Real estate gurus, businessmen and women sat down with artists to discuss arts and its importance to the lives of us all at St. Andrew's Cathedral on June 15. Panel moderator Todd Stauffer, publisher of the Jackson Free Press, set the tone of the Jackson Arts Council forum quickly with remarks about the "creative class"—and art's connection with economic development.
Then panelists John Lawrence, Mike Peters, Betsy Bradley, John Horhn, Sarah Campbell, Melishia Grayson, Malcolm White, Malcolm Beattie, Amy Brooks and Robert Gibbs discussed why art is so vital to the community's health—ranging from keeping young people out of trouble to convincing people to re-invest in Jackson by deciding to live, shop and be entertained in the city.
In the classically beautiful cathedral with its stained-glass windows and hardwood floors, it was comforting to be sitting amid art. It was also a bit ironic that the topic was art and its essentiality to individuals' lives and to the vitality of our capital city.
All vocal members of the audience agreed that everyone, in one way or another, is a beneficiary of the arts—even as funding for the arts is consistently cut. The Melton administration slashed the Greater Jackson Art Council's budget $30,000 this year—a severe hit to a group that provides grants as small as $250 to individual artists and teachers throughout Jackson for needs as basic as art supplies.
Despite the cuts, Jackson Mayor Frank Melton, dressed in what he referred to as his "batman gear," stood in front of the panelists and audience reassuring them: "Arts is the most important thing we can do." He vowed that Malcolm White—head of the Mississippi Arts Commission, which Melton seemed to think hosted the forum—and the arts had his full support.
He did not, however, say whether the $30,000 would be restored any time soon.
Melishia Grayson, former Lanier High School student body president and current Jackson State University freshman and JFP intern, and Sarah Campbell, mother of two elementary school students, eloquently stressed the importance of educating young people. They further added that integrating arts into the curriculum is just as important.
"(Art) gives you something else to do besides what you're expected to do. You step outside the box. What I learned from were the projects, the oral presentations. Not the tests," Grayson said to loud applause. Grayson grew up on Wood Street in Jackson.
Youth aren't the only ones who learn from the arts, though. Developer Mike Peters offered that there are "few places where you see old, young, black, white, different economic classes all, all come together." He said that he, "an old, white man," has been able to get to know a "young, black, female artist," who wanted to hang art in his building.
"(Art) breaks down barriers," Peters says.
An example of arts integration into everyday life is the Fondren District. Stores in the district boast artwork by local artists and an obvious intermingling of many different types of people. From a business standpoint, Peters, owner and redeveloper of the Fondren Corner building, which houses both commercial and residential leasers, says that the building is more than 100 percent leased.
"Even though you may not be able to always see the numbers, you know in your gut that (the development) is above expectations because of the artistic atmosphere. You get sucked into the artistic vortex," Peters said.
A local musician stood, stating that because there was little in the city helping with his "creative flow," he and many of his friends were preparing to leave the area for larger cities with larger creative communities. In response, Downtown Partners President John Lawrence urged those in attendance to find ways to foster a culture beyond the panel.
Lea Barton, local artist and Jackson Arts Council board member, urged the group that what the art community needs is follow-through. Ward 2 City Councilman Leslie McLemore, in old-school church deacon fashion, urged audience members and panelists alike to get out their checkbooks and give tangible support.