Help keep arts, humanities alive

Published 12:31 am Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Winston Churchill said, “The arts are essential to any complete national life. The state owes it to itself to sustain and encourage them. Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with reverence and delight which are their due.”

The only change to Churchill’s important statement should be to include the humanities.

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to imagine life in America, and particularly Mississippi, without music, dance, songs, literature, films, poetry, short stories, novels and all the rich and inspirational aspects they bring to us. Arts and humanities course through our collective veins, one of the reasons tourists from around the world flock to the Magnolia State and the Mississippi River.

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Here in Natchez, not a day goes by when we don’t hear a foreign language or dialect spoken by visitors. Natchez and Mississippi depend on the tourists to support them economically.

However, the arts and humanities represent far more than a dollar in the till; they mean Mississippi will continue to produce artists and scholars well into the future. Both the Mississippi Humanities Council and its companion the Mississippi Arts Commission are dedicated to funding a wide array of grants for individual artists and groups. Many of these grants require artists and organizations to raise matching funds, often from donors and businesses. Without such assistance, many arts and humanities endeavors would not be possible.

For example, the Mississippi Humanities Council has financially supported the Mississippi World War II Veteran Oral History Project, enabling interviewers, including me, to record more than 70 World War II veterans. That project continues thanks to MHC funding.

The Mississippi Arts Commission has enabled scores of developing artists to get a start through its mini-grant program, and to promote established artists through the Mississippi Artist Roster. I was honored with both a mini-grant and listing on the roster. Organizations such as the Mississippi Writers Guild, of which I am president, rely on MAC assistance to bring workshops, lectures and meaningful programs to Mississippians.

A terrific example of the value of the value of the Mississippi Humanities Council is the production of “The Parchman Ordeal: The Untold Story.” Pre-production and production grants made it possible to create an oral history of the survivors’ ordeal and an award-winning documentary which is scheduled for airing on Mississippi Public Broadcasting this year. Furthermore, a Parchman Ordeal Education Outreach Project is set to begin this fall to inspire and educate students regarding the importance of civil and voting rights. The documentary was a prime example of public and private partnerships. The film was created with the astonishingly low grant budget of $2,000 with the rest from privately donated time and resources.

Other examples of the value of arts and humanities abound not only in Natchez but throughout the Magnolia State and country. However, arts and humanities funding is not only being questioned, but even considered unnecessary. On behalf of the scores of artists who have enriched and educated us and our children, I urge you to contact both your state legislator and U.S. Congressional representative. An e-mail, letter, or phone call will go a long way to helping them understand that arts and humanities aren’t “extra,” but “essential” to the life of a nation, state and community.

On the national level, both the arts and humanities are targeted for cuts and even elimination. That would be tragic for several reasons. First, state arts programs rely on funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. State programs such as the Mississippi Arts Commission and Mississippi Humanities Council could not do their great work without national support. Second, having a healthy national arts and humanities sends a signal to all Americans that creativity is honored and respected. A nation that uplifts humanities and arts uplifts its citizens. Third, humanities and arts are a great economic bargain. If the national budget can be compared to a pecan pie, then the arts and humanities barely amount to a piece of the crust or a single pecan. So, please let your voice heard by calling your congressional representative at 202-224-3121. An easy-to-use system will direct you to your senator or representative or his or her staff member.

As 23-year veteran of the Air Force, I know that many of those who defended and protected our country would be saddened by the prospect of seeing the arts and humanities chopped or even eliminated. I have been honored as a recipient of the first U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran Humanities Achievement Award for documentaries about Richard Wright and Eudora Welty, two of Mississippi’s famous writers.

Please, don’t let the music, dance, stories die. That is a prospect we truly cannot afford to let happen in our community, our state and our nation.
G. Mark LaFrancis is an author, film maker and teacher in Natchez. He is president of the Mississippi Writers Guild.