Arts Commission on a mission for bricks, mortar

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 11, 2000

Betsy Bradley is learning to blend her artist’s vision with a politician’s insight. As executive director of the Mississippi Arts Commission, Bradley is traveling the state to promote, on a local level, a plan which could give the commission a way to grant funds for bricks and mortar projects.

&uot;For 30 years we’ve given grants for programs with funding from the Legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts, but we’ve never been in the business of giving money for bricks and mortar&uot; Bradley said during a recent visit to Natchez.

Projects are as varied as the arts themselves: from programs that put trained artists into juvenile detention centers to help rehabilitate offenders to grants that support symphonies and even opera festivals.

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That doesn’t mean the commission hasn’t faced requests for capital funding … dozens, in fact … but none were awarded because of strict limitations on the commission’s role.

Yet talk of a vehicle for providing much-needed capital project grants continued across the state and, as Bradley explained, the Arts Commission became the vehicle of choice for the program.

&uot;We’ve spent the last year surveying the state, finding out what the needs are,&uot; she said.

And the needs, she says, are real and growing.

In McComb, the Main Street program has a vision of rehabilitating downtown buildings into living spaces and studios for artists.

In Natchez, the directors of the Natchez Opera Festival have poured thousands of dollars into the transformation of the former Margaret Martin School’s from an unused facility to a performing arts center. Now, the building may need a new roof, Bradley said.

And the NAPAC Museum, which organizers bill as the only black history museum on a Main Street in America, desperately needs renovation. The volunteer organization simply lacks the funds to transform the old Post Office building into a suitable museum space.

And Bradley’s list goes on …

&uot;A lot of the projects would include renovating or expanding existing facilities,&uot; she said, adding that a grants program for capital projects would encourage &uot;adaptive reuse of buildings&uot; such as the Margaret Martin transformation in Natchez or the NAPAC&160;museum’s renovation.

&uot;These have a ripple effect … in communities,&uot; Bradley said, citing the creation of artists housing in downtown areas. &uot;When the arts move into downtown areas, the quality of life improves for all,&uot; she said.

Bradley speaks with the authority of experience. For years, the Mississippi Arts Commission has been contributing to the quality of life in communities as varied as Natchez and Oxford, Jackson and Ocean Springs through its grants programs.

Of its $3.69 million budget, the commission has already awarded grants totaling $1.605 million through 175 grants since July 1 of this year, including $10,000 to the Natchez Opera Festival for general operating support and four $200 mini-grants to Frazier Primary, Morgantown Elementary, McLaurin Elementary and West Primary to fund an artist’s performance at each of those schools.

If the Mississippi Legislature chooses to fund the new capital projects grant program through a bond, the arts commissions could provide millions of dollars more each year to statewide programs and projects.

&uot;We’re hesitant to say exactly how much right now,&uot; Bradley said, explaining that the amount of money channeled to capital projects would depend in part on the need and on legislative funding.

And, she admits legislative approval for this program will be tough to obtain this year, given the budget woes facing the state.

&uot;But we feel like they’ll pass it if the people in the communities really want it,&uot; Bradley said, with mor than a little political insight.

Stacy Graning is editor of The Democrat. She can be reached at 45-3539 or