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Engaging Mississippians: What it takes to keep Mississippians interested in visual arts

Q&A: Betsy Bradley, Director of the Mississippi Museum of Art

The Mississippi Museum of Art has been a cultural corner stone for Mississippi for more than 100 years, continuously working toward its mission of “engaging Mississippians in the visual arts.” Everything that is decided upon for representing this mission and the MMA is put in the hands of its director, Betsy Bradley. Her everyday job is to represent the museum in the community and the community in the museum. She must ensure that the museum’s work is relevant to the community, has artistic integrity, and safeguards our treasures for the future. And, she must ensure that the museum has the resources necessary for its operations and its sustainability. To those ends, Bradley must manage a staff effectively and work with trustees and volunteers collegially to maximize the abilities of all involved in the mission of the organization. The Mississippi Business Journal interviewed Bradley on her work with the Mississippi Museum of Art, and its impact on the state.

Q — How has the current economy made an impact on the Mississippi Museum of Art?

A — As a private nonprofit organization, the Museum depends upon contributions and earned income for its operating budget, which is $2.3 million this year. We are fortunate that individuals and corporations have continued to support us, although we are beginning to see slight decreases in annual giving, as the impact of the economic downturn becomes more keenly felt by local patrons. In addition, we depend upon income from two small endowments for our statewide programming. With those funds well below principal, we are increasing our sponsorship solicitations and making difficult decisions about programs that serve our constituents. Because we cannot know with certainty how our income will be affected during the coming year, we are examining our expenses and making cost-cutting decisions wherever possible. We are committed to maximizing the gifts of our donors and to being careful stewards of resources during these difficult times.

Q — What are some ways that the Mississippi Museum of Art is bringing in more visitors?

A — The Museum has had significant success in attracting visitors through aggressive programming on topics of relevance to our community. While our mission is about engaging the public with the visual arts, we find that people are more likely to make the decision to visit the Museum if the offerings reflect current issues. Art is, of course, made by people facing issues in particular places and times, so relating those contexts to our lives is fruitful for us and for our audiences. For example, our current exhibition “Raoul Dufy: A Celebration of Beauty” showcases a French artist who supplemented his income from painting by working with fashion designers and silk textile companies to convert visual art to haute couture gowns. So, two of our upcoming speakers are fashion designer Hilton Hollis (a native of Natchez) and a designer for Knoll Textiles, who will bring to life the ways that visual artists influence good design that fills our lives. We all know that Target has figured out the impact of artist/designers on their sales of everything from kitchen utensils to shoes to clothing. It’s not much of a leap to see how Raoul Dufy’s partnership with Paul Poiret influenced women’s fashion throughout the 20th century and beyond.

Q — How is the re-building of downtown Jackson helping the Mississippi Museum of Art?

A — We like to think that the Museum helped to lead the surge of downtown improvements. When we committed, in 2005, to raising and investing $14 million in a city-owned building downtown, there were many fewer cranes moving dirt and steel down here. We raised the money and completed our construction project in just 18 months, and the community responded to our beautiful new structure with overwhelming support, attendance and enthusiasm. And, now we have a new neighbor In the Convention Complex, which has already had a positive impact on our exhibition visitation and lunch traffic in our café. We are excited about upcoming opportunities to work with all of our neighbors to attract more and more people to downtown. For example, this year at St. Patrick’s Day Parade Trustmark Children’s Village will be in the space in front of the Museum. It’s exciting to see so much activity spreading out from Capitol Street.

Q — What are some featured upcoming attractions to the museum?

A — The Raoul Dufy exhibition will remain on view through July 4. Also, two exhibitions of local significance open in April: in celebration of Eudora Welty’s 100th birthday and in partnership with The Welty Foundation, we will be displaying photographs of hers that were exhibited in New York in the 1940s. Also, the art of our own Gulf Coast masters, George Ohr, Richmond Barthe, Dusti Bonge and Walter Anderson will be on view, courtesy of The Mississippi Arts Commission. As always, we will have our monthly jazz program on the last Thursday evening of the month, our popular Unburied Treasures program featuring music, art, and literature on the third Tuesday of each month, and our wonderful permanent installation of art about our home state, “The Mississippi Story,” which is always free of charge. We’ve recently re-opened our Palette Café by Viking and are serving lunch daily Tuesday through Saturday, and are excited about the positive response we’ve had to it as well.

Q — We’ve seen such international exhibits with the Mississippi Museum of Art such as Palaces of St. Petersburg, the Splendors of Versailles and the Majesty of Spain are there any other large international exhibits in the works?

A —While the Mississippi Museum of Art did not mount those exhibitions (they were in this building but the product of the Mississippi Commission for International Cultural Exchange), the Museum has mounted significant international exhibitions and will continue to do so. We opened this renovated facility in June 2007 with a very significant exhibition of Italian art called “Between God and Man: Angels in Italian Art.” It showcased art from more than 140 different Italian institutions, much of which had never traveled to this country. We are now working on an exhibition “From Whistler to Wedgwood,” which will open in 2011 and explore the influence of Japanese aesthetics on European and American art. This exhibition will feature work from the most important European and American art museums.

Q — Is the MMA participating in any progress for arts in education? In what ways is the museum reaching cities across the state?

A — Arts in education is critical to our success as a museum. Not only is there scientific data to demonstrate the connection between arts education and overall educational success, but we also know that our students lack a global understanding and creative problem solving skills when denied education in the arts. After September 11th, the congressional investigative report that was issued declared the disaster one of “a failure of the imagination.” We aren’t teaching our children to imagine what is possible – either unbelievably good or evil – and how to create the impossible. So, yes, the Museum is very active in advocating for arts education in the schools and for supplementing the curriculum for those students who don’t have art in the classroom. Through teacher training, family art workshops, specially designed experiences in the galleries and partnerships with schools through Parents for Public Schools Ask 4 More Arts program, we use our artistic resources to help equip our students for the workforce of the future and a more globally compassionate world.

Contact MBJ staff writer Leslie Galloway at leslie.galloway@msbusiness.com .


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