By Wayne Andrews, YAC executive director
The Yoknapatawpha Arts Council, YAC to most residents, will celebrate its 50th anniversary during the next 12 months.
Founded in 1975, YAC is an organization committed to a diverse offering of artistic and cultural opportunities in and around Oxford. Each year, YAC creates and delivers a package of projects, programs and good works in the spirit of its mission to the community. The board and volunteers work to present more than 300 days of art programs, ranging from student programs, exhibits by emerging artists, live theater productions, concerts, classes and independent film screenings.
YAC’s membership drive is one of the key fundraising tools to enable free art camps for children in the summer, concerts in the Grove, live music at The Powerhouse, a rotating schedule of free art exhibits and equipment to present live productions by Theatre Oxford, Leda Swan and others at the Powerhouse Community Arts Center.
Because milestone anniversaries often are a time of reflection, the current board of directors for the Arts Council remains grounded in the roots that established the organization, as well as being focused on the next 50 years of service.
Attorney Walt Davis, a long-serving board member and past board president, noted that “we felt the 50th anniversary provided an opportunity to think about our service to the community, how it has evolved over time and define the Arts Council’s future service to the community.”
Surveying YAC’s impact
YAC, in preparation for the 50th anniversary, secured a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to conduct an organizational review and strategic plan.
“We wanted to ensure our focus and programs aligned with our mission,” said Wayne Andrews, executive director of the Arts Council. “Small organizations such as ours often only have the time and resources to focus on current programs. Our board and staff wanted to take time to evaluate the impact of programs and ensure we had the right resources for YAC moving forward.”
The grant allowed the Arts Council to conduct community listening sessions, interviews with community partners, asset mapping of resources and to draw upon data from the National Arts and Economic Prosperity Study.
“The Arts and Economic Prosperity Study provided key data,” Andrews said. “YAC organized the participation in the study by Lafayette County arts organization, which tracked attendance, budgets, spending and jobs supported by the arts over the course of a year.”
The results outlined how the region represents a distinctive cultural landscape that produced a powerful concentration of nationally significant cultural icons that have made significant contributions in literature, music, civil rights and major historic events that took place there.
The rolling hills of North Mississippi hold sacred Native American burial mounds, where the site of epic Civil War battlefields and the place that hold evidence of lingering civil rights struggles. The hills have and can continue to inspire powerful literature, vibrant music, food, and creative pursuits. The Yoknapatawpha Arts Council served as a hub in the region, supporting artists and programs, and managing spaces that supported ongoing contributions to the arts, literature and community development.
YAC’s support of 20 thriving arts and cultural organizations was reflected in the 221,000 people who attended events generating just under $11 million of economic impact in the community and supporting 148 jobs annually. The Arts Council served as a starting point assisting many of Lafayette County’s signature events in building their program.
Annual festivals such as the Oxford Film Festival and Fiber Arts Festival grew with support from the Arts Council. Stacey Sanford, current director of the Fiber Arts Festival, said “YAC has not only provided support to those with ideas, such as Lynn Wells and Patsy Englehart, who launched the Fiber Arts Festival, but to Andi Bedsworth and me, who have carried the project forward.”
The Oxford Film Festival has been recognized as one of the top film festivals in the country and the Fiber Arts Festival is the oldest and largest in Mississippi.
Others who benefit from YAC
Community events such as the Makers Market, Art Crawl and One Night Stand Motel Art Show benefited from support by the Arts Council.
Erin Austin Abbott, organizer of the annual Motel Art Show, had produced the event outside of Mississippi. When she started to organize the event at the Ole Miss Motel, the arts council offered support. “The Arts Council offered me tools and support that allowed me to focus on growing the program,” she said. “I was able to highlight Mississippi artists while attracting regional attention for the event. Their support helped to make the annual showcase sustainable.” The annual artist showcase now draws more than a thousand people annually to an artist takeover of a local hotel.
The Powerhouse Community Arts Center – the overhead of managing the building is underwritten by YAC – provides a home for Theatre Oxford, Hinge Dance Company and Thacker Mountain Radio. While these important cultural organizations fill the evening with a wide range of programs from a weekly radio show, modern dance and the annual 10 Minute Play Festival, the staff uses the facility to host programs that focus on teaching creatives how to grow as a business.
Partnering with the Chamber of Commerce, Economic Development Foundation and Small Business Development Center program with events such as the Big Bad Business Series, Community Supported Artist and Arts Incubator, aid Mississippians in launching businesses rooted in the culture of North Mississippi.
Catherine Smith, of Southern Bird Studios, credits the Arts Council’s Community Supported Artist program with “helping both raise the funds and take the time to expand my business.” Smith expanded her art business to include gift items featuring her painting. These gift items can now be found in 300 stores in 40 states across the United States.
The result of taking the time to evaluate the impact of the arts, listening to community needs and exploring resources not present in the community highlighted how the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council was a hub connecting resources within the community. “We could track that programs and support offered by the Arts Council made our community a regional HUB with creatives coming to Lafayette County to access programs,” said Andrews.
That’s how the board used this research to create a plan and vision for the next 50 years, which includes the upcoming Humanities Hub.
Building the Humanities Hub
The Arts Council created a proposal for a physical humanities hub as a facility that will offer artists and creatives studio and living space, ensuring creatives have a place in our community. These interactive spaces for classes, workshops and conferences will be a place to connect to the people, voices and stories that have shaped our community and make them part of our shared future.
The Arts Council secured a challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities of $750,000 to create a Humanities Hub. The proposed two-story facility would be built next to the Powerhouse Community Arts Center.
Over the past year, the Arts Council, working with the city of Oxford and the Mississippi Department of Archive and History, completed the first stage of the process. Ensuring the proposed construction would not impact a registered historic building located within Oxford’s Historic District unlocked funding to begin designs for the Humanities Hub.
Now comes the challenge – meeting the National Endowment for the Humanities Challenge Grant. The Arts Council has launched a special capital project campaign for funds to match the pledge from the NEH.
“While we are at the start of the process, we know that projects of this scope will require support from a wide section of the community,” Andrews said. “Our first step is letting community members know that the opportunity to provide this unique space exists. We have received support from the city of Oxford, Lafayette County and state partners. Still, we know it will take a broad base of support to reach our goal.”
The National Endowment for the Humanities allows projects to raise and report qualified donations throughout the course of the project, unlocking funds from the NEH Challenge Grant. Donations to the Humanities Hub project are providing the Arts Council with the support to secure skilled professionals in planning the project. This project will require experts on creative reuses of a former industrial space, designs of a building to complement the existing Powerhouse and experts to navigate the city, state and federal requirements.
Construction on the new space is not expected to start until mid-2023, but the work starts now. YAC launched a website – MShumanitiesHub.com – to provide the community with updates on the project.
Donations will support the early phases of the project. “Everyone gets excited when construction starts, but just like with any building, there is a foundation that supports the entire project, and in this case, that foundation starts with support from the community” added Board President Mac Nichols.