Starkville Area Arts Council’s office sits in the back corner of the Greater Starkville Development Partnership complex at the corner of East Main Street and South LaFayette streets.
Barely big enough for two desks and a small table, the cramped office features art in various mediums on three of its four walls. The fourth, behind two dark brown wooden desks, features various posters of past art council events and awards won by said programs.
Juliette Reid, one of two AmeriCorps VISTAs currently working for the nonprofit, sits at one desk, answering calls and taking questions from Executive Director John Bateman. He sits at the other desk, while on a Zoom call about October’s Cotton District Festival.
After four years at the helm of the nonprofit and serving as the council’s first executive director, Bateman is stepping down at the end of the month and heading to Chicago to further his education.
Despite his impending departure, the grind of running an arts council continues.
“We’re still planning the arts festival in October and we’re interviewing folks and planning full speed ahead,” he said, while giving this reporter a tour of the new exhibit “Time on Our Hands” in the building’s lobby.
Bateman, who grew up in Starkville, will attend the Art Institute of Chicago to get a master’s in creative writing.
“I would like to teach, and the MFA gives me the degree to do so,” he said. “I also really like the program at Chicago. It’s very mentoring focused. Because it’s an art school, it gives me flexibility to take other art disciplines because I’m also a filmmaker. So (the degree is) based out of that art curriculum, as opposed to a literature department or an English department. I can take film classes if I want. That’s what I’m really excited about, and a little bit terrified too.”
When Bateman applied for the executive director job, he was teaching during a summer performing arts theater camp at Mississippi State University called Summer Scholars on Stage.
“They had had an office manager, but they never had an executive director,” he said. “In my past career, I’ve got a lot of experience with nonprofits. I saw the job and I applied and interviewed and they offered it to me.”
Best parts of the job
His favorite moments at the SAAC include those in which he saw the community coming together and saw the difference happening.
“For example, over on Lampkin Street by the Methodist Church, that was where we first started to explore murals,” Bateman said. “The art teacher, April Wallace for third, fourth and fifth grade proposed this idea to us, which was a fractured color wheel. It is a teaching tool; she still uses it.
“The plan was for the students to basically paint by numbers,” Bateman said. “They would paint the little area that was marked off. But what we didn’t expect, which was probably the most amazing aspect, was how it created family engagement.
“We were worried about volunteers,” he added. “What happened was that the parents would bring their kids. The kids would go paint, but then they would drag their parents with them. Then we had parents and kids painting together.”
Other moments he enjoys are when someone learns something or is inspired through one of the SAAC’s programs.
One such example would be during the Art Fair when kids put stuff together and make things that they get to take home. Another would be the small business workshops the council has been holding in conjunction with the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council in Oxford. The free workshops provide business skills to artists and other creatives.
“When the lightbulb goes off for them, they realize the things they can do to sell their work, the things that they’re not doing and what the strategies they can employ,” Bateman said. “It’s those little moments like that. I think my favorite part is where we see the result or the impact of what we’re doing.”
The council posted an ad for Bateman’s position online. He said that it feels like a good time for the transition to new leadership.
“We have two AmeriCorps VISTAs, one until the end of the summer and one full-time,” he said. “We have an engaged board officers. I feel confident of where we’re going to be. This is a good pausing point because my role needs to change into more fundraising.”
The council’s long-term goals include securing more funding for its programs and obtaining its own facility. It currently rents the lobby at the Greater Starkville Development Partnership for its exhibition space.
The Arts Council Board of Directors plans to begin interviewing applicants soon, said outgoing board President Mary Switzer. She said Reid will transition into a full-time role with the council. Bateman, Switzer and Reid, along with the rest of the board, will work closely with the new executive director during the transition.
“We are still accepting applications as well,” Switzer said.
She described Bateman as being very proactive, kind and energetic.
“He’s a smart person who cares very much about the community and the arts,” Switzer said. “It’s really been amazing to watch the growth of our membership, donors and programming since he’d been with us.”
Switzer said the council is happy that Bateman has blessed the council with his presence for as long as he has.
“We’re happy for the opportunity he has in Chicago. We hope he comes back to visit,” she said.