Meridian invests in economy and culture to The MAX

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The exterior of the Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience on Front Street in downtown Meridian

The Queen City’s long-awaited homage to the state’s rich artistic history, roughly 20 years in the making, is now four days away.

In Meridian, one of Mississippi’s gateways from the east, planners behind the two-story, 60,000 square foot Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience — or The MAX, as it’s called — recently shared a preview of the nearly finished product, which will seek to both attract drivers off Interstate 20 as well as to plant seeds of inspiration for local, young creatives chasing the legacies left by state heroes including Elvis Presley, Oprah Winfrey, B.B. King and many others.

“I think the whole team, staff and board are at a point in this process where we’re ready to share this now, and we’re really excited because we want people to understand what all this money and effort, what’s behind it, and I think they’re going to see that,” said Mark Tullos, the president/CEO of The MAX.

On Saturday morning at 9, Meridian Mayor Percy Bland will lead the ribbon cutting ceremony at The MAX, kicking off a series of lectures, workshops and demonstrations over the weekend and the following week. The opening week will feed into the Jimmie Rodgers Music Festival, May 3-5, which will include performances from acts such as Old Crow Medicine Show and Paul Thorn.

Tourism is the fourth largest private sector employer in the state, according to the Mississippi Tourism Association, and Tullos emphasizes the business savvy of reeling in out-of-state dollars.

“This was viewed by our politicians particularly as an investment in cultural tourism,” he said. “It was a smart investment: For every dollar you invest in tourism, you get $14 or more back, sometimes as much as $18. Try to get that in the stock market, you’re never going to get it.”

“So somebody from Georgia if they come here for a weekend, they may spend $400 on dinners, hotels, going to attractions or even getting a tire fixed. That’s new money in our coffers. That’s the smartest kind of business to be in,” he said.

Alex Rozier, Mississippi Today

An exhibit engineer demonstrates one of the interactive exhibits at the Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience.

In 2014, the museum’s board of directors commissioned a study that indicated approximately 13 million travelers come within one mile of the site on Interstate 20 each year. The study, completed by Owens Economics, LLC, also estimated that the museum eventually could have an annual impact of more than $100 million on the local economy.

Those projections convinced the state Legislature, which has allocated $29 million in funding, that The MAX was a worthwhile investment.

Designers were keen on making the center an experience, as its name characterizes; almost every exhibit encompasses an interactive activity, whether it’s learning pottery skills, getting to paint or even building a band of Mississippi legends by combining instruments.

Stimulating creativity is the goal. Exhibits take visitors through different environments — the front porch, the kitchen, the church — so viewers can experience them in much the same way Mississippi’s artistic legends did. In an exhibit modeled after a classroom, for example, visitors can see how Elvis felt awkward and out of place at school but found an escape and acceptance through music.

“This is a museum unlike any other,” said Sarah van Haastert from Gallagher & Associates, who helped design the exhibits in The MAX as well as those in the GRAMMY Museum Mississippi in Cleveland and others around the world. “It’s a museum about art, but it’s also about the process of making art. One of the things we wanted with this museum is to be an inspiration for the next generation of art.”  

For that next generation, The MAX includes recording, broadcast, paint and pottery studios as well as classroom space for local youth seeking to grow as artists.

The final exhibit is a display that shows direct influences Mississippi artists had on the future: Jimmie Rodgers inspired Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters inspired The Doors, Tammy Wynette inspired Dolly Parton, and many other examples.

Mississippi booming to The MAX in Meridian

The genesis of The MAX, according to many, was former Agriculture Commissioner Jim Buck Ross’ idea back in 1998 to honor the heritage of country music. Jimmie Rodgers, known as the Father of Country Music, was from Meridian. Ross’ idea evolved into the Southern Arts and Entertainment Center, which in 2001 the Mississippi Legislature approved for building in Meridian. The idea was revised again in 2003 when Marty Gamblin convinced his colleagues on the board of directors that the museum would have more than enough content from Mississippi’s art history alone.

Alex Rozier, Mississippi Today

An example of past Mississippi art inspiring the future, as displayed at The MAX

Planning carried on for the next few years, even garnering celebrity endorsements. In 2005, actress and Meridian native Sela Ward unveiled a master plan for the museum, and that same year Star native Faith Hill helped convince the Legislature to commit $4 million to the building fund.

To supplement state money, in 2016 nearly 70 percent of Meridian residents voted in favor of a referendum to increase food and beverage taxes in the city to help raise funding.

The path from Ross’ idea to the grand opening this week had its challenges, from generating statewide support to overcoming the economic hits from Hurricane Katrina and the recession of 2008.

“It was hard to get folks away from Meridian to get excited about being on the board,” said Gamblin, a music business veteran, former board director and current director of The MAX Hall of Fame and Walk of Fame.

“We talked to folks over in the Delta, and they had the B.B. King Museum going, and dreams of the GRAMMY (Museum), and the Coast had their own thing going, and quite honestly I think some of them thought, ‘We’ve been hearing about this project for so long, I don’t think it’s ever going to happen,'” Gamblin said.

“We backed off of our fundraising when Katrina hit, because obviously you couldn’t be asking people to build a museum when they didn’t have a roof over their heads.”

With the prominent support of Summit native and radio show host Paul Ott Carruth and philanthropist, former Mississippi Economic Council chair and MAX  board president Tommy Dulaney, the planning pushed forward. In 2009, Dulaney negotiated the purchase of a Front Street property, and The MAX finally found its home.

Alex Rozier, Mississippi Today

A quote from Robin Roberts in The Church exhibit

Fundraising was still slow, but multi-million dollar donations from the Phil Hardin Foundation and the Riley Foundation kick-started a campaign that raised $19 million in private funds by 2015. Yet the real turning point, according to Gamblin, was the referendum to raise taxes in Meridian passing by such a wide margin.

“If we got 61% (of voters) I would’ve just been thrilled to death, but to get (70%), it really made us all feel good about the project because we thought maybe people are really seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and seeing what this is going to be down the road,” he said.

The tax is projected to provide $2.5 million annually for 10 years.

Construction for The MAX began in December 2016, and the following March, Gov. Phil Bryant announced the first 18 inductees into the museum’s Hall of Fame, including William Faulkner, Morgan Freeman, John Grisham, Jim Henson, Muddy Waters, James Earl Jones and Eudora Welty. (See the full list here.)

Alex Rozier, Mississippi Today

The two-story Hall of Fame honors Elvis Presley, Morgan Freeman, Leontyne Price and many more.

Mississippi Arts Commission director Malcolm White, once a board member for the project before being asked to step down, said he used to have concerns that The MAX’s goal was overly ambitious.

“For the longest time I felt like it was redundant, that it didn’t have a clear purpose,” said White. “I just felt like putting a Miss America dress (next to) a novel by Eudora Welty and trying to say this is the cultural story of Mississippi was just too simplified. 

“There’s already places where they tell the Jim Henson story. There’s already places where they tell the Leontyne Price story, and — this was one of the reasons I was asked to leave the board — I tried to make the case that we’re sort of setting ourselves up for failure if we think we can be everything to everybody. It’s impossible,” he said.

White also had disagreements with the board about whether to combine this project with the Jimmie Rodgers Museum (which, according to its website, is moving to a new location down the street from The MAX).

I always said that if they didn’t include the Jimmie Rodgers piece in it, it would be a gigantic missed opportunity, and so I was at odds with them about that too,” said White. “I still feel like that’s a missed opportunity.”

The Jimmie Rodgers Foundation entered talks with The MAX’s board about combining the two museums, but, according to Gamblin, Rodgers’ family has a contract with the foundation stipulating that their museum had to have its own building, which ended up being a deal-breaker between the two sides.

Alex Rozier, Mississippi Today

A view of Meridian from the roof The MAX

In the end, though, White was pleased with the final result and believes it’s an important part of the storytelling landscape in Mississippi.

“I think what they’ve ultimately arrived at is a very thoughtful, useful cultural amenity that fills in a lot of the blanks for the Mississippi story,” he said. “This will be the first time we attempted to tell the entirety of the Mississippi creative story under one roof, and then if they succeed people will go out from there (to other museums).”


Paul Ott Carruth was incorrectly identified in an earlier version of this story.