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Bills to abolish agency for arts may be in trouble

By BOBBY HARRISON / Daily Journal

The agency that promotes, fosters and grows Mississippi’s artistic heritage would be eliminated under bills pending in the Mississippi Legislature.

But late Monday, various sources indicated that bills dealing with the elimination of the agency might die today – the deadline for the bills to be passed out of committee to remain alive.

“They are bad iffy,” said Rep. Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn.

The bills, which have the support of Gov. Phil Bryant, would eliminate the Mississippi Arts Commission and leave the group serving as an advisory board under the auspices of the Development Authority.

The Mississippi Development, headed by former Tupelo Mayor Glenn McCullough Jr., oversees the state’s economic development efforts, including tourism promotion.

Pamela Weaver, a spokesman for McCullough, said, “the Mississippi Development Authority would perform all duties and responsibilities designated by the Mississippi Legislature” but had no comment on the pending bills.

Clay Chandler, a spokesman for the governor, said, “Mississippi’s arts scene is a large part of the state’s overall tourism industry. Gov. Bryant is committed to growing that creative economy, and believes combining agencies designed to promote tourism and the arts will achieve that goal. Under that arrangement, arts commissioners would continue their service in an advisory role.”

Shawn Brevard, a member of the Arts Commission and Tupelo resident, said the agency as it is currently structured has worked for 50 years and has been praised nationwide.

If the bills pass this legislative session to eliminate the Arts Commission, Brevard said, “Our state leadership makes the arts the stepchild of an agency which has a much different focus. The clear message is that the arts are wasteful and not worthy of a stand-alone state agency.”

Under current law, the Arts Commission is governed by 15-member board appointed by the governor. The board has an executive director – Malcolm White, son of former longtime Northeast Mississippi Community College President Harold White.

White referred questions regarding the legislation to the Arts Commission Board. He served as Arts Commission director for about seven years before being recruited by Bryant and then MDA Executive Director Brent Christensen to serve as director of the Tourism Bureau within MDA, starting in early 2013.

But about six months into McCullough’s tenure at MDA, White announced he was leaving the Tourism Bureau. He returned to the Arts Commission.

“There is nothing more important in Mississippi than its cultural heritage,” said Rep. Jay Hughes, D-Oxford “….It thrives because of its independence from political influence.

“It is one of the few things in the nation that we are not last in, where we are doing well. We don’t need the politicians to get involved.”

Rep. Shane Aguirre, R-Tupelo, said “I have not read the bill yet. I will soon. But just on the surface it does not look like a good idea….I do not want to do anything to hurt the arts community – especially in Tupelo.”

Sen. Lydia Chassaniol, R-Winona, who filed the Senate bill to eliminate the Arts Commission, said, “We are trying to decrease the number of agencies and departments to save administrative agencies.”

bobby.harrison@journalinc.com

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