Our recent survey asked respondents to prioritize potential uses for a community arts center. Of the seventy-plus respondents, the consensus was clear: At the top of the list, “Affordable classroom space for youth and adult programming.” In 2014, Hub City Access reiterated the benefits of quality after-school programming for positive youth development in their acclaimed Hattiesburg Area Youth Master Plan. They also report a notable lack of out-of-school opportunities for Mississippi youth: Out of the 264,912 children in the state who would like to attend an after-school, only 22% (58,029) are actually able to (Hub City Access, HAYMP, 57).
A community arts center venue would allow the HAC to substantially expand our smART Space Outreach (which currently offers twice-weekly after-school and summer programming to about 9,000 elementary students) to include middle and high school programs, more after-school hours, and allow us to coordinate and centralize the multitude of specialized workshops and programs offered by various arts organizations under one roof.
Anyone who has walked by a parent’s refrigerator door knows the unquantifiable joy that arts-integrated education brings into the world. In 2011, our supporters at the Mississippi Art Commission sponsored a Stennis Institute Whole Schools Study to do just that—statistically measure the effects of arts education on student well-being, using data gathered since 1991. They found that arts-integrated curriculum dramatically increased proficiency scores on academic tests, increased student engagement, and fostered creative thinking—enough to erase the achievement gap between economically disadvantaged students and their peers (Whole Schools Study, 3, 2012). The study also shows that Forrest County has more certified music, visual arts, theater, and dance instructors than the state average (Whole Schools Study, cxxxix, 2012).
It is our deeply held concern that the sweeping budget cuts responding to Hattiesburg Public School District’s financial crisis will leave our community’s considerable artistic resources underutilized and inaccessible to the students who need them most. The school boards’ proposed 2016-2017 budget includes massive cuts to arts-dedicated departments, including a 25% funding cut for the band, a 78% cut for the nationally acclaimed drama and debate department and a 55% cut for the lone strings program in the state of Mississippi—not to mention across the board cuts to salaried positions (10%) and supplies (26%) which will undoubtedly burden teachers following an arts-integrated curriculum. We believe that a community arts center could help fill the gaps in public and private school arts programs and keep sketches, high school diplomas, college degrees, and masterpieces hanging on refrigerators and walls across the Pine Belt.
In the summer of 2016, our Community Arts Center Survey respondents affirmed our collective desire to create, innovate, and educate together- and highlighted our will to come together and make this dream a reality! Our respondents (which included artists, businesses, and community members) showed incredible appreciation for our “rich arts community” and imagined the halls of the Hattiesburg American Building enabling “a beautiful community of artists working ‘together.'”
The HAC shares this vision, and is humbled- although not at all surprised- by the outpouring of support. The need for a unified arts center has been published in Hattiesburg Cultural Assessments for the past 25 years- and we believe that at a time when the national political scene threatens division and conflict, our community should invest in the unifying power of the creative arts to retain and develop its thriving community spirit! A coordinated arts center would further develop ties between college students and seniors citizens, artists and amateurs, city slickers and country folk. Communities and researchers across the country have recognized the role that interactive arts centers can play in transcending traditional boundaries by providing a common space for unique, idiosyncratic means of self-expression to flourish and circulate.
As the official non-profit arts agency for the city, the Hattiesburg Arts Council will be able to stimulate fruitful partnerships with all of the major stakeholders in the artistic community- uniting faculty and staff from USM, WCU, PRCC; pupils from all four local public school districts as well as private schools; and, of course, confederated arts organizations searching for performance or workshop space (JoRT, HCLO, SMAA, to name a few!). Not to mention the prime location of the Hattiesburg American Builing- smack in the middle of Hattiesburg’s diverse Historic Downtown- which has long been the center of arts and culture in the region.
In fact, the Hattiesburg American Building is already home to one such collaborative undertaking! In April of 2016, architecture students from Louisiana State University, The University of Southern Mississippi, and The University of Louisiana-Lafayette convened in Downtown Hattiesburg to participate in the Community Arts Center Design Charrette. Students toured local landmarks and spent hours putting together detailed design proposals- providing a challenging opportunity for real-world learning while simultaneously showcasing the city of Hattiesburg to college students in the region! ULA-Lafeyette is slated to come back this Fall, and the HAC has heard from several students who were blown away by our hometown.
Another exciting collaboration that has come out of the building offer is the work of Emily Adcock, a graduate student in the Economic Development Department. Emily’s capstone research focused on the market feasibility of a community arts center in the city of Hattiesburg. Her research shows that although Hattiesburg is matriculating more and more art majors, our city does not have the jobs to support them after they graduate, forcing them to move to other places. And it’s a shame, too, because jobs in the creative economy retain more money in local economies and attract far more visitors from outside the city!
A copy of the full report can be found here.