A conversation with Bradley on Mississippi Museum of Art

Betsy Bradley is director of the Mississippi Museum of Art (MMA) in Jackson. She recently spoke to Sun Senior Staff Writer Anthony Warren about the museum, as it celebrates 10 years at its current location. Bradley also spoke about MMA’s plans to help the state commemorate its 200th anniversary later this year.


So tell me about the upcoming spring benefit, Icing on the Cake.

“I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. We have a group of people planning it who are really excited about having a festive birthday party atmosphere. That’s the theme. We are celebrating Mississippi’s 200th anniversary of statehood, and it has been 10 years since we moved into the building we’re in now. So there are a lot of birthdays to celebrate.”


When is the event?

“April 7. Cocktails are at 7 p.m., dinner is half past 7.”


Is this a fund-raiser for the museum? And do you have a certain amount you hope to raise?

“We hope to raise as much as we can to support the programs, educational work, the work we do with senior citizens and other programs that don’t generate money on their own, but are important for our mission.”


How are things going at the museum now?

“Things are going great for the museum. We’re really excited about being part of the state’s bicentennial. We will commemorate that with an exhibition in December, when the two Mississippi Museums open. We will honor the openings, with a look at Mississippi through visual artists.

“Also, we continue to learn about the spaces in the museum and how people like to use them, and programming is getting stronger every year based on what we’ve learned.

“We are in the middle of reimagining the Mississippi Story, which has been an exhibition since the museum opened. While we rotate artwork in and out, we think it’s time for a complete refreshed, new look and new perspective on the ways we think about the story of Mississippi and its art.”


What kinds of changes are coming with this reimagining?

“We’re interested in having spaces that can have rotating exhibitions by working Mississippi artists, or smaller stories about communities of artists, instead of just galleries of portraits. That’s just one example. I don’t want to spoil the surprise. People need to stay tuned. We will reopen in the fall of 2018.”


Can you share some details of the December exhibition?

“It’s called ‘Picturing Mississippi, 1817-2017: Land of Plenty, Pain and Promise.’ What we are doing is bringing to our museum artwork that has depicted Mississippi over 200 years – things as early as Audubon’s landscape painting of Natchez from the Mississippi River to George Caleb Bingham’s ‘Jolly Flatboatmen.’ We’ll have paintings by well-known American artists who didn’t live here, but who responded to their experience or what they had heard about Mississippi.”


This exhibit won’t gloss over some of the state’s more controversial history?

“No it will not. Artists each have their own perspective on history or what happened. We hope it sparks conversation with our own people about their state and its relationship to the rest of the world.”


I want to go back to something you mentioned earlier. You said that some of the spaces in the museum have changed as you discovered how the public used them. Can you give me an example?

“A simple thing like our desks, where people could check in and get information about what was on view seemed really far away from the front door. We realized that we needed a human presence closer to the door, so people could be welcomed in a friendly way. We rearranged the lobby a bit a couple of years ago to reflect what we had learned by watching people come into the building and look around and wonder where to go.” 


So it’s been growing pains?

“Yes, but it’s also paying attention to how people use the spaces and trying to accommodate our visitors’ needs more than our own.”


What is MMA’s annual attendance now?

“We have about 160,000 people a year come into the building and to the Art Garden, who come to our events, exhibitions and programs. It’s a lot of traffic. The creation of the Art Garden has made a huge difference in the number of people who want to be down here in the space. It has really worked as a space for events and programs, so we’ve been happy about that.”





A few weeks ago I came downtown to do an interview with developers of the Westin. We parked in front of the Art Garden and walked from there to the hotel. Do you expect the Westin to increase attendance?

“Absolutely. We’re excited about having the Westin next door to us. We have received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to create a more beautiful walkway from the Westin to the Art Garden – the corridor you walked between the museum and Thalia Mara Hall will be renovated and beautified in a way that makes the pathway even more pleasant.”  


When will work begin on that?

“We’ve got the designs, and our share of the money from the National Endowment for the Arts. Developers of the Westin are contributing to that as well. When they get to a place where their construction team can help, we will start on that.”


What is the museum’s annual budget?

“It varies from year to year, depending on what exhibitions we have. For the fiscal year we’re in now, our budget is $2.9 million, pretty typical. Sometimes, it’s $2.7 million. I don’t think we’ve been higher than this, so it (represents) a little bit of growth.” 


Where does that money come from?

“It’s a real diverse mix of revenue. There are contributions from individuals, corporate sponsorships, foundations and grants. We write a lot of grants. And then, the revenue we earn from people renting the facility, our catering operation, the store and membership dues. There are pieces here and there we have to either raise or earn every year. We do have an endowment that generates money for us. We’re trying very hard to make that larger, so we have a more predictable stream of income. Of course, we’re in a city-owned building, so that’s a great partnership that reduces our expenditures as well.”


Does this year’s budget take into account the December exhibition?

“No, but some of the planning that goes into it. In the museum world, we work well in advance. We’ve already incurred a great deal of expense to promote the event, borrow the works of art, those kinds of things.”


How many pieces of art will be brought in?

“At this point, it’s about 250 pieces. It’s a little bit fluid, but it’s a large show.”


How long will it take to get the items in place?

“The entire process of planning an exhibition from the beginning to end is about three years. The turnaround between exhibitions in the galleries is usually four to six weeks.”


Where are all the pieces coming from?

“From museums across the country. There may be one coming from Europe. They’re coming from the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian, the Metropolitan (Museum of Art in New York), and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. There is a list of about 60 institutions where they’re coming from.” 


Does MMA loan out art?

“We like to go be good professional colleagues. When there are requests, we try to honor them as often as we can.”


How many pieces are in MMA’s collection?

“About 5,600.”


Which are the most sought-after pieces?

“I would say a couple. The George O’Keefe painting, called ‘Old Maple Lake George’ is one of them. It’s a really beautiful example of her natural paintings that she did in upstate New York.

“Our artwork comes from all over the world and the country. About three-quarters of it is American, and about half of it from Mississippi and the South. We have artifacts from other continents as well.”


For more information on Icing on the Cake, contact the museum at (601) 960-1515, or visit the MMA’s Web site, at www.msmuseumofart.org.


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