Building the Mississippi Arts+ Entertainment Experience
Photographs by MARIANNE TODD
There’s something in the water that fueled Muddy Waters. Something incomprehensible about the past that kept Faulkner up at night. Something spiritual that inspired Leontyne Price. Something mad that molded George Ohr. Something kind that guided Jim Henson. That something is place, enigmatic and arduous and triumphant. From the front porch to the church sanctuary to the kitchen. That place is Mississippi, and its story is told in Meridian at the freshly minted Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience, better known as The MAEEX, set for its grand opening on April 28, 2018.
Over the past two years, construction has been on overdrive downtown in The Queen City. Business owners remark of the ever-present buzz emanating from the corner of Front Street and 22nd Avenue as The Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience – all 60,000 square-feet of it – rises from the earth. The buzz reverberates across the state, too. The MAEEX has been a long time coming, bringing with it exciting new ways for the world to revel in and appreciate Mississippi excellence.
Even at press time, the construction crews are committed to a 24/7 schedule, and design teams work relentlessly on exhibits as the clock ticks toward the April 27 opening gala event.
Fred Cannon, member of The MAEEX Board of Directors and CEO of Creative and Dreams Music Network, has been a part of the project for more than two decades. After a globetrotting career in the music industry with BMI, he returned home in the mid-1990s with a passion to put Mississippi squarely in the spotlight. “Because Mississippi,” says Cannon, “really is the center of culture in America.”
Even before they broke ground at its current location, Cannon helped conceive of The MAEEX Walk of Fame, which has been etching its way along the sidewalk from the nearby MSU Riley Center since 2009, when Jimmie Rodgers’ star inaugurated the path. Rodgers’ star has since been joined by those of Morgan Freeman, Robert Johnson, Marty Stuart, Sela Ward, Eudora Welty, Richard Wright, and many others, with more to come.
Like Cannon, Philadelphia, Mississippi, native Marty Gamblin left the state to promote the international importance of Southern and American music. Like Cannon, Gamblin returned, and has been a part of The MAEEX movement since the early days. He has served in various leadership positions over the years, and is now the Director of The MAEEX Hall of Fame. “We can’t honor everybody,” Gamblin recognizes. “There’s so darn many.” What excites him most is that The MAEEX will introduce audiences to enduring stories while inviting them to continue the discovery at other museums, heritage sites, and trail markers across Mississippi.
The MAEEX is an experience that revolves around larger-than-life personalities who, through immersive and personal exhibits, become accessible and human. The MAEEX entrusted LPK Architects and Canizaro Cawthon Davis to design the building, and Gallagher & Associates to engineer the evocative and interactive spaces in the museum. The Gallagher team has worked on The National World War II Museum in New Orleans, The Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, the Grammy Museum Mississippi, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, The National Archives Museum in Washington, D.C., the Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville, and many others. They’ve seen it all.
But this project was different, says Gallagher & Associates Principal and Executive Director Sybelle Jones. The MAEEX needed “a totally different approach that no other museum has taken.” The Mississippi story could not be told only chronologically or geographically, the team quickly found. In order to engage visitors with the essence of Mississippi – that “something in the water” – the layers would have to be peeled back.
“Our thesis became about the individual life experiences and the influences that shaped the artist,” Jones says. It wasn’t enough to marvel at the finished product – the Elvis or B.B. King record, the Eudora Welty stories and photographs. There were more central questions that got to the root of Mississippi’s flowering genius. What was that artistic process? What lens did these artists see life through? Would our world be the same without them?
These are complex questions. The job of the design team was to make them approachable for the general public; to distill knotted narratives into memorable thread. They’ve done this through thematic galleries that include The Land, The Community, The Home, The People, and The Global Community. At the center of it all is a two-story rotunda that showcases The MAEEX Hall of Fame in 360-degree interactive glory.
Deft use of RFID chips (a technology that allows the user to trigger a tailored storytelling experience) and projection mapping bring stories to life. In the Chef’s Kitchen, part of The Home section, recipes from celebrated chefs are projection-plated before your eyes. In the adjacent Author’s Library, visitors can immerse themselves in the creative process of writers like John Grisham, his desk lit with a landscape of reference materials, his fingers typing away on the typewriter, as the passage auditorily unfolds.
The boat interactive in The Land gallery is a favorite of Stacey Wilson, Curator of Exhibitions at The MAEEX. Here, visitors can virtually travel down several Mississippi waterways. “Being from southern Louisiana, I love the rivers and the trees and the sense of peace the landscape provides,” Wilson says. ”As you sit and watch the landscape go by, the scene transforms into a painting by a Mississippi painter.”
In The Church, The MAEEX celebrates the role of Sunday worship and gospel choirs in the careers of luminary musicians. Uplifting scenes envelope visitors. A recreated juke joint resides in The Community galleries, near a row of schoolhouse lockers where one learns about and meets Mississippi icons before fame, when they were but young dreamers.
Ever wanted to paint like coastal modernist Dusti Bonge? Spin a whimsical pot like George Ohr? Make ceramics like Lee McCarty? In The People section, visitors can do just that, through a series of motion-sensing interactives that recognize hand movements and display the results, as if by magic, on a system of forward-facing screens. Also in The People galleries, an interactive map that allows users to customize and email themselves a statewide itinerary for future travels.
A final gallery, The Global Community, celebrates the far-reaching impact of Mississippi creativity. It ripples outward in music, literature, food, and art that has touched down and taken root across oceans and borders. While The MAEEX is keen to reinforce this boundless resonance, it also recognizes the needs of the local community. The first floor of the museum is equipped with broadcast recording and art studios that will be made available to Mississippi makers who want to further their own practice. An outdoor amphitheater and green space provides an added resource to the public; it will host performances throughout the year. Other scheduled events include lectures, panel discussions, and programs for young and old, like Mini Maestros, a weekly offering for toddlers and caregivers that feeds inquisitive minds with crafts, stories, music, and dramatic play.
Throughout the museum, original artifacts are integrated alongside innovative technologies. Art historian and consultant Tony Lewis has been tasked with securing the hundreds of objects that will be displayed in nearly four dozen jewel-box cases at various places, like punctuation marks to the visitor’s journey. The collection includes artworks, like a Tammy McGrew quilt and a Richmond Barthé sculpture. An Oprah Winfrey-signed yearbook owned by one her fellow grads at East Nashville High School shows the icon of the cusp of her meteoric rise (Fun fact: classmates voted the yearbook’s owner “most likely to succeed”; Oprah won “most popular.”)
“Most of the things we’re going to have are relatively intimate,” says Lewis. “Each object is carefully selected.”
Visitors will find paintbrushes used by Ocean Springs artist Walter Anderson, Sela Ward’s Golden Globe and Emmy, and Britney Spears’ jacket from her first tour – size double-zero, of course. The MAEEX has also secured original Jim Henson puppets, Mahna Mahna and the Snowths, the orange-shaggy-haired-shades-wearing character and his pink mouth-agape backup singers who catapulted into the milieu on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1969.
Add in one of B.B. King’s original Lucille guitars, Jerry Lee Lewis’ shoes, and a custom-made replica of Elvis Presley’s “Aloha Suit” created by original designers Bill Belew and Gene Doucette, and you have one of the most esoteric and rare collections of Mississippiana on earth. And nearly all of the objects in their possession at any given time will be on view to the public.
“This idea that museums are vaults has really been challenged for many, many years,” says Lewis, who has worked in prestigious museums across the country. “The best of all possible models is one that boasts respect for the object itself – the historical artifact – but makes it something meaningful for the audience member, something they can truly relate to.”
Visual artists like William Dunlap and Andrew Cary Young have created work specifically for these spaces. Young, a wizard in glass, has fashioned a 9-foot-tall by 6-foot-wide narrative window installed inside The Church. Along with his team at Pearl River Glass Studio in Jackson, Young has crafted the awe-inspiring stained glass to encapsulate the imagery and symbolism of Mississippi life. The window will be illuminated by a LED screen programmed to change hour-by-hour through a cycle of various light temperatures, mimicking the arc of the sun.
Visual elements in the window weave together history and legacy: an antebellum column on the left side nodding to the neoclassical architecture of plantation homes; an arch across the top that transitions into the branches of an ageless tree, with layered arboreal connotations of the biblical tree of life, the strength of families, and the anchored roots of diverse traditions; the river, winding from top to bottom, which itself contains a deep-blues guitar; a trio of crosses solidifying the role of Christianity in Mississippi life; the Star of David paying homage to the Jewish communities that have long helped to forge cultural and civil rights progress here; a central image of a red-winged blackbird, ascending.
“It’s going to reach people on a lot of different levels,” says Young. “Stained glass doesn’t get a lot of recognition for the ability it has to communicate with people. I’m really thrilled that [it] is going to be shown in such a prominent way.”
Also embedded in the window is a churning hurricane. It has the spiral of a nautilus. The shape of the black hole. It speaks to the nature of story itself. Minute as well as cosmic. Through specific personal experience, universal meaning. It’s a symbol which has come to signify the coexisting fragility and redemptive strength of Mississippi.
The MAEEX has faced major hurdles in the two decades since the original seed was sown. It was perhaps bleakest after Hurricane Katrina, when thousands of Mississippians had lost everything. In those terms, a new high-tech cultural cathedral didn’t seem nearly as necessary for life. Supporters of The MAEEX were patient and steadfast. And while cultural institutions may not be able to restore the beams and foundations of homes lost to disaster, The MAEEX has put a roof over the stories that make life in Mississippi so rich.
The group of devoted supporters are too many to name, but include current and past boards of directors, staff, and members of the community. Among them are past Board Chairman and current Vice-Chair Paul Ott, past Board Vice Chairman and former Executive Director Marty Gamblin, current Board Chairman Tommy Dulaney, and board members like Fred Cannon, Ann Alexander, Duffee Williams, and Joe Norwood, to name but a few. Advisory boards and committees have offered insight, expertise, and encouragement. Policy developments, including a 2001 Senate Bill establishing state support, and a local food and beverage tax passed in 2016, were critical in getting The MAEEX across the finish line. Manny and Melanie Mitchell donated downtown real estate, formerly the Meridian Hotel and Montana’s restaurant, to keep The MAEEX at the epicenter of downtown.
“It’s hard to single anybody out,” says Marty Gamblin. “It certainly has been a team effort.” That includes the small business owners who have seen their parking spaces affected by the construction. “It’s all going to come back to be a reward … The investment of giving up some of those things,” assures Gamblin. “Nobody’s going to feel like they made a bad investment in this project.”
For a museum dedicated to place, it’s downtown location is important. It won’t be alone in the ongoing downtown revival, says Charles Frazier, owner of Weidmann’s Restaurant, which has been open for more than 140 years and boasts a reputation as the oldest restaurant in Mississippi. “It’s a bigger picture of what’s going on in downtown Meridian,” he says.
The history interpreted inside The MAEEX works in tandem with a city that is mindful of architectural authenticity. From the 1800s grand opera house that is now the MSU Riley Center to the iconic Threefoot Building that will soon become a full-service Mariott hotel, Meridian is on the rise. “We have to embrace the past with an eye to the future,” adds Frazier.
Across from The MAEEX on front street, Q-Tip the Barber of Quality Cuts has the Rev. William Griffin in the chair. “I think it’s going to bring a lot of excitement and a lot of entertainment,” says Griffin, pastor at Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church in Meridian. The barber shop bustles, one of the places where the traditions of conversation and storytelling remain strong. Q-Tip looks forward to sitting out on the sidewalk – which he calls “the front porch” – to watch the passersby.
“Porches are a very important item in American and Southern history,” says Cannon, recounting a conversation he had once with President Bill Clinton. “Southerners used to sit on the porch and entertain themselves before television and radio by storytelling. And you had to be a damn good storyteller to hold everybody’s interest… [The porch is] where good ideas came from.”
With the Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience in Meridian, the state has a good idea on its hands. A front porch for the masses, with all the storytelling to captivate and inspire modern audiences.