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.