Arts in Mississippi is crucial
By Beth Ann Fennelly
As poet laureate of the great state of Mississippi, I wish to speak out against SB 2611 and HB 1325, which would eliminate the Mississippi Arts Commission.
This political issue is personal to me. I’ve received support from the MAC at a crucial stage in my career. The money I gained didn’t allow me to quit my job or anything crazy, but it did provide support that let me further my project.
Mississippi is a poor state, we all know that, and in fact before moving to Mississippi 15 years ago, I lived in Chicago and received an artist grant from the Illinois Arts Commission that was double what I was awarded here, but no matter — I felt affirmed and bolstered to receive a grant from MAC. Instead of teaching summer school, I was able to focus on my work. I felt my state was investing in my investment in it. It was a pleasure to thank our state and MAC for the grant in the acknowledgements page in my book.
I also write as someone who did not win a grant from MAC. I was able to view the application process from the other side when I spent my time crafting an application that was denied. Although (of course) I was disappointed, I could appreciate the MAC’s efforts at transparency and careful consideration.
I was able to ask reasons why my application wasn’t successful, and while I didn’t know who the committee members were, I knew they had been carefully chosen, and that the MAC administration was comprised of dedicated artist/administrators. Which is to say — while I might not have agreed with their decision, I could trust that their decision wasn’t partisan or ill informed; these were smart and savvy arts people with experience and acumen, and my application was rejected simply because other applications were more compelling.
I take immense pride from my recent appointment as poet laureate, and part of that pride comes from knowing this honor wasn’t bestowed as a political favor but after careful reviewed by a committee — including MAC administrators — who considered my proposal, my books, and my interview.
I understand the new bill will move the MAC under the Mississippi Development Authority. This has given me pause, not only because it seems the hard working MAC folks were left-hooked with this news, but because I wonder what will happen to the arts in our state when they become a side business of another agency. And I have also been reflecting on how the arts and tourism intersect, and I believe that the best thing we could do for tourism in Mississippi is to increase funding for MAC and our state’s artists.
Because happy, supported artists who are tapped into our Mississippi traditions produce the kind of work that makes people want to visit here, move here, study here.
As an example, perhaps I might mention that though my poetry and memoir work is my main focus, I write on travel, culture, and design for Garden & Gun, Country Living, Southern Living, AFAR, The Oxford American, and others.
Even in these less poetic, more general-audience-friendly pieces, I always am interested in showcasing Mississippi.
I recently published a family travel piece in Preservation, a magazine of the National Trust for Historic Places, about the Native American burial mound of Mississippi. Southern Living published my piece on the South’s “Prettiest Sorority Houses” — the magazine editors gave me several to choose from in Arkansas, Texas, etc., but I made sure to include the University of Mississippi in my piece. Mississippi Magazine published my feature on biking the Tanglefoot Trail. I’ve written about Thacker Mountain Radio Show for the travel magazine AFAR, the now-defunct Junior Kimbrough juke joint in Holly Springs for The Oxford American, a renovated 1825 Fayette, home for Country Living, and Maude Schuyler Clay’s Sumner, home for O, the Oprah Magazine.
An article I wrote about how my daughter’s lemonade stands reflects the small town values of Oxford won the Society of American Travel Writers’ Lowell Award.
When I write these pieces, I’m not trying to get out propaganda; it’s simply that there’s much of Mississippi that’s poorly understood or overlooked by outsiders. My delight in our state and its riches can’t help but influence my choice of subjects.
It seems to me that having active artists in the state — writing, painting, dancing, making music, filming movies, telling stories — is crucial to Mississippi’s future.
Through our artists, and our arts organizations that give so much to the quality of life in Oxford (the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council, Thacker Mountain Radio, and the Film Festival, just to name a few) people can learn that many of the bad things they’ve heard about Mississippi are no longer true, and that there’s much here to admire and celebrate. Continuing to fund artists through an agency with a fifty-year background, an agency with transparency and passion for the arts, is a crucial step in attracting and retaining artists.
Mississippians who feel that the arts community and economic development should work together are correct — but the arts community will not flourish under the umbrella of the MDA.
Please reach out to your representatives and ask them to vote NO on SB 2611 and HB 1325. Senator Clarke, who is overseeing the committee, and can be reached at 601-359-3250.
Beth Ann Fennelly is an Oxford resident and Poet Laureate in Mississippi.