The news was broken to the Mississippi Arts Commission’s 15-member board in a conference call on Monday: A Senate bill would abolish their agency in its current form.
And on Thursday – just four days after the commission heard of the bill that would dismantle the current structure of the 49-year-old agency – the Senate Appropriations Committee could vote to send the bill to the Senate floor.
The bill aims to accomplish this:
• Transfer all responsibilities, power and assets of the Arts Commission to the Mississippi Developmental Authority on July 1
• Allow the governor to appoint 15 people to a new Mississippi Arts Advisory Council, dismantling the current Arts Commission board
• Leave council meetings to the discretion of Mississippi Development Authority director, currently Glenn McCullough.
But the language of the bill leaves commission leaders with more questions than answers about the future of such commission duties as distributing $1.5 million per year in grant money to Mississippians and running the agency’s longstanding educational programs.
“My staff did not ask for this,” Malcolm White, the commission’s executive director, told Mississippi Today. “Their lives have been upended with no notice or explanation. They know they are state employees, and they cannot speak out about this. I’ll soon have to make the decision about whether I’m more interested in a paycheck or standing up for my life’s work.”
This week, as commission employees scramble to develop last-second lobbying strategies to fight the transition and the state’s arts community rallied to defend the current Arts Commission, some ask: Could the merger work?
The National Assembly of State Arts Agencies works closely with state arts commissions and tracks how they are funded and structured. The Washington-based group, which does not take political sides, also conducts objective research of the agencies and how they operate.
Eight state arts commissions currently operate under economic development agencies, which would be the case for Mississippi if the proposed law is ultimately enacted. If passed, Mississippi would be the eleventh state to restructure control of its art commission in 22 years.
“From a programmatic perspective, I have not seen structure predetermining the success of a state arts agency,” said Kelly Barsdate, chief program and planning officer for the national group. “I think that state arts agencies can bloom wherever they are planted. They’ve got to distribute funds equitably, deliver relevant services, gain the confidence of elected officials and show impact. Where it’s placed doesn’t change any of that.”
The most common structure for state arts agencies is the one the Mississippi Arts Commission currently holds: an independent agency, supported by state, federal and private funds, with commissioners appointed by the governor.
Other statistics published by the group offer perspective:
• In the past 20 years, average state appropriations for independent arts commissions such as currently operates in Mississippi has increased by more than 50 percent.
• Average appropriations for arts commissions operating under state economic development agencies, as proposed by Sen. Lydia Chassaniol’s bill, has decreased by about 5 percent in the same time period.
• A third approach, arts commissions operating under tourism agencies, has seen average appropriations decline by 62 percent.
•Between 1994 and 2014, state appropriations for arts commissions that had not gone through any structural changes increased by 29 percent.
• During that same 1994-2014 period, appropriations for commissions that went through structural changes decreased by 28 percent.
“I am not saying that this is causal, but I am saying those are pretty sobering numbers,” Barsdate said.
“My counsel, when lawmakers call, is to make provisions – explicit provisions – to ensure the budgetary well-being and human resources of the agency if it’s going to be changed,” she said. “From a statistical perspective, one of the things that I would say needs attention during proposed transition is continuity of a state’s investment in the arts.”
Few details of how a transition to the development authority would work have been released by officials pushing the bill.
Bill author Chassaniol, R-Winona and chairwoman of the Senate Tourism committee, said in a statement Tuesday that she coordinated with Gov. Phil Bryant and the Mississippi Development Authority tourism department before filing the bill.
Chassaniol’s only comment Wednesday was a brief email in which she said she “is interested in freeing up administrative funds for arts projects,” and “any time change is proposed there seems to be concern.”
In the House, Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, chair of the House Tourism Committee has introduced a bill referencing various Mississippi code sections applying to the Mississippi Arts Commission, thus allowing those sections to be amended. Currie did not respond to phone calls or emails seeking comment on her bill.
MDA officials said in an email that they would “perform all duties and responsibilities designated by the Mississippi Legislature.” They referred all other questions to the governor’s office.
Asked about the bill, Bryant’s office maintained its practice — adopted in mid-September — of not responding to Mississippi Today’s requests for comment.
Mississippi Tourism Association’s Board President Wesley Smith said Wednesday he was aware of the bill but had not yet discussed it with his colleagues.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, House Speaker Philip Gunn and Senate Appropriations Chairman Sen. Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, have not indicated publicly their positions on the proposed shift.
Mississippians who work in the arts arena have been flooding commission employees’ inboxes this week with support and promises to help. Artists and directors of programs that regularly receive commission grants have left blunt notes on social media, and community arts circles are pitching ideas about how to help.
A social media campaign launched Wednesday aims to “Save MAC,” and opponents of the bill have widely shared contact information for Clarke’s Capitol office. Chassaniol and Clarke also received several emails Wednesday from concerned artists and program directors pleading to kill the bill or asking for clarification on certain sections of it.
“I think it’s laudable that the proponents of the bill recognize the power of the arts community to fuel the creative economy,” said Betsy Bradley, director of the Mississippi Museum of Art and former executive director of the Arts Commission. “But I do think there’s always a fear of the unknown and change, and those fears are being expressed. There are questions about what the motivation is for this and what the impact would be. The only real information we have is what’s written (in the bill).”
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.
Chassaniol on Tuesday also said the bill’s intent was to “consolidate our agencies when possible … at a time when our state’s resources are limited.”
This fiscal year, the commission was originally appropriated $1.7 million from the state’s general fund — 11 percent less than the previous fiscal year. It also received $450,000 from the state’s educational enhancement fund.
The federal National Endowment for the Arts fund matched $860,000 of the state’s appropriation, and private donations were also collected.
White, who has served as director of the commission since March, previously served as the state’s tourism director in the MDA office. He said Wednesday the development authority would have to make “dramatic changes in their processes and their structure” for the transition to work smoothly.
“For them to do what we do, they would have to employ new people, or at the very least, they’d have to take all 12 of us down there and find a place to put us in order to do what we do,” White said. “The idea that it will be a smooth transition and no one in the field will notice is just laughable. There are only a couple instances in which we partnered with them because we’re day and night agencies.”
“I know because I’ve run both of them,” White continued. “It’s an ill fit. It makes no sense. There’s nothing efficient or rational about this.”