Just Add Light

Arts at the Center in Jackson, Mississippi
Cocoon Jackson, a temporary community sculpture and performance piece in the Art Garden in Jackson, Mississippi. Photo by Julian Rankin
Cocoon Jackson, a temporary community sculpture and performance piece in the Art Garden in Jackson, Mississippi, created with support from an NEA Our Town grant, is part of an international site-specific series by conceptual artist Kate Browne. Photo by Julian Rankin

Jackson, Mississippi, is the state's capital and most populous city with a rich sense of history in the arts. It is known as the "City with Soul," a musical Mecca that the world-famous recording studio, Malaco Records, and many famous musicians call home. The city is well-known for its gospel, blues, and R&B scene, but a new arts-centered downtown is now taking the main stage.

"The arts are a natural way of bringing people together and helping Jackson function in a healthy and sustainable way," said Andy Young, artisan and owner of the Pearl River Glass Studio in Jackson. "I have seen this happening over the last 35 years, but today it is a wholly reenergized feeling. We have momentum and we are focused."

The groundswell began in 2007. The Mississippi Museum of Art (MMA) had just completed renovations on its new building adjacent to the Mississippi Arts Center and the Thalia Mara Hall, Jackson's primary performing arts site. While all three art sites were neighbors, there was no central zone to join them together. The solution: an arts-focused green space to unite the city's cultural institutions and center the arts in downtown Jackson. The Art Garden, as it would later be known, transformed a desolate parking lot into a hub of community activity. The project's collected vision became a realized venture in five short years in part due to a $150,000 National Endowment for the Arts Our Town grant. The Art Garden's launch marked the first outdoor public green space to open in Jackson since the 1970s.

"It took collaboration with neighborhood residents and community partners to create what we envisioned when the Art Garden was initially discussed," said Mississippi Museum of Art Director Betsy Bradley. "We wanted a place not only for visual arts activity but performing arts as well as a space for children to play. Mainly, we wanted to create a place that felt like a beautiful extension of the work that goes on inside the surrounding arts buildings."

Water fountains, a multi-use outdoor theater, terrace dining space and a permanent art collection comprise the Art Garden, along with seasonal foliage and native plants. Throughout the year, the Art Garden hosts free community events that have brought nearly 10,000 people to downtown Jackson. These events include the High Note Jam concert series; Screen on the Green outdoor movie viewings; Cocoon Jackson, a temporary community sculpture and performance piece by conceptual artist Kate Browne; as well as School Project, which allows area school children to explore the sciences, language arts, and visual arts in the garden's urban ecosystem.

Andy Young assists John Nussbaum in a demonstration of stained-glass painting techniques at the Pearl River Glass Studio in the Midtown Arts District of Jackson, Mississippi. Photo by Tom Crouch
Andy Young assists John Nussbaum in a demonstration of stained-glass painting techniques at the Pearl River Glass Studio in the Midtown Arts District of Jackson, Mississippi. Photo by Tom Crouch

The Our Town grant for the Art Garden increased support of the reinvigorated downtown by funding additional educational programs, multidisciplinary performances, and other interactive events. Today, the heightened sense of community and place extends from the downtown arts complex and overflows into surrounding creative neighborhoods as well.

A mile up the road from the Art Garden, the neighborhood of Midtown is also experiencing its own creative awakening. Just a year after the Art Garden's grant was secured, another Our Town award was presented to the Midtown Arts District. The neighborhood's creative industries include welders, carpenters, painters, photographers, musicians, ceramic artists, and concrete workers, among other diverse disciplines.

One of those is artist Andy Young. In 1976, Young moved his glass studio into a light-industrial warehouse space just off Millsaps Avenue in Midtown. Young's Pearl River Glass Studio was the first artist workplace in what was then primarily a low-income residential area. Young also served a critical role in forming the Business Association of Midtown to ensure artisans and residents are working as a more unified group.

"There is a new creative energy in Jackson and everyone is pulling together. The Our Town grants and the community's determination provide opportunities to sustain and prosper as a city," said Young.

Elizabeth Williams, curator of education at the Mississippi Museum of Art agreed with Young. "What we've seen in the Art Garden has been so rewarding and a dialogue is taking place to bring different people from different parts of the community together. Having that [arts] connection between Midtown and the museum makes [downtown Jackson] all the more strong."

The Our Town grant for the Midtown Arts District continues the good work of neighborhood residents and artisans as well as the project's various partners: the Arts Center of Mississippi, Midtown Partners, Millsaps College, the Business Association of Midtown, and the Hinds County Economic Development Authority. They have all played a part in the transformation of a once poverty-stricken neighborhood into an incubator for the arts, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

"Within the last four years a new wave of young creative entrepreneurs and artists have moved into the arts district and are purchasing and improving buildings," said Mary Elizabeth Evans, director of community and economic development at Midtown Partners. "What is really exciting is there is a new level of ownership."

The Midtown neighborhood has approximately 2,000 residents. The Arts Center of Mississippi and other community organizations believe an enhanced arts district will grow the neighborhood's creative economy and rebuild a community with a long heritage related to the arts. The multiple Our Town grants are an indicator of the progress thus far.

"When two projects are rewarded, it is a reflection of preexisting partnerships," said Daniel Johnson, a volunteer with Arts Center of Mississippi and a former board member of the Greater Jackson Arts Council. "Having received the Midtown grant bolsters our efforts and creates a quickening of energies to further goals that were sitting and waiting to be used. Having two Our Town grants awarded in Jackson is helping to encourage and build the excitement that we had to another level, and inspired people to think broader than they were before and reach a little further they thought was possible."

Like other Our Town grantees across the nation, the creation of the Art Garden and the revitalization of the Midtown Arts District show the power of creative placemaking projects but also the power of partnerships. Through Our Town, the NEA, and the partnering grantees, communities like Jackson are given the opportunity to advance into lively, beautiful, and sustainable places with the arts at their core.

A popular saying at Young's glass studio is "Just add light." The decorative glass works Young produces are stunning, but the light is the difference between illumination and basic utility. The saying also lends itself to Jackson and its creative placemaking legacy. The dedicated individuals at the Mississippi Museum of Art, Arts Center of Mississippi, and the Midtown Partners, as well as the artisans of the Midtown Arts District, are the illuminators.