth Ross who’s the Main Street Executive Director, and Ramey Advertising Agency’s Chris Ray, who has a strong interest in the creative economy of the town.
My next stop after Mississippi was Georgia…but you’ll have to wait for part two to find out what I got up to in the Peach State…