Mississippi art — not a recent clash over the Mississippi Arts Commission — took center stage Thursday during the Governor’s Arts Awards presented at the Old Capitol Museum in Jackson.
“Our literature, music and visual arts are the ultimate enduring markers for which our state and our people will be remembered and honored,” Lifetime Achievement honoree William Ferris said during his acceptance speech. “Like a patchwork quilt … the arts celebrate our state’s many diverse people.” Ferris served as founding director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, the first regional studies center in the country.
The five other award recipients followed suit, devoting their three-minute remarks to one thing that always has been — their love for art and their home state of Mississippi — rather than to controversial legislation that could have been.
Joining Ferris as 2017 Governor’s Arts Awards winners were painter and educator Sammy Britt, recognized for excellence in visual arts; guitarist and vocalist Vasti Jackson, arts ambassador; Lucy Richardson Janoush, president of the Cleveland Music Foundation, arts patron; drummer Jaimoe Johnie Johnson, excellence in music; and Mississippi Opera, artistic excellence.
The awards became a bone of contention between Gov. Bryant and the Arts Commission earlier this year.
In January, a bill filed in the House of Representatives and another in the Senate proposed folding the Arts Commission into the Mississippi Development Authority, transferring all duties of the current commission to the economic development office. The goal of the new structure would have been “to promote Mississippi’s economic development through the arts,” according to the Senate bill.
Speaking on The Gallo Radio Show, Bryant said, “I remember one day I was driving into Jackson on State Street, and I saw this banner that said ‘Governor’s Arts Awards.’ 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.
“In fact, I can’t even recommend anyone to receive governor’s arts awards,” Bryant continued. “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 proposed legislation, which opponents said would bring an unseemly level of politics to the arts community, spurred intense public backlash, social media campaigns and even community protest events.
Both bills subsequently died in committee.
Introducing Bryant at Thursday night’s awards ceremony, Mississippi Arts Commission Executive Director Malcolm White said, “He understands and recognizes that art means business.”
When Bryant took to the podium, with his wife Deborah standing by his side, he said, “The arts do mean business, but they also mean joy and sometimes sorrowfulness and contentment and excitement.”
Speaking with Mississippi Today before the ceremony, White explained, “The recipients being honored tonight were nominated by the people, reviewed by a panel of peers, and selected by that panel — not by me, not by the governor, not by the board of directors, but by the people.”
White credits the arts community for demanding the commission remain an independent agency that promotes art and recognizes Mississippi artists, as it has done with the Governor’s Arts Awards since 1988.
“The arts community of Mississippi just rose up against this and literally took a stand that was astonishing,” White said. “It really surprised the Legislature and the policy makers who thought this was a good idea.”
Some of the Governor’s Arts Awards recipients also shared their thoughts on the merger bills with Mississippi Today before the ceremony.
“Culture before commerce,” Jackson said. “If you don’t have the culture, you don’t have the source material to engage people to commerce. And if commerce and finance is the only reason you do art, then you will not have true art.”
“I am a believer that things workout the way they ought to be,” Mississippi Opera Artistic Director James Dean said. “I hope that in the future that everyone can work together to accomplish what we’re trying to do, which is uplift the state of Mississippi.”
Sammy Britt, a native of Ruleville and longtime resident of Cleveland, taught painting and drawing at Delta State University for more than 35 years. Now retired, Britt continues to teach painting workshops.
Bill Ferris, who grew up on a farm south of Vicksburg, is one of the country’s preeminent scholars on the American South. In 1997, he became chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Since 2002, he has served as Joel Williamson Eminent Professor of History and Associate Director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina. He also is an author and documentary filmmaker.
Growing up in McComb, Vasti Jackson began playing in churches and juke joints and has since has brought Mississippi’s musical heritage to several continents. He was named a Mississippi Living Blues Legend in 2011, was inducted into the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame in 2012 and was appointed a Mississippi Cultural Ambassador in 2014. Jackson performed for the United Nations as a member of the Playing for Change band, a music collective whose mission is to create peace through music.
Lucy Janoush was instrumental in bringing the Grammy Museum Mississippi to Cleveland. From vision to completion, Janoush spent five years coordinating every aspect of the creation of the only Grammy Museum outside of Los Angeles. The 27,000 square-foot facility, housed at Delta State University, is dedicated to exploring the past, present and future of music while spotlighting the musical roots of Mississippi.
Born in Ocean Springs and raised in Gulfport, Jaimoe Johnie Johnson is a founding member of the Allman Brothers Band. Jaimoe, who plays drums, alson tours with groups including Jaimoe’s Jasssz Band and Les Brers. The Allman Brothers Band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. In 2015, Jaimoe was inducted into the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame, and the Mississippi Blues Trail placed a historic marker in North Gulfport, where he started his musical career.
The Mississippi Opera Association was founded in Jackson in 1945 and is the state’s only professional opera company. It is the ninth oldest continuing opera company in the United States. In addition to staging classic operas, the association has conducted outreach to public schools since 1946 and offers free student matinees of main stage productions. Its brings world-class singers and directors to Mississippi and nurtures the next generation of artists through the “Voices of Mississippi” competition.