Art Works Blog

Art Flows Through the Mississippi Delta

A student leaps during a dance workshop in Clarksdale, Mississippi, held by Ailey II member Shirley Black Brown (seated). Photo by Panny Mayfield

With a long history of poverty, poor education levels, and dismal health statistics, the Mississippi Delta region is accustomed to making do with meager resources. But despite the obstacles and the hardship, Robert Canon is determined that Delta residents will not have to make do without art.

After a long career in the arts, including several years as NEA director of what was then called Locals, Canon now heads the Mississippi Festival Foundation, which brings professional performing arts companies into schools and communities throughout the Delta. Since the not-for-profit launched in 2005, it has sponsored local performances by organizations such as the Birmingham Children’s Theatre, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and musician Ladysmith Black Mambazo, reaching roughly 100,000 individuals in the process.

From the start, Canon has insisted on presenting only the highest quality work; before his efforts, Alvin Ailey had never before performed in the state of Mississippi.  “I’m always going to try to push for serious, professional work. I think when you have that, anybody---whether they’re adults or children---gets a better understanding of what it’s all about and how it can affect their lives.”

Initially, the organization operated out of Jackson, and bused children into the city to see performances. But the three-hour trek from the Delta to the capital proved too great a logistical and financial challenge, and the Mississippi Festival began sending arts organizations into the Delta instead. (Original plans for a large-scale festival were also abandoned several years ago---“I probably need to change the name,” Canon said.)

The decision to sponsor Delta-based programs brought with it new challenges, including finding adequate facilities to house visiting companies. When the Ailey II dance company visited the region earlier this year, the Mississippi Festival Foundation located a 1930s Works Progress Administration (WPA) facility in Clarksdale that still had a suspended wood floor suitable for dance performances. With support from the NEA and others, the foundation fixed up the auditorium, making it usable for the company. The impact of the performances, Canon said, “was beyond anything we could have imagined.”

Ailey dancers in costume following their performance in Clarksdale. Photo by Panny Mayfield

“The majority population in this area is African-African. They’ve been very isolated, except for what they see on television. There are not even a lot of move theaters in this region, if you can imagine,” he continued. “[I]n the case of dance, [the students] suddenly people who are like them, who are up there dancing as professionals. It opened a whole new world for them.”

Canon’s organization has received dozens of letters from students expressing their gratitude for coordinating the Ailey II events, and several schools have continued the dance workshops that the Mississippi Festival sponsored in the weeks leading up to the performances. The state has even contributed funds to further restore the WPA pavilion, “a direct result of bringing in something of high quality,” Canon said.

“When [people] have an opportunity to see the best, they’re excited, interested, and it will develop a new audience,” said Canon. “In this region it’s particularly important because they have nothing else. I think we’ve changed lives as a result of this.”

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