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Art meets economic development in college town

Oxford — On a muggy July night in this North Mississippi college town, scores of people gathered at the Southside Gallery on the square for the opening reception of an exhibition by two painters, while a few doors away, the closing reception for the 32nd-annual Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference, which attracted people from around the world, was being held.

Near the two receptions, people looked out over the historic square as they sipped drinks on the balcony of the City Grocery or ate in the restaurant downstairs, and around the square diners filled the Ajax, Downtown Grill and Old Venice Pizza.

At Two Stick and Night Town, there was live music. Just another summer evening in Oxford — home of the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) — which was recently named one of the top 100 arts towns in America.

Oxford and Biloxi were cited in the recently-published “The Top 100 Arts Towns in America” (The Countryman Press). Arts towns attract educated, more sophisticated tourists who are better off financially. They’re a particularly important economic asset for the towns that they visit.

“Visitors to Oxford are on a quest that involves the mind,” according to Lyn Roberts, manager of Square Books, which has 150 to 200 readings by authors a year. “Not to be snobbish, but they could be called intellectual tourists. And tourists don’t just stop by Oxford unless they mean to be here. Oxford isn’t on the way to anywhere.”

Not an ordinary visitor

Southside Gallery’s Wil Cook echoes Roberts’ statement that visitors to Oxford are different than the usual tourist.

For one thing, “They’re better educated,” Cook said.
Mayor Richard Howorth (who founded Square Books) commented that many visitors to Oxford “don’t take tour buses. They’re like spies. They want to blend in.” He added that Oxford tourists “are intellectual, better educated, more sophisticated.”

Mary Helene Warner visited Oxford from her Tampa home and decided to attend college at Ole Miss, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in art history.

She is now working with a major program archiving some 3,000 prints of the Southern Graphics Council. The prints will be exhibited to the public at some point in the future.

“Oxford is the kind of town where you can be part of the community if you want to and find wonderful opportunities and learn new things but also move into your own space when you need it,” Warner said. “The community is understanding, accepting and agreeable.”

Local support

The community also supports the arts through such entities as The Yoknapatawpha Arts Council (YAC). Currently, the YAC is involved in the $925,000 renovation of an old power plant that will reopen as the Powerhouse, a community arts center, with space for the performing arts, exhibits and working space for artists.

Oxford has the pervasive influence of William Faulkner, whose home, Rowan Oak, is open to the public. Since 1848, Oxford has benefited from the strong liberal arts influence of Ole Miss. The town was also the home of primitive artist Theora Hamblett.

Then there’s the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, the Oxford Conference for the Book, the Oxford Film Festival and the Double Decker Arts Festival.

Contact MBJ contributing writer at George McNeill at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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