Commission revives arts in 8 counties

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Melia Dicker, Mississippi Arts Commission

Lisa Dunn, left, and Baba Ifalowo Asante Nalls, right, performing on the African djembe drums for a group of children in Bay Springs.

In fiscal year 2016, the Mississippi Arts Commission granted $1.5 million in funding to artists and art programs around Mississippi. But none of the commission’s money went to eight counties — and hasn’t for 10 years.

As the commission reviewed its work across the state last year, it became apparent that no one in Smith, Chickasaw, Humphreys, Tunica, Perry, Issaquena, Jasper and George counties had not so much as applied for a grant over the past decade, much less received one.

Non-profit organizations, schools, artists, art programs and local governments can apply for grants from the commission to aid a variety of projects, from fellowships and folk art apprenticeship grants for professional artists to operating and project grants for activities produced by communities, schools, cultural, municipal and other nonprofit organizations.

This year’s grant applications are available now at the commission’s website, www.arts.ms.gov. The postmark deadline is March  1.

“Right at the beginning of our fiscal year about July or August, we were looking back just kind of reviewing our work. Where have we been? And specifically everywhere we have not been,” said Mississippi Arts Commission director of art education Charlotte Smelser. “We wanted to know who we were serving and determine why we haven’t been serving those communities.”

Once they were identified, Smelser and the arts commission targeted those under-served communities and partnered with the state library commission, because all but one of the counties had a library.

During November and December, two professional artists of different disciplines were brought to each of those communities.

Mississippi Arts Commission

Mississippi Arts Commission Executive Director Malcolm White with Lisa Dunn and Baba Ifalowo Asante Nalls in Bay Springs, Jasper County.

“We had story tellers, musicians, visual artists. We had an illustrator. We had a couple of percussionists,” said Smelser. “We wanted to make sure they experienced a variety of artistic expressions.”

Lucedale-George County Library branch manager Cynthia Morgan believes exposing children in the community to things they don’t normally get a chance to see was the most important part of the program.

“A few of our schools do not offer art or music classes with one designated teacher. By having this program, we were able to give patrons a glimpse of art and the different forms of art,” said Morgan.

“There is no other value as important as having various art programs where children can extend their love for art and music, to thrive, to be creative and to cultivate positive change,” she said.

The Lucedale-George County Library heavily marketed the event with fliers and Facebooks posts, Morgan said, but inclement weather put a damper on the turn out Dec. 12.

“We had a really bad weather situation, so we only had 17 people show up,” said Morgan. “Being how bad it was, we were amazed even that many people showed up.”

Morgan, who was been at the library for just over a year, attributed the long time since her community applied for a grant from the arts commission to general lack of knowledge about the grant program.

“I didn’t know anything about this grant until they contacted me. So I’m going to say the knowledge was not there,” said Morgan.

Mississippi Arts Commission

Writer and storyteller Annie B. McKee entertained students in Jasper County.

Mayersville mayor Linda Short agreed, and she wasn’t familiar with the arts commission itself.

“It’s just the fact that we didn’t know,” said Short.

Now she’s eager to apply for grants and provide an opportunity to expose young people in the area to new forms of art.

“Just the fact that the kids could participate, it was really interesting,” said Short. “It really enlightened our youth that maybe they could pursue this in the future, to be some sort of artist.”

The Mississippi Arts Commission offers multiple types of grants, but the mini-grant — up to $1,000, dollar for dollar match — is the most common approved for municipalities, schools and nonprofit organizations.

“We worked specifically with these counties to encourage future grant applications and connections to the arts for their communities,” said Diane Williams, the commission’s director of grants. 

The current grant cycle ends June 1. There is no record of anyone from the under-served communities applying for grants so far, but both Short and Morgan said told Mississippi Today they definitely will submit applications.

The Arts Commission came under special scrutiny from the Legislature this session. Two bills — one in the House and the other in the Senate — would have folded the Arts Commission into the Mississippi Development Authority, transferring all duties of the current commission to the economic development office.

Legislators receives scores of emails, calls and social media posts from community arts leaders and residents concerned about the proposed takeover. Both bills subsequently died in committee Jan. 31.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of the story stated that the Arts Commission gave $1.1 million in grants. That has been updated to $1.5 million.