Communities strive to make art part of development plans

Published 2:51 pm Wednesday, June 29, 2011

“We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” Winston Churchill

Neither creativity nor economics are new to our thinking, but the nature and extent of the relationship between them and how they combine to create extraordinary value and wealth is an innovative new concept.          

More and more communities around Mississippi are striving to make the arts and creativity a part of their plans for development. An important part of these plans is having a physical space where arts activities can take place. In many communities, arts groups are playing an important role in redeveloping historic districts by utilizing existing buildings, therefore contributing to the economic development of their area. Community members like to see the historic theater or other older commercial buildings put back into active use. However, many of these buildings need substantial repairs or upgrades in order for them to be fully utilized by the arts organization.

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The Mississippi Arts Commission (MAC) has long recognized this need and has worked tirelessly to give the arts an address in communities across the state. The Building Fund for the Arts (BFA), an initiative administered by MAC, was launched ten years ago as a special grant program focused on assisting arts groups and local governments with making repairs and upgrades to arts facilities. From 2001 through 2007, the Mississippi Legislature approved $19.2 million in bond funds that have been distributed through this competitive grant program to 132 projects around the state.

These grants have helped to transform spaces throughout Mississippi. BFA has supported several recent high profile projects, including the B.B. King Museum in Indianola, the Mississippi Children’s Museum in Jackson, and the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi. The grant program has also been an important component of many smaller-scale projects that have nonetheless made a deep impact in their communities, such as the restoration of the Haven Theater in Brookhaven, repairs to the Triangle Cultural Center in Yazoo City, and the beginning of the conversion of a former hardware store into an arts space in downtown Booneville.

While BFA has funded big and small projects, the program required each grantee to make a substantial investment in the project. Applying for this grant required strong and strategic area partnerships. Local businesses, foundations, and supportive members of these communities have worked diligently and have invested their time and funding in their cultural infrastructure. They were required to raise matching funds, insuring that there was significant local support for each project, not just a “good idea” that was only shared by a few people. The result of these collaborations is the construction of new cultural facilities and the restoration of old buildings. These structures provide a location for community theatre, after-school art classes for children, and other varied cultural activities.

The BFA grant program is the quintessential example of the creative economy at work. The resulting partnerships and collaborations in these communities generate new wealth, are a source of economic growth, and stimulate jobs. The Mississippi Arts Commission realizes and celebrates the significance of revitalization, restoration, and the value of the arts having a home in each Mississippi community through bricks and mortar.

Currently, the BFA initiative is unfunded, and the remaining active grantees are working to complete their projects statewide. The MAC is steadfast in our belief that this program has helped to improve the state’s arts infrastructure, economic development, and the innovative workforce. All the while, the initiative continues to put into place new or improved facilities that will host and showcase the next generations of creative Mississippians in the spirit of Leontyne Price, William Faulkner, Natasha Tretheway, Elvis Presley, Thalia Mara, William Grant Still and Robert Johnson.