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Rev. H.D. Dennis’ art environment, “Margaret’s Grocery” (2001) in Vicksburg, a project supported by the Mississippi Arts Commission (photo by Larry Morrisey, all courtesy Mississippi Arts Commission)

Next year marks the Mississippi Arts Commission’s 50th anniversary, but pending bills authored by Republican lawmakers may prevent the agency from reaching that milestone. Senate Bill 2611 and House Bill 1325, introduced last week, would dissolve the grant-making and service commission and hand over its duties to the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA), which focuses on economic and community development. The news, according to Mississippi Today, came as a complete shock to the commission’s executive director Malcolm White, as well as his board. The Senate and House Appropriations Committees will consider both bills tomorrow.

Mary Emma Dunbar, kin to bluesman Scott Dunbar in Woodville (1993) (photo by D.L. Bennett)

According to Representative Becky Currie and Senator Lydia Chassaniol — who served as an Arts Commission board member in the 1990s — the bills are intended to consolidate government agencies and save taxpayers money. Currie told The Clarion-Ledger that money would be saved by placing commission employees in MDA’s building, but both agencies already share the same building, as the daily noted. In an interview with Mississippi Public Broadcasting (MPB), White described the announcement as “a power grab” by the MDA that, to him, makes no sense, especially since the agencies already work closely together.

“I’ve worked at MDA for three years and here at the Arts Commission for eight,” White told MPB. “I can tell you there would be no efficiency gained, and that as proposed, this is not good government at all.”

The Arts Commission receives about $800,000 in federal funds, he added, and about $1.5 million in state funds. Federal grants are mandated through the National Endowment of Arts — itself facing elimination by President Trump; state grants require the approval of the Arts Commission’s advisory board. Currie told the Clarion Ledger that the board would have the same duties but less control over what types of projects receive funding; in his MPB interview, White said the present legislation dictates the board would be done away with on July 1.

If the bills pass, the power to dictate how the state’s arts community develops would essentially go to Governor Phil Bryant, who heads the MDA. An outspoken Trump supporter, Bryant served as his chief Mississippi fundraiser during the presidential campaign, single-handedly raising nearly $2 million. He is still defending a sweeping anti-LGBT “Religious Liberty” law he notoriously signed last April that was later reversed. Last November, Bryant also denounced a billboard that the artist-led super PAC For Freedoms had erected in the state to spark dialogue about civic responsibility.

With both state and NEA support, MAC recently digitized its collection of photographs that illustrates the reach of the Commission since its beginnings and its impact on generations of artists and communities across the state. It uploaded 150 of them to its Facebook page as a reminder of what the agency has accomplished and to make the case for its continued existence.

“The arts are about as American as apple pie,” Jennifer Joy Jameson, MAC’s Folk and Traditional Arts Director, wrote in her description of the collection, “especially here in Mississippi.” White has also released a statement encouraging all Mississippians “to voice your opinions, get involved,  and exercise your rights as citizens of the great state of Mississippi and the United States of America.”

The state’s possible cuts to local arts funding coincide with similar maneuvers in another small state: Iowa is facing similar budget cuts, as WQAD8 reported. State lawmakers have proposed taking $6 million from the Iowa Cultural Trust, which supports nonprofit art and culture organizations, to help make up for a nearly $110 million budget loss. With the Trump administration’s threats to nix the NEA, however, similar feelings of uncertainty toward the state of arts funding are being felt nationwide.

Sylvia Dodson and Leroy Campbell of the Mississippi Lively Ones in Sherman (2003) (photo by Wiley Prewitt)

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Claire Voon

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...