Local artists and leaders from two area arts councils have met a bill filed in the Mississippi Senate to abolish the Mississippi Arts Commission with confusion and concern.
Senate Bill 2611, authored by Sen. Lydia Chassaniol (R-Winona) and co-sponsored by Sen. Gary Jackson (R-Starkville), seeks to dissolve MAC and bring its employees and operations under the purview of the Mississippi Development Authority, which helps drive tourism efforts in the state.
Tina Sweeten-Lunsford is executive director for the Columbus Arts Council, which supports arts and art programs in Columbus and Lowndes County — everything from concerts and children’s theater programs to art galleries at the Rosenzweig Arts Center in downtown Columbus.
CAC also gets a $21,000 grant for operating budget from the Mississippi Arts Commission, which accounts for 6 percent of the organization’s annual budget. If SB 2611 becomes law, Sweeten-Lunsford said she has no idea how it will affect the local council’s budget or day-to-day operations.
“Pretty much everything we do here is connected to the MAC or to the National Endowment for the Arts,” she said. “Because that federal money flows through the state organization to us. So, with that significant a portion of our budget being cut, we could lose staff, which means we won’t be able to provide the same quality or amount of programming that the community has gotten used to. It could mean that we don’t have the money to pay for performers, which means we wouldn’t have the diversity of live music coming in that we try to provide for the community.”
Chassaniol, who is the Senate’s Tourism Committee chair and a former MAC commissioner, has said little publicly to explain how funding for local arts councils would work under MDA control. She did say in an emailed statement to the media that she had long sought better relations between MAC and MDA and cited state budget concerns for precipitating the bill.
“At a time when our state’s resources are limited, it seems prudent to consolidate our agencies when possible,” Chassaniol said. “This bill will permit the larger goal of expanding and promoting Mississippi’s unique culture in a more fiscally responsible way.”
Jackson, who is listed as an additional author, said he didn’t yet know how funding for local organizations would be affected and that it would be determined during the Senate appropriations process.
“According to Sen. Chassaniol, it would do no harm to the arts, but it would help … the Mississippi Development Authority in conjunction with the tourism industry,” Jackson said.
MAC Executive Director Malcolm White has spoken out in strong opposition to the bill, which he said caught him completely by surprise.
“MDA’s a huge agency, and we’re very small,” White said. “We’re very nimble. …We’ve been doing this for 50 years. We know who’s in the field, we know what their needs are, we know what their constituencies are. We have contacts and knowledge and experience, and we absolutely cannot understand why this is being turned over to a division of economic development.”
More than 50 percent of the money MAC receives goes to community organizations promoting the arts, he said.
Uncertainty about transparency
The bill calls for creating an advisory council for arts under MDA, an agency that answers directly to Gov. Phil Bryant. Sweeten-Lunsford said the uncertainty is concerning, but she reserved judgment as to whether it’s a bad move.
“I really can’t say how it will change because we don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said. “If they’re going to change their priorities for funding, if they stop funding local arts organizations, then it’s detrimental. But if that’s still part of the mission … then it might not be as horrible as it sounds.”
President of the Starkville Community Theatre, Abigail Voller, is worried MDA will not be as transparent as MAC, particularly given the fact that no one at MAC knew about the bill while it was being drafted.
SCT receives funding through the Starkville Area Arts Council and last year received two grants from MAC totaling $4,680.
Erin Nicholson, spokesperson for the Starkville Area Arts Council, said SAAC members are currently researching the bill to see how it would affect arts programs in Starkville and Oktibbeha County.
SAAC received a two-year operating grant from the MAC for $20,000 that will end June of this year. That operating grant helps cover costs for annual events, including the Cotton District Arts Festival, as well as scholarships, children’s programs and local community arts projects, Nicholson said.
“The MAC has had a long history of supporting the arts across the state from events to museums and of course groups like us,” she said. “And we certainly wouldn’t want to see that effort come to an end. We want to do everything we can to make sure the arts are fully supported in Mississippi, so we’re just kind of waiting to see how it all unfolds.”
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