By CALLIE DANIELS BRYANT
Nearly two decades ago, in 2001, the Mississippi Legislature had a dream of a major destination, a cultural magnet, in the Queen City. They believed in the power of tourism so much they allocated a budget of $29 million in Senate Bill No. 2666 they passed that year.
After 17 years, and through financial blows from Hurricane Katrina and the Great Recession, that dream came true in Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience, better known as The MAX.
“We worked really hard to get this museum open on schedule, and we were tired, but when we opened to the public – it was amazing. It’s hard to explain this experience because you have to come and see it. People have come in with jaws dropped because they’ve seen construction but couldn’t wrap their heads around what they could see now. I can’t say enough how great that day was, it made all the hard work worthwhile,” said Paula Chance, director of marketing and communications at The MAX.
Since its opening this past April to June, The MAX has welcomed 8,800 visitors.
“We’re seeing much more foot traffic, too. Meridian is sort of a small town and they’ve been working on a downtown development, and we’re seeing (the increase of public interest) locally. We do have visitors from all over so we’re encouraged that visitation is continuing to grow,” said Chance.
With 60,000 square feet, The MAX has dedicated every inch to celebrating Mississippian artists ,from exhibitions of homegrown legends like Elvis Pesley, Eudora Welty and Walter Anderson to numerous workshops that support budding artists, musicians and writers.
The MAX has six permanent exhibitions, which make up most of the museum, focusing on land, home, community, church, people and places and global community.
The Land exhibit showcases artistic portrayals of Mississippi’s landscape from red clay northern hills to snowy cotton fields of Delta to the busy coastline. Home showcases early work of Mississippian artists as well as influences that shaped them as they grew and honed their talent in Mississippi. The Community exhibit shows how artists come together to support, collaborate, teach and create. Religion is an undeniable part of life in Mississippi, and the Church exhibit features religious inspiration where the church is sometimes the first public setting for artistic expression. The last two permanent exhibits: People + Places, and Global Community examines how Mississippi influences the artists and is in turn changed by their native artists who go on to influence the world. The MAX is the first museum to feature Mississippian legends in one place.
Right now, in its changing exhibit gallery, the museum is featuring plaster casts of blues musicians created by Shannon McConnell-Dickerson, who is blind. The visitors will get to touch plasters to feel faces of blues legends, seeing them through fingertips.
Chance said, “That exhibit will change three times a year. The next exhibit is about Willie Morris that his son [David Ray Morris] has put together; it’s called ‘Love, Daddy: Letters from My Father,’ which will feature [the yourger Morris’} photography and writing from Willie Morris. It will start in September. The exhibits we have now and future exhibits we have planned are very interesting and meaningful.”
Its centerpiece is its two-story tall, 360-degree exhibit: Hall of Fame, an immersive multimedia installation where visitors can interact with touch-screens featuring inaugural inductees: Walter Inglis Anderson, William Faulkner, Morgan Freeman, John Grisham, Jim Henson, Robert Johnson, James Earl Jones, B.B. King, George Ohr, Elvis Presley, Leontyne Price, Jimmie Rodgers, Muddy Waters, Sela Ward, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, Oprah Winfrey, and Richard Wright.
“We just chose five more (legends) for 2018 so we’ll have a ceremony at the end of August. We’re looking forward to adding Charley Pride, Jimmy Buffet, William Eqqleston, Willie Morris, and Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Arthur Burnett),” Chance said. “We also have a Walk of Fame that goes from Riley Center to The The MAX and we’ll install six new stars in front of the museum. Mississippi has so many giants, artistic giants, and this is a great reminder of how many more there are. It’s great to see people come in and be amazed – it’s lovely to see these people realize the depth and talent. The Hall of Fame is a great feel-good event for promoting talent from Mississippi.”
The MAX also offers education for very young, families, educators and teaching artists along with aspiring artists and lifelong learners.
“Every Monday we have events for toddlers called Mini Maestros where new toddlers and their caregivers create art (for free) and run on the lawn after – it’s great fun! Every Wednesday we have a class upstairs that gives something for kids to take home with them, too,” Chance said.
She added that on Thursdays the museum hosts brown bag lunches where people can bring their lunches so they can enjoy two hours of music and singing for free from performers in the courtyard.
The museum has unique programming like The MAXSpeaks which features podcasts, lecture series, panels and more; The MAXStudio where musicians can attend workshops and classes on Tuesday’s and Thursdays; and The MAX Mavens created for senior citizens where they can take group trips and enroll in afternoon classes and lectures.
“One thing here that’s pretty unique: we have a recording studio, and we also have a 3D arts studio and a two-dimensional arts studio,” Chance said.
This fall, there will be more to do. The MAX will host a film festival in September with six films scheduled so far. There will be book signings, monthly blues concerts and guest appearances from famous Mississippians like Iron Chef’s Cat Cora. There will be even tailgating for football fans to watch their teams in the courtyard.
“There is really something for everybody and the beauty of it is that some of it is music, literature, or acting – it’s a wide variety of things about to kick off in two weeks,” Chance said.
To learn more information and keep track of new developments, visit msarts.org or make a drive to Meridian to see the museum at 2155 Front Street. Staff can be reached by phone at 601-581-1550 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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