Mississippi Museum of Art director Betsy Bradley is riding the crest of hosting a successful exhibition that has garnered international publicity, gaining corporate support despite the recent economic downturn, and implementing innovative programs benefiting schoolchildren throughout Mississippi.
Before being named director of the Mississippi Museum of Art in December 2001, Bradley spent a decade at the Mississippi Arts Commission, serving as deputy director, community arts director and, for six years, executive director. Under her guidance, the commission’s budget grew to $3.8 million annually, and she secured legislation to fund a $6 million program to fund capital improvements to cultural facilities throughout the state. Also under her leadership, the commission’s Whole Schools program grew to serve 26 schools statewide, receive national recognition including a $1-million leadership award from the U. S. Department of Education, and institute ongoing professional development and training.
A graduate of Leadership Jackson, Bradley has served on the board of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, as a panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts and was appointed to serve on the Advisory Panel of the Mississippi School for the Arts. She has chaired the boards of the Mississippi Center for Nonprofits, the Millsaps Arts and Lecture Series and the Jackson Servant Leadership Corps.
The Mississippi Business Journal asked Bradley about the trends in corporate support, benefits of art in the community and the economic impact of exhibitions and programs to the state.
Mississippi Business Journal: The museum’s Paris Moderne exhibit has received rave reviews nationwide, and you were able to extend the run through September 6 to coincide with “The Glory of Baroque Dresden” exhibition run. How were you able to land an exhibit that has never been shown outside Paris — and get it extended?
Betsy Bradley: Our reputation, persistence and some luck! Paris Moderne is the seventh presentation for us in The Annie Laurie Swaim Hearin Memorial Exhibition Series. Because of our reputation in mounting exceptional exhibitions through this series and other shows such as “Andrew Wyeth: Close Friends,” the museum is trusted to take care of valuable artwork and to show it beautifully. To secure these works, we worked with a national touring company, International Arts and Artists Inc., based in Washington, DC. Because the show has been so popular — we’ve had press in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, The Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine and The Times-Picayune, to name a few — we wanted to extend it to accommodate requests from tourists.
MBJ: What’s on the calendar for MMA?
BB: On Sept. 25, we open a fabulous show called “Coming Home,” an exhibition of 140 American paintings from the 1930s and 1940s, sponsored locally by The Selby and Richard McRae Foundation. It’s a stunning show of representational paintings, which are very narrative in nature and should be appealing to a broad audience. The paintings together paint a full and rich portrait of our country during a very important time in our history. Major shows in 2006 and 2007 include one-person shows on Georgia O’Keeffe and on Frank Lloyd Wright as a designer.
MBJ: Can you give us a quick sketch of highlight events at MMA since you’ve been director?
BB: It’s been very gratifying to witness the loyalty of some local corporations — Trustmark, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Mississippi and Parkway Properties — to the museum and its programs, and to be able to continue to invite schoolchildren to our programs with free admission. And I’ve very much enjoyed learning from some companies about creative sponsorships. For example, BankPlus and Ross & Yerger wanted to work together on a project, so they combined resources to sponsor all of the great events associated with Paris Moderne. We’ve also begun monthly programs, which are very popular. Our Unburied Treasures program brings 150 people downtown one Tuesday evening a month, and because it’s a low-cost program, we’ve been able to attract sponsorships from new patrons, especially professional services firms like legal and accounting firms. Our jazz program also brings a great diverse crowd to the museum every month for good music in a beautiful, smoke-free environment, and it’s been a great collaboration with OffiSource.
MBJ: How has the museum contributed to the state’s public education system?
BB: The museum takes great pride in our contributions to education. With such pressures on education budgets causing cuts to arts programs, the museum can help fill some gaps in the system. And we do so not only to fill those gaps, but also because we have the data that proves that studying art improves student learning and behavior. We’ve enjoyed being innovative with our programs. For example, for two years, we have invited high school kids from Jim Hill and Lanier to work in a studio setting here with professional artists, using materials and techniques unavailable in the public schools. Because this is a collaboration with Parkway Properties, some of the art the kids make then hangs in Parkway buildings.
Another important program for junior and senior high students is the annual Scholastic Art Awards that we sponsor with BellSouth. We have a statewide competition and exhibition, and then our winners go to a national competition in New York. This year, five Mississippi students won six national awards, which often come with scholarships to art schools. Stories of scholarships, commissions and other benefits to students participating in this program have inspired us to try to expand it here in the state.
Every child who visits the museum has the opportunity, thanks to Trustmark and Blue Cross, for a personally guided tour that is age appropriate and for a hands-on experience relating to the tour.
We have identified one educational niche appropriate for us as after-school programming. It’s an opportunity to serve parents and to engage children who could end up in front of a television or, worse, on the streets, during the critical hours of 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. We have partnered with Jackson Public Schools for several years, offering hands-on art instruction at the museum to students in their after-school program. And we’ve begun a partnership with the Zoo, Natural Science Museum and Old Capitol Museum to work with students from Hardy Middle School at each of our institutions after school.
MBJ: The museum plays a central role as a social setting. Can you tell us about opportunities for using MMA as a venue for corporate functions?
BB: The museum is a lovely setting for social and for corporate events. We have a full schedule of wedding receptions and social events, but we have also begun a marketing effort to companies, urging them to rent the museum during evening hours for corporate board dinners, receptions for clients or annual meetings. We also reward corporate sponsors at a certain level with free use of the facility for an event, and companies have made great use of that benefit to help accomplish their goals of business development as well. One reason that the museum is a popular setting, other than the obvious one of being surrounded by beautiful art, is that we no longer have an in-house caterer, so clients have the freedom to bring in their own caterers and create the style of event suitable to them.
MBJ: How has corporate support fared during the economic downturn, and most recently as the nation’s economy has improved?
BB: Many people don’t realize that the museum is a private, non-profit organization, not a state or city museum. Every year, we raise 98% of our $1.6-million budget from the private sector within this community. So, corporate support is critical to our survival, and to our success. Like other nonprofits, we’ve been really hurt by the economy, and — even more — by local companies being bought by out-of-state companies, which have less commitment to local causes, or by more decisions on corporate contributions being limited by out-of-state headquarters. However, we have great local corporate leadership from Trustmark and other companies I’ve mentioned, and we’re getting better at selling sponsorships for what programs truly cost the museum to produce. And we’re trying to be creative at selling sponsorships with added value in benefits to the sponsoring companies, such as passes to the museum for families of patients in a hospital we’ve approached. So, it’s a challenging time to raise money in Jackson, but rewarding as well because we are clearly returning concrete value to companies in exchange for financial support.
MBJ: What are the benefits of art in the community?
BB: Most of us cannot imagine a community without art, whether it’s good architecture, beautifully landscaped parks, music in church or art camps for our children. Art and design are essential to the element of beauty in our lives. Art is of economic benefit to our communities because people spend money on products that bring intangible joy, whether it’s a child’s face when she’s created a drawing of something beautiful at an art class or a moment in the museum away from frantic business, getting lost in learning about Matisse’s love of color or being transported into a mystical portrait by Modigliani during a lunch hour. While the ways we earn money tell a great deal about society, so do the ways we spend money. The fact that so many people save to collect high-quality art or travel from Georgia to spend a few moments in our museum with great paintings tells us that we would never be complete without art in our lives. It doesn’t hurt that the study of art makes our children better learners, or that the cultural tourist creates jobs for our local citizens. But the reality is that we must have art and beauty in our lives to make it meaningful. How else do we explain why the Delta has produced America’s greatest indigenous music from its most impoverished people? It’s basic and necessary.
MBJ: What’s the economic impact of the museum’s various exhibits and programs?
BB: During major exhibitions, the Center of Policy Research and Planning of the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning estimates that museum-goers spend an estimated $3 million in Jackson, which generates an estimated $1.2 million in retail sales and an estimated $211,260 in sales tax. (This data is approximately five years old and should be adjusted to accommodate inflation.)
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org.