Bill would abolish Arts Commission, transfer power to Development Authority

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The Mississippi Arts Commission, approaching its 50th year of operation, would be folded into the Mississippi Developmental Authority under the governor’s purview if a recently released bill is passed by the Legislature this session.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Lydia Chassaniol, R-Winona and chairwoman of the Senate Tourism committee, would transfer all Arts Commission power, responsibilities and assets, including employees, to the Mississippi Development Authority, which operates directly under Gov. Phil Bryant.

The bill was released this week with no prior warning given to the commission’s executive director or 15-person board.

The goal of the new structure would be “to promote Mississippi’s economic development through the arts,” according to the comprehensive 22-page bill.

“In my conversations with the governor and the officials at Visit Mississippi (the tourism division of the Mississippi Development Authority), I have learned that many business and industry recruits are looking for a more complete cultural experience as they consider locating in Mississippi,” said Chassaniol, who served on the Arts Commission in the 1990s.

Under the bill, the current commission and its board would be abolished. The governor would appoint a new 15-member advisory board, which would meet at the discretion of MDA Executive Director Glenn McCullough.

Bryant in recent weeks has floated the idea of consolidating certain boards and commissions, and in last week’s State of the State address, he mentioned his desire to consolidate or completely eliminate 16 boards or commissions to “generate cost savings” to the state over an extended period of time. He did not name specific boards and commissions, and his office did not respond to that question posed last week.

Bryant’s office also did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Malcolm White

“I don’t get it. We’ve been completely blindsided,” said Malcolm White, executive director of the Arts Commission. “I met with my board yesterday, and none of them saw this coming, either. They’re all in the same state of disbelief that this would be presented.”

The Arts Commission, established by the Legislature in 1968, provides assistance and distributes grants to support creative activity within the state, including projects sponsored by local governments, museums, schools, non-profit organizations and individual artists. The commission also has traditionally expended resources to improve public awareness of Mississippi arts inside and outside the state.

The commission is funded in part by the state, but also receives federal arts funds and private donations. Last fiscal year, the commission received $1.7 million from the state, which was 11 percent less than the previous fiscal year.

In his executive budget proposal released in late 2016, Bryant proposed appropriating $1.7 million next fiscal year to the commission, while the Legislature’s budget proposal, also released in late 2016, recommended giving the commission $1.6 million.

“At a time when our state’s resources are limited, it seems prudent to consolidate our agencies when possible,” Chassaniol said. “This bill will permit the larger goal of expanding and promoting Mississippi’s unique culture in a more fiscally responsible way.”

Neither Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves nor House Speaker Philip Gunn were available for comment Tuesday evening.

“I don’t have any answers. All I’ve got are questions,” White said. “I’m just honestly baffled. We’re trying to figure out what on earth this is about. What’s political about the arts? We’re a nonpolitical agency. This proposal is to move us from nonpolitical structure to the executive branch. It’s not where the arts should be.”

Editor’s note: Mississippi Today donors Donna Barksdale, Carol Puckett and Nan Sanders serve on the Mississippi Arts Commission. Barksdale also is chairperson of the Mississippi Today board of directors.

  • Danny Lampley

    Hey, we won’t need no artsy-fartsy stuff anyway when we go down to the countryside to work the fields.

  • Jootmo

    The following is my personal opinion, and my opinion may change if I am presented with new data…

    I’ve always thought that “the arts” should exist based upon patrons, consumers, supporters, sales, donations, etc. If there is a demand for the arts, the arts will never cease to exist. For the most part (there’s always an exception or two or 297), governments should not be involved with such endeavors

    • Bebe Wolfe

      Another way to think of this- rather than thinking the arts existing to solely to meet the demand of patrons as you outline in your remark, the arts, which include music, drama, dance, writing and poetry and well as visual art, are part of the cultural fabric of a place- and provide solace, recreation and enrichment to the citizens- just as parks and green spaces , maintained for the enjoyment of all, enrich a city’s habitat.

      • Jootmo

        Simply, I don’t believe the government should be “in the business” of financially supporting, much less providing entertainment (including parks) to the citizens. Why? There are more critical areas to which our taxes should go. I agree that the arts enhance our lives, day-in and day-out, but there are more critical needs, which are not being properly funded.

  • Thile

    The arts only matter if money is made.

  • YouAintLivnInDaRealWorld

    The goal is to steal the money from arts and give it to republicans’ rich buddies and foreign corporations. The Development Authority scam is what should be abolished.