Why I Support the Mississippi Arts Commission

This week we learned that there is a bill in the Mississippi Senate to close the Mississippi Arts Commission and consolidate it under the Mississippi Development Authority. The Arts Commission director was blind-sided by this news, and obviously there was no planning with the commission that led to the proposal. According to the Clarion Ledger, the reason given for the proposal is to increase efficiency.

If it were only a matter of sharing office space or supplies, that might make sense, but the proposal is to close down the commission and recreate it at the Development Authority. The current Commissioners would remain as an advisory board, but it is unclear what role they would play, nor is it clear whether any of the current staff would be brought over.

At best, this would mean a major disruption for arts funding in the state. At worst, the arts would be subsumed under other development issues, and arts funding would become more commercialized and more politicized.

The Mississippi Arts Commission is a fine example of a state organization that is fair and equitable in its processes and awards. The commission funds everything from individual artists to local arts organizations. They fund all kinds of art, from painting, to literature, to music, to folk arts, and more. They fund projects like the Artist Roster that brings artists to schools and community organizations around the state. They promote the arts within the state and around the country.

Full disclaimer: I have been the recipient of two grants from the Mississippi Arts Commission: a mini-grant in 2005 for $500 that helped me participate in two artist residencies, where I wrote the initial poems for what would become Barrier Island Suite and some of the concluding poems in Time Capsules, and an artist fellowship of $4500 this year, which has already helped me to travel the state to give readings and will help fund other professional development opportunities.

The fellowship is an excellent opportunity and an honor to receive. It has opened many doors for me as an artist. Yet, if you think about it, since I’ve been a writer living and working in Mississippi for more than 20 years, I’ve received on average, about $250 a year to support my work. Before the fellowship, that average was a lot less! I’m not complaining, only pointing out that the awards given to individual artists are seed money that help us to develop as artists and get the word about our art out to a much larger audience. No one is getting rich off of artist fellowships.

The bigger value of the Arts Commission is in the community it builds. As an award recipient, I feel a responsibility to that community. My work is not only my own, but is connected to something larger, and my goal is to help other artists achieve the same successes that I have.

I also see the value of the Arts Commission in my local community. It awards funds to the Columbus Arts Council (and others around the state), which in turn gives grants to local groups like the Suzuki Strings of Columbus. Community festivals receive Arts Commission funding as well, and state-wide festivals like the Mississippi Book Festival rely on funding as well. I have benefitted greatly from many of these organizations and events, both as an artist and as a consumer of art.

The Mississippi Arts Commission has a vast network of individual artists and arts organizations. They have a history of effectively working with these individuals and groups, and to close their doors and attempt to recreate it under new leadership seems foolhardy and rash. It could hardly be more efficient than the well-oiled machine that is the Mississippi Arts Commission. Mississippi has a vibrant arts community, and we owe a great debt of gratitude to the Commission for fostering it. The last thing we need to do is to try to reinvent this wheel.

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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