William Faulkner, Morgan Freeman and Oprah Winfrey are three of the 18 artists chosen for the Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Experience’s inaugural class.
The announcement was made Thursday morning in the Capitol Rotunda.
Gov. Phil Bryant introduced the class, saying the museum and its inductees would let the world know that Mississippi’s “best export is our entertainers.”
“What a fortunate people we are to have such entertainers, such giants of the entertainment industry as B.B. King, Jimmie Rodgers and the great King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Bryant said, referring to inaugural class member Elvis Presley.
The remaining inductees are Walter Anderson, John Grisham, Jim Henson, Robert Johnson, James Earl Jones, George Ohr, Leontyne Price, Sela Ward, Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield), Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty and Richard Wright.
The 58,000 square foot Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Experience is slated to open in downtown Meridian next spring. But Bryant noted that getting to this place has been “a long road.”
The museum originally was proposed in 2001, but planning and funding stalled several times over the years, according to Meridian Mayor Percy Bland. Several proposed sites fell through in Meridian. Then, funding, initially sourced through private donations, slowed to a trickle.
The breakthrough, Bland said, came last August, when the city passed a two percent food and beverage tax, with all revenue from that measure going to the museum. Ultimately, the measure passed with 68 percent of the vote, but convincing the town to vote for it was an uphill battle.
“A lot of local people didn’t understand it. They wanted the center but didn’t want the tax,” Bland said.
Many of the speakers echoed Bryant’s hope that the Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Experience will be not just a tourism draw but also another brick in the state’s efforts to enhance its reputation with the outside world.
“And as people come along Interstate 20, and they know that this facility sits there, they can see just how much the state of Mississippi has had an impact, not only on the nation but the world. And how our sons and daughters who have done great things in the areas of arts and literature and entertainment have impacted the entire world,” said Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, R-Clinton.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who also spoke, used the opportunity to reinforce what has become his mantra this session: stop apologizing and start bragging.
“One of the things that I’ve said a lot in 2017 with this being our bicentennial year in Mississippi, and while we can all admit that our history has been complicated, in a lot of areas we in our state, I believe, we need to quit apologizing and start bragging about the many great things that go on in Mississippi,” Reeves said.
But Bland notes, when thinking about what makes Mississippi artists so special, it’s hard to ignore the state’s complex and often tumultuous history.
“It’s that culture and the history of Mississippi itself. That makes our artists who they are,” Bland said.
The artists inducted represent five fields in the arts: acting, literature, music, visual art and “miscellaneous” (which includes comedians, chefs, entrepreneurs and arts executives).
Thursday’s inductees were culled from an initial group of hundreds of names that the nominating committee eventually whittled down to 64. The public was then allowed to vote on their picks from that list.
Lillie Fleming of Natchez was at the Capitol Thursday to watch the induction of her second cousin, novelist Richard Wright. She beamed as she spoke about the museum.
“It’s great. I wish the ones that are gone could be here. I believe he would be proud,” Fleming said.