NEA director’s visit draws attention to economic, emotional impact of the arts

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“What if the arts were embraced as a way to imagine new possibilities, reach new heights and to solve old problems?” Jane Chu asked the crowd at the Mississippi Museum of Art. “What would our lives look like if the arts were considered vital to our humanity?”

Chu, chairwoman for the National Endowment of the Arts, imagines this utopia would appreciate all kinds of art, and “schools would recognize, at the fundamental level, that there’s a strong relationship between art involvement and strong academic achievement, civic engagement and enhanced communication skills.”

Visits to the museum and the Sewing Every Wednesday sewing and quilting group in Jackson on Monday were Chu’s first stops in Mississippi as she assesses the state of the arts in the state and across the nation.

On her visit, Chu witnessed how art was affecting the community and its residents in an array of ways from economic to emotional.

Chu first witnessed this at Pearl Street African Methodist Episcopal Church where she met the members of Sewing Every Wednesday and viewed the group’s work. Since May 2013, the group has sewn quilts for children’s homes, women shelters and other charities; skirts and dresses for girls in Kenya; and quilts for babies at the church, among other things.

Deborah Giles, program director for Pearl Street Community Development Corporation, says this visit from Chu shows that “on the national level, they’re really looking at where the dollars go and how it benefits the community.”

The sewing group is partially funded by the Mississippi Arts Commission, which was given a $794,200 grant this year by the NEA.

According to the NEA’s website, 30 percent of NEA funding goes to small organizations, 40 percent of NEA-supported activities are placed in high-poverty neighborhoods and 33 percent of NEA grants serve low-income audiences.

Giles says quilting is important as a creative, storytelling tradition because it builds unity. S.E.W. is multi-generational and welcomes people from different religious backgrounds, races, ethnicities and genders.

The arts are “the most obvious path to demonstrate our identity, recognizing the traditions, special characteristics and heritage that each of us bring to the table,” Chu says.

“Show me the handmade menorah your family brought from Europe, teach me about henna or how to wrap a sari, what steps distinguish the Irish hornpipe dance from a jig?” Chu says. 

Besides passing on heritage and unifying the community, for some, the arts are essential for living. That was apparent during Chu’s visit to the Mississippi Museum of Art, where people from the community, artists and non-artists alike, filled the available seats because they care about the arts.

“Art is life,”  said Shamb’e “Bro.Shamb’e” Jones, who attended Chu’s public discussion on Monday.  “It’s incorporated in everything that I see, and without it there would be a lot of bland and dull things in our world.”

Photo by Intisar Seraaj / Mississippi Today

George Miles, Jr., left, and Shamb’e Jones, both local artists, became friends when they met in the art department at Jackson State University.

Jones is a local multimedia artist and clothing designer who has been creating art since elementary school. He went on to graduate with a bachelor’s degree from Jackson State University, majoring in sculpture and ceramics. His friend George “Sky” Miles, Jr. agrees.

“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the arts,” Miles said. “[Art] gives you a creative outlet, it builds character and it helps the community.”

Miles, a local artist and the volunteer services coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Human Services, has been imagining art since the third grade, and he continued his passion while majoring in graphic design and fine arts at Jackson State University, where he graduated with his bachelor’s degree. Miles says art helped him cope with the loss of his mother in 1998.

For others like Michael Horsley, art and art institutions are essential in other ways. Horsley says he wanted to attend the museum’s event because he was concerned about NEA funding being cut and how that would affect the museum.

“It’s a place to go — there’s not much to do here so this [museum] is very important,” Horsley said. “They do a lot for the people of Jackson that goes unrecognized.”

Horsley says he’s currently unemployed and comes to the museum to use its free Wi-Fi, attend free events and to enjoy the art and garden.

Some at the museum on Monday said they fear for the future of the arts.

When it comes to federal funding, the arts aren’t considered essential and are a part of the secondary category of quality of life and livability, says Malcolm White, executive director of the Mississippi Arts Commission.

With President Donald Trump proposing to eliminate the NEA in his 2018 Fiscal Year plan, the state of the arts in the U.S. may be in jeopardy. In Mississippi, a bill was proposed in January 2017 to abolish the Mississippi Arts Commission and transfer power to the Mississippi Development Authority.

“Whether or not we will ascend to the core function of government, I don’t know, but our struggle today is to demonstrate the importance of what we do,” White said.

Chu is scheduled to tour the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council, the Delta Blues Museum and the B.B. King Museum on Tuesday.

To see behind the scenes reporting and a deeper look into Chu’s visit, take a look at reporter Intisar Seraaj’s Twitter thread.