Gov. Phil Bryant on Monday spoke about his lack of input over distributing the Mississippi Arts Commission’s annual “Governor’s Arts Awards.”
The comments on The Gallo Radio Show provided context to the push by some lawmakers friendly to Bryant to fold the Mississippi Arts Commission into the state’s economic development office.
Each year, the Mississippi Arts Commission selects an independent panel of judges to award Governor’s Arts Awards to excelling Mississippi artists with close ties to the state.
The governor traditionally attends the awards ceremony each February, giving a short speech to the crowd, handing awards to recipients on stage and inviting honorees to the Governor’s Mansion for a reception afterward.
Bryant, speaking Monday morning with Supertalk radio host Paul Gallo about his commission consolidation legislation, provided a snapshot of his views about the annual awards and the commission itself.
“I remember one day I was driving into Jackson on State Street, and I saw this banner that said ‘Governor’s Arts Awards,’” Bryant said. “It had the date underneath it. I had no idea when the date was taking place, I didn’t know I was giving out awards.”
“Then I found out that they’re really not arts awards,” Bryant continued. “In fact, I can’t even recommend anyone to receive governor’s arts awards. That’s just the title they have for them.”
“I called our tourism director and he said, ‘I have no idea about that. They don’t let us know,’ ” the governor said. “So we’ve got two agencies doing the same thing.”
The governor’s comment came as the station returned from a commercial break and host Paul Gallo and Bryant reminisced briefly about the late blues legend, B.B. King.
Bryant made no other comments about the Arts Commission or the legislation. The governor’s office did not respond to follow up questions Monday about whether Bryant’s lack of input of the arts awards had a role in his supporting the legislation.
The Governor’s Arts Awards were established by the commission in 1988. Each year, five or six artists are nominated by the general public through a comprehensive process. The Arts Commission board selects a panel of judges including community arts leaders, commission patrons and past awards winners to sift through the nominations and decide winners, said Carol Puckett, Arts Commission board member and spokesperson for the commission.
Since the awards were founded, none of the five sitting governors has had direct input on award recipients or sat on the judging panel for the awards, Puckett said.
Bryant has attended and given short speeches at all but one Governor’s Arts Awards banquets during his time as governor, Puckett said. He and the first lady have continued the tradition of the governor hosting a reception for honorees at the Governor’s Mansion following each ceremony.
“Until today, we had not heard of any discontent on his part,” Puckett said Monday. “I, along with other commissioners, would invite an opportunity to talk to him. In the past, the governor and first lady have been very gracious and supportive of the arts awards, and I hope they’ll continue to do so.”
The ceremony is usually held in February and is broadcast live on Mississippi Public Broadcasting television and radio stations. This year’s ceremony will be held Feb. 16, and honorees are Bill Ferris, Sammy Britt, Vasti Jackson, Lucy Richardson Janoush, Jaimoe Johnie Johnson and the Mississippi Opera.
The panel of judges this year included Derek Finley, Mississippi Developmental Authority; Mary Margaret Miller, Visit Mississippi (tourism department at the development authority); George Bassi, Lauren Rogers Museum; Rolando Herts, Delta Center for Culture and Learning/Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area at Delta State University.
The Mississippi Arts Commission, in its 49th year of independent operation, would be folded into the Mississippi Developmental Authority under the governor’s purview if lawmakers pass the proposed legislation.
Under the current commission’s structure, the governor appoints the 15 commissioners, but they have autonomous control of commission business.
The bills, sponsored by Senate and House Tourism chairwomen Sen. Lydia Chassaniol, R-Winona, and Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, would transfer all Arts Commission power, responsibilities and assets, including employees, to the Mississippi Development Authority, which reports to Bryant.
The bills were introduced with no prior discussion with 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 22-page Senate bill. If passed, the current commission and its board would be abolished, and governor would appoint a new 15-member advisory board, which would meet at the discretion of the Development Authority’s executive director, currently Glenn McCullough.
Chassaniol told Mississippi Today last week that she consulted with Bryant and the tourism department of MDA before filing the bill.
Legislators have been flooded with emails, calls and social media posts from arts leaders and residents concerned about the proposed takeover.
On Sunday evening, more than 100 residents protesting the bills gathered at The Powerhouse arts center in Oxford. Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, and Rep. Jay Hughes, D-Oxford, attended and reassured attendees of their opposition to the bills.
Chassaniol and Sen. Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, have received numerous calls and emails from people inside and outside the state who oppose the legislation. Social media campaigns against the legislation have circulated widely since last week.
Both the Senate and House bills face a Tuesday deadline to pass respective Appropriations committees or they will die.
Editor’s note: Mississippi Today donors Donna Barksdale, Carol Puckett and Nan Sanders serve on the Mississippi Arts Commission. Barksdale is chairperson of the Mississippi Today board of directors.