Our Story: From Strangers to Friends
A NEW MISSION
The previous mission statement that we had for many years proclaimed that the Mississippi Museum of Art was committed to “collecting, preserving, and exhibiting art.” These are proper goals for an art museum. They are gold standards within the field. These are aims that most museums of art have. But we have a peculiar and troubling history here in Mississippi. We asked ourselves, as we began the process of developing a strategic plan for the next several years of service to our communities, to consider who we are and who we want to be.
We realized that many of the people in Mississippi were strangers to us — as we were and are to them. At the same time, we thought about how strangers might become friends. We’ve all seen that happen, through work, at a barbecue, a wedding, but the critical questions that faced us were: How do we as a cultural, story-keeping and story-telling institution both become a true friend to its varied audiences, and a leader in our state and region by demonstrating to other art museums how such friendships work, how they can be transformative. The first part of the answer was that we had to rethink our core mission.
So, we changed it—through a rigorous process of asking ourselves questions and asking our audiences, communities, stakeholders, and colleagues to help us find the answers. Our mission is now: to connect Mississippi to the rest of the world, and the power of art to the power of community.
Clearly this declaration is more complex than our previous statement, and reorients us in profound ways to the work we know we need to do.
WHERE WE BEGAN
First, we had to consider who we count as belonging to “Mississippi.” This might at first thought seem obvious, but then we thought about who was included under that umbrella from the start of our institution. We had to acknowledge our subtly exclusive origins which began with the creation of a community art exhibition at the State Fair in 1911. That year, the State Fair Association requested that artist Bessie Cary Lemly, the founder of Jackson’s Art Study Club, organize a show of local art. The participating artists were so pleased by the outcome that they formed the Mississippi Art Association, a group of artists and supporters, all of whom also belonged to the Art Study Club.
The MAA established a permanent art collection in 1911 and went on to wisely add an educational remit to its stated purpose. It included children’s art and collegiate work within its exhibition program and created children’s art classes, teacher-training workshops, newsletters, and contacts with the state school system. Then, beginning in 1958, the MAA began working toward constructing a building that would house what became the Mississippi Museum of Art, and by 1979 the city of Jackson was able to mobilize enough public support to constitute it in the space of the Mississippi Arts Center. The primary goals were still preservation, collection, and exhibition — of local, and then national artwork. But Mississippi stories were always being left out. They bubbled up from the ground but were ignored. What had started as a club with a select membership and a program of exhibitions had become an institution with a responsibility to nourish all who come through the doors.
After outgrowing the Mississippi Arts Center and coming into full flower in our refurbished building, the former Mississippi Arts Pavilion, we knew in order to connect all the members of our state to the world beyond that we would have to form friendships with our visitors, so that when we go exploring our history, investigating our stories that are visually told, asking deep questions about who we are and what we value, they would trust us to make these explorations with us. And we learned that relationships move at the speed of trust. Therefore, to become an important part of the lives of our communities — all of them — we would have to reorient ourselves toward building trust through personal experience with the art in our collection.
We understood this because friendship is formed in the moments of interaction, in intimacy, in sharing the story that hadn’t been shared before, in the mutual discovery of some truth that confirms that we are worthy of each other’s trust. The question then became what the catalyst would be to set us off on these expeditions of collaborative learning. This answer we already had.
THE ROLE OF ART
We have found in our own experiences that visual art vividly shows us where truth, beauty and lived experience intersect. Looking at the work of McArthur Binion, who has roots in Mississippi, DNA: Black Painting: IV, 2015, we see how his own birth certificate becomes the foundation of a painting that references this truth but goes on to represent his life through a repeating grid of this repeated biographical information. Through this painting Binion shows us that every part of the art he makes is stamped with the history of his birth, and its only from that foundation that he can begin to riff on and invent lines and color schemes that elaborate his lived life. The record of his life as a part of Mississippi’s history directly feeds the power of his art and connects art to his community. Through his work we come to understand intimately that life isn’t separate from art and that it takes an artist to tell a fuller and richer story than a birth record ever could. Through DNA, Binion has transformed himself and through our encounter with his artwork, our awareness of his history and perhaps our own is also changed.
And this is how we believe we can fulfill the other part of our mission — to connect the power of art to the power of community: by collecting and displaying art to provide the
moments when these connections become visible. Thus, art is central to our mission. Without it we can’t see where we want to go; we can’t properly see Mississippi or the communities we are committed to serving.
Take for example the artwork of Benny Andrews, Mississippi River Bank (Trail of Tears Series), 2005, which was part of our Picturing Mississippi, 1817-2017: Land of Plenty, Pain & Promise exhibition from December 2017 through July 2018. Andrews uses his painting to expand the idea of Mississippi and recognize communities that have long been unrecognized. The artwork shows a group of indigenous people covered in shawls and blankets at a shore looking out over the expanse of blue water in a place where their options
for continuing survival have become very constrained and, in the distance, a United States soldier with a gun silently enforces the curtailing of their life chances. It’s the artistic representation of this imagined moment that sensitizes us to our collective history, and reminds us that the land we occupy was once the land of the Natchez and the Choctaw.
Looking at a photograph by Eudora Welty, perceiving the raw empathy of her gaze on a young Black girl vulnerable to the camera’s lens while also resplendent in her own bravery in facing the camera, Welty also urges us to expand our ideas of what constitutes our community. Is our community made up of people with similar skin color, or is it similar age, similar regional point of origin, or perhaps a similar kind of bravery? Through the work we display visitors might re-imagine their relationships with their communities and with the world beyond Mississippi. In this way our mission goals come together: Art carries us through.
Here at the Museum we have all had transformative moments in quiet dialogue with a work of art that depicted a historical situation we had not known about before, given us a vision of what could be, or poured color and vitality into a room and let those colors permeate us, too. We know that strangers can become friends through engaging with visual art because art allows everyone’s stories to be told and heard—and when these stories are conveyed and considered, we become co-investigators of our weighty history, sharing its burden and its small but crucial victories. This is exactly what friends do: celebrate with each other when we have triumphed and mourn together when we have sustained losses.
Seeing art as motivation and as transformative catalyst became central to our newly adopted strategic plan. The plan helps us visualize how we will engage all of Mississippi and empower all the communities here in Jackson and around the state, by extending a hand in friendship.
We embarked on the plan in 2018, knowing that we could only look to engage our visitors and supporters by first being engaged ourselves. As a key member of our staff, Roger Ward says, compared to other strategic plans that he has encountered at other institutions, “This is the one most concerned with redefining its relationship to its communities, rather than seeking to advance strictly professional objectives and goals ... this is not about buildings, not about collections.”
Ward tells our truth. We couldn’t model friendship by being focused solely on what we own while ignoring the needs of those around us. We are the largest museum in the state, with 32 organizations that take loans from our collection and share traveling exhibitions. Therefore, by deciding that we will use our collection to create and host honest conversations that reckon with our past, we lead by example, demonstrating openness, trustworthiness and empathy — the hallmarks of friendship. To this end, in the last few years the Museum has made artful engagement a foundational part of almost every aspect of the institution.
Now our education department maintains a host of programs that invite all our communities in. We have a Museum app that we use to connect to educators. We have built-in engagement spaces where all visitors can get closer to the art. We have a Teaching Fellows program that looks to train the next generation of museum educators for Mississippi. We have Studio and Family programs that encourage parents co-learning with their children. We have therapeutic and health-maintenance programs such as Art and Mind that welcome people with mild cognitive impairment, and the Creative Healing Studio for those who have dealt with cancer. More, there are programs geared toward children such as Look and Learn with Hoot, Family Day, and The Museum School Summer Camps.
In 2018, we established the Center for Art and Public Exchange (CAPE), a new W.K. Kellogg-funded initiative founded in the values of equity, transparency, and truth to form what we call a “brave space” where we, along with our visitors, can confront our past, using art to guide us.
The move from our previous permanent collection installation, Picturing Mississippi, to the current exhibition, New Symphony in Time, charts the course from a safe space (where we suggested how new stories could be told) to a brave space, where we actively seek out stories from our community partners. CAPE is structured to do this work. It consists of a Community Advisory Council, a National Arts Residency and an In-State residency program, and an Innovation Lab, where audiences are given innovative ways to unpack works of art. CAPE also features more community-minded programs including Art & Coffee and Re:Frame, which give us and our audiences structured conversational encounters with issues that form and shape our present moment. Even our physical spaces mirror this attitude of generous intimacy that cultivates the recognition of community.
Our architect Madge Bemiss applied our new mission to the architecture of the building, creating a sleek, open design utilizing several floor-to-ceiling windows of transparent glass and raising the roof of the entryway. The Museum’s foyer and entryway are now filled with light, and passersby can see inside the building—an apt way to enliven the idea of transparency that we believe will make all our audiences feel welcome. The completed building represents the first phase of our decade-long plan to transform the museum’s structure and transform our relationship to our communities. Inside, the general layout includes many benches, chairs and comfortable spaces that encourage visitors to sit and relax, to stay for a while.
Following on this theme of constituting our institution as a place of artful, honest engagement, IN 2011 we completed the second phase of our visionary plan: opening The Art
Garden at the Mississippi Museum of Art, a public, green space complete with outdoor art installations, the sprawling BankPlus Green, the C Spire Stage, and various intimate corners for visitors. From its beginning, The Art Garden has been developed as a public-private partnership with the city of Jackson. Numerous private and individual donors, as well as state and federal agencies, contributed to and helped to realize the grand vision. Bemiss oversaw design with Robert Poore, carrying the torch passed on by the late Ed Blake (1947–2010), whose forward thinking laid the foundations for the garden.
This reorientation of the Museum and our related programming and structural innovations have not gone unnoticed in our field. In 2010, the Museum received the National Medal for Museum Service from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. This medal is the highest national honor awarded annually to five museums and five libraries, and in 2010, the Mississippi Museum of Art was the only art museum to be recognized with this distinction. This recognition has spurred us to continue to be creatively decisive in making ourselves into a space where strangers can become friends.
Even more, in 2019 both The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Ford Foundation has granted the museum $1 million in support to carry on our vision of forthrightly and energetically broaching the issues of social equity and social justice through our public programs and exhibition schemes that explore Mississippi’s cultural history. These grants constitute crucial recognition of what we have accomplished so far in modeling ourselves as an institution that believes in being a friend to our visitors, telling them difficult truths, but also never leaving when the conversations become tough to bear.
To this end, we are working toward specific goals in the next few years, goals that serve as markers of our progress.
We want to have the racial and socioeconomic demographics of Mississippi be faithfully represented in our participants, membership, leadership, and volunteer and financial supporters.
We are working toward having the Museum become a destination for artists, scholars, and truth-seekers to understand the impact of slavery, systematic disfranchisement, and the Civil Rights Movement on our collective imaginations.
As we unearth and present more powerfully evocative stories of our difficult past, we want to become the place where, when our name is mentioned, what will come to mind will be an oasis of culture that nurtures truth, reconciliation, and healing.
We know that our story is a microcosm of the story of the United States, and the struggles that we have taken on are a mirror version of the very same struggles the nation has long been embroiled in. Even more, we know that this story is part of a long historical struggle that other societies, others cultures have also wrestled with: whether a culture can create and maintain institutions that bring together communities of strangers, and what convictions will found such institutions. We choose to found our own, the Mississippi Museum of Art, in inclusiveness, empathy, honest friendship, and transparency because if we are to live and thrive, we must live in truth.
Our best friendships are those that most allow to grow, that allow us to best know ourselves even as we come to know someone else. The intimacy, the shared histories and stories,
the willingness to call out our mistakes and ignorance and to celebrate our treasured triumphs—once we have these things we are no longer strangers, and our best selves can rise to the occasion. Here is the true measure of who we are. We aim to say to our visitors and have them say to us: “We have grown by your friendship.”