Malcolm White brings business-and-the-arts background

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Published: January 2,2006

Jackson — Malcolm White knows a lot about both business and the arts. He is a successful entrepreneur and restaurateur, co-owner of the downtown Jackson landmark Hal & Mal’s Restaurant along with his brother, Hal White. He is also a strong patron of the arts, serving with and for such endeavors as the Mississippi Blues Festival, Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame, Jubilee!JAM and, perhaps his best-known effort, Jackson’s annual St. Paddy’s Parade & Festival, which White founded.

Thus, White seems a perfect fit for the Mississippi Arts Commission (MAC), which named him its new executive director in October 2005.

A native of Stone County, White spent his high school years in Booneville. He earned his bachelor’s degree in social studies from the University of Southern Mississippi, and followed up that education with studies of the blues at Jackson State University and other studies at Mississippi State University, University of Mississippi and San Mateo Community College in Saratoga, Calif.

Throughout his career, White has worked tirelessly for the arts across Mississippi. He has or still serves on numerous arts/historic preservation/tourism commissions, committees and boards, and has won a plethora of awards, including the MAC’s Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts in 2004.

The Mississippi Business Journal recently chatted with White, getting his views on the importance of arts to community and economic development, work to be done post-Katrina and his future vision for the MAC.

Mississippi Business Journal: You have been a longtime supporter of the arts. What was it that drew you to the arts community?

Malcolm White: Creativity and the power that surrounds it. I have always been attracted to the spirit of the artist, that intrinsic, intriguing spark that sets them apart. I discovered early that I had a talent for organization, promotion and business that complimented that creative component. I, like many others, believe a great nation deserves great art.

MBJ: What was it about the MAC that led you to accept the position of executive director?

MW: Many of the reasons are the quality and scope of work the MAC has conducted since its creation in 1968, the dedicated and talented staff, the visionary leadership of previous MAC directors and the impressive roster of board of commissioners. But perhaps the most intriguing allure was the boundless opportunities a statewide platform — the quintessential larger soapbox if you will — affords me as an arts advocate and facilitator.

MBJ: Hurricane Katrina devastated the arts community. What is the MAC doing to help the community recover, and what can be done to help ensure a similar disaster does not occur in the future?

MW: Our position since Katrina has been to coordinate the voice and needs of the arts community of South Mississippi. Our diligent staff has done that through the technology of our Web site, endless hours of telephone conversation, consulting and consultation and many, many visits to the region. We have also lobbied, begged and bothered folks in influential positions to keep the arts in the conversation of rebuilding, renewal and recovery. We have coordinated funding from $500 individual grants to $45,000 national relief funds directly to the most needy artists, arts institutions and arts organizations. We have “swept out the corners” of our budget and that of the Southern Arts Federation and the National Endowment for the Arts to amass approximately $250,000 toward that end.

All arts organizations and institutions, like MAC, have long-range, multi-year planning in place, but to my knowledge natural disasters have never been a part of such programming in this office. I know going forward, in this “new normal,” that will certainly change.

MBJ: Why should the arts be important to the business community? Do you feel the fact that you are a successful businessman will help convey this message to business leaders?

MW: We at MAC, and anyone following business trend knows, that “arts mean business.” Tourism is one of the fastest-growing businesses in America. Cultural tourism is Mississippi’s forte. I submit to you that art is the universal language of Mississippi. Not only do we all speak it fluently, we live it everyday.

My experiences in business and in the private sector are invaluable and informative to my work at the MAC. This, and the unabashed love of our state, is two of the things I have in common with Leland Speed, Sela Ward, Jim Barksdale, Carol Daily, John Grisham, Morgan Freeman and John Palmer. However, our collective bankers can tell you that is where the comparison stops. Leland doesn’t take a salary at the Mississippi Development Authority, and I had to take a cut in pay to work at the MAC.

I recently read that there is a trend among Baby Boomers who are getting out of the rat race and devoting their time and energy to the arts. When I come to MAC, I didn’t consider that I was a trendsetter, just one lucky guy who got paid to do what I loved, and was doing already — for free.

MBJ: What’s your future vision for the MAC?

MW: We operate under a five-year strategic plan that is entering year four. We will begin the next five-year plan is 2006. The people who came before me have laid out an ambitious and highly innovative agenda, and we are busy about that work. I am presently learning the ropes, getting to know my staff and board and traveling around the state visiting with our partners. Katrina has taken a great deal of my early days and my energy. One reassuring thought is that if we believe that art interprets life, then we shall have a wealth of magnificent work in the aftermath of Katrina. The rebuilding and renewal of our beloved Coast is every Mississippian’s job and responsibility and the MAC’s chief role in that enterprise it to make sure that arts are not left out of the equation. We believe that arts are essential, not something extra. My vision is a work-in-progress. My vision is art in every community, art in every boardroom and art in every schoolroom.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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