From The Ancient To The Avant Garde | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

From The Ancient To The Avant Garde

The importance of art in Mississippi has been steadily growing, and the new Mississippi Museum of Art, scheduled to open June 9, is a landmark event in the history of art here.

The history of art in what is now Mississippi starts about 6,000 years ago, with an exceptional bead-maker who crafted unusually sophisticated pieces using advanced techniques. This artist (or small group of artists) worked in south Mississippi (although his beads have been found in Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee, spread through trade networks).

The beads are streamlined stylizations of animals, carved from brilliantly colored stone, highly polished and then drilled longitudinally with a device similar to a modern drill press. Patti Carr Black cites archeologist Sam Brookes' observation that "no other artifacts in the United States at that time show a level of sophistication equal to that exhibited by the bead maker from Mississippi." Indeed, this is where Carr Black begins her pivotal work "Art in Mississippi."

While Mississippi soils may cradle untold riches of Pre-Columbian Art, Carr Black points out that archaeologists have thoroughly studied less than 1 percent of known archeological sites in Mississippi, and an even smaller percentage of potential sites have been examined. So while Mississippi has been inhabited for long enough to have supported an avant-garde bead-maker and, later, the Mississippi culture, one of the largest Indian societies in North America, modern Mississippians' relationship with Native American art is obscured by a lack of knowledge.

After the Native American societies in Mississippi were displaced and destroyed, there was no local art production to speak of until the early 20th century. The notable exceptions to this are the folk art traditions of quilting (by white and black women) and the artistic traditions preserved by the Choctaw Indians (including textile work, basket weaving and beadwork).

Before the Civil War, most Mississippians were too preoccupied with the harshness of frontier life to devote time to or spend money on art. Even in Natchez, where money was not in short supply, wealthy tastes favored European and Northern artists and craftsmen. This preference for far-away art is evident in mansions in Natchez, which are filled with furniture from Europe, wallpaper from New York and sculpture from Italy. Portraiture was the one form of painting that flourished in Mississippi, but it was only in Natchez that people appreciated the artistic value of the portrait rather than its straightforward content. Natchez families encouraged artists like James Audubon to reside in Mississippi, but few artists of Mississippi origin existed. During American art movements like Greek Revival architecture, Landscape painting and Genre painting, creativity in Mississippi lagged behind the other states.

The devastation caused by the Civil War put Mississppi further behind, and artistic development was further stifled from the 1890s through the early 1900s by nostalgia for the "lost cause" of the Civil War.

In "Art in Mississippi," Carr Black characterizes this "lost cause" nostalgia as part of the idea of a "solid South" that was characterized by conservative values, "united in its support of racial segregation," and where "an aggressive and moralistic Protestantism became virtually a civil religion tying together white Christian culture and southern culture." Mississippi's first art gallery was a product of this "lost cause" nostalgia, an attempt to glorify the state's past by glorifying great Mississippians (blacks and women were excluded). This gallery, known as the Mississippi Hall of Fame, was a portrait gallery of deceased white men housed in the new Capitol in 1903.

But even the Mississippi Hall of Fame signaled an important change in the role of art in Mississippi—it was one of the first public endorsements of art's importance. Art wasn't exactly flourishing; the conservative atmosphere of the "solid South" still restricted the expressive scope of visual art. But for the first time, and in the spirit of populism, access to art was seen as the average citizen's due.

In 1904, the Jackson Board of Trade asked Bessie Cary Lemly of Belhaven College and founder of Jackson's Art Study Club, to organize an art exhibit for the Jackson Corn and Cotton Carnival (later the State Fair). After several years of successful art exhibits at the fair and elsewhere, Lemly and her organizing group became the Mississippi Art Association in 1911. In an act of laudable foresight and ambition, the MAA immediately began amassing a permanent collection of art, selecting one piece annually at the state fair. The works purchased by the MAA—an all-women organization at its inception and through its founding years—would become the cornerstone of the permanent collection of the Mississippi Museum of Art, now the largest art museum in the state.

The MAA grew steadily in both its activities and aspirations. It received official quarters in the Gale family home in 1926 (now the Municipal Art Gallery), and also became an incorporated and chartered organization. In 1955, Morgan Jones, then president of the MAA, voiced the desire for a fully-fledged art museum. In 1958, the MAA proposed the inclusion of an art museum in the city's new civic center. Over the next 20 years, the MMA tirelessly fund-raised and reached out to the community to build up support for their dream. Their efforts belied more than a love for art, the MAA also acted out of a deep-rooted belief in Mississippi's creative and cultural potential—the MAA did not just want a museum of art, they felt that Mississippi deserved one.

The Mississippi Museum of Art opened in the Arts Center of downtown Jackson in 1978, amid much celebration. By this point, the membership of the MAA had increased from a handful of dedicated women to more than 3,000 people. The MAA officially re-incorporated itself as the Mississippi Museum of Art in 1979.

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