How can the arts be used to turn uninviting, downtown space into vibrant, active public space?
These stories are brought to you by a partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the NEA’s Our Town program.
Situated on the banks of the Pearl River, Jackson is Mississippi’s state capital and its major hub of transportation and commerce. It is the state’s largest city, counting more than a half-million residents in its larger metropolitan region. Its downtown area—a mix of historic structures like the old and current State Capitols with a central business district—has become the focus of much redevelopment in the last several years.
Near downtown’s Jackson Convention Complex, there is an aggregation of several cultural organizations, including the Mississippi Museum of Art, the Thalia Mara Hall, and the Mississippi Arts Center. In 2007, the Mississippi Museum of Art (MMA) moved into a new building, designed by Glavé and Holmes with Dale & Associates, next to a large surface parking lot.
Jackson is home to a growing community of cultural and educational organizations, including five institutions of higher learning (two of which are historically black colleges and universities). With an equal balance of residents of European and African descent, the state continues to confront challenges of its segregated history.
In spite of, and often because of, the state’s turbulent past, Mississippians have created profound literature and music that has influenced the world. The musical traditions of gospel and blues filled the streets of a thriving African-American business district of Jackson in the early decades of the 20th century. Significant community anniversaries, especially those related to major events of the Civil Rights Movement, have resulted in the advancement of relationships between all parts of the community—economic, political, social, and cultural.
Like other cultural institutions in Jackson, MMA continues to address social issues in efforts to overcome tensions that have manifested in Jackson’s downtown area, with land-use and development patterns reinforcing historic divisions.
These divisions could be felt in Jackson’s creative community as well, since there was a perception that art is a luxury. To address these divisions, project managers felt there was need to democratize the art and cultural experiences, emphasizing that they were for residents of all socioeconomic backgrounds.
In addition, Jackson was in need of public spaces that would attract the entire community, especially in its denser downtown area where parks were scarce. This lack of space had historic roots. Demographic changes in Jackson mirrored those of other large cities in the past: families with school-age children moved into growing suburban communities that offer outdoor recreation for families, but that left a diminished tax-base and distressed urban areas behind. As the number of downtown residents began to grow again, many nearby parks were home to a disenfranchised, transient population, which deterred local residents from using them frequently.
As a way to more directly engage its surrounding community, the Mississippi Museum of Art set out to transform the city-owned parking lot adjacent to the museum into a landscaped park open to the public, something it would call the Art Garden. By activating this 1.2-acre outdoor space, the museum felt it could more fully become, as its missions statement says, a “museum without walls.”
With a lawn and a performance space, the outdoor park, designed by Madge Bemiss, would also allow the museum to launch public performances and programs that would engage the community with art in a very accessible way. As the first green space to open in the downtown area since the 1970s, the park would serve as an invaluable civic space for those living downtown—and throughout Jackson.
MMA worked closely with the City of Jackson, which owned the parking lot. Both entities had much to benefit from the addition of a new public green space. Another key partner was Downtown Jackson Partners, a local non-profit that works to attract and retain businesses in the area.
MMA was supported by other local cultural organizations as well, including the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, the Mississippi Opera, and Ballet Mississippi, which provided programming support for the new park. The Crossroads Film Society co-presented a “Screen on the Green” series, and the Greater Jackson Arts Council co-presented the High Note Jam Series. Altogether, these groups helped to broaden the appeal of the park by developing diverse programs for a range of audiences.
When it opened the park in 2011, MMA was aware that the park, by design, was partly shielded from view. This blockage made it incumbent on the museum to emphasize programming as a way to draw people into the outdoor space. Working closely with cultural partners, MMA developed a broad range of activities at different times of the day and week to maximize traffic through the space.
With events for children, young adults, and older residents, the offerings had something for everyone. For those events that took place later in the day, Downtown Jackson Partners provided a team of “Safety Ambassadors” to help visitors feel safe while downtown after dark. To ensure the park’s maintenance in perpetuity, MMA established an endowment whose funds would go toward Art Garden’s upkeep and future improvements.
The project increased participation numbers at MMA by at least fifty percent and has contributed to the increased livability of downtown Jackson. MMA took surveys of audiences, and found impressive results. 67% of those people attending evening and weekend events did not live or work in downtown Jackson, and many lived outside of the city itself, underscoring the project’s big appeal. 99% of respondents said they were “extremely satisfied” with the park. Perhaps the most important response was that 19% of visitors indicated that the performance they had attended was their first downtown cultural event. Though MMA did advertise, the survey showed that many participants had found out through social means. Over 50% indicated they had found out about the performance through word of mouth.
The project has catalyzed other investments in the downtown area. A hotel developed a property directly adjacent to the Art Garden, citing the public space as a significant amenity. Talks are also underway to develop another park downtown, and other buildings and organizations are investing in capital improvements. The biggest measure of success, though, lies in the fact that the park has brought together the entire Jackson community—something that was hoped for, but that could not be guaranteed or anticipated.
One project that helped achieve this was created by conceptual artist Kate Browne, a New York artist, who made a piece called Cocoon Jackson. For her piece, Brown developed a community art-building and reflection process, paralleling a process she employed in other places with turbulent histories, including the Mississippi Delta and Mexico City. “Our first artist-led project brought people from marginalized communities physically (in a procession) from their neighborhoods to the museum and Art Garden where their artworks were incorporated into a large, beautifully lit installation,” said Betsy Bradley, director of MMA. “It provided great healing and brought a core of new people into regular programming at the museum.”
Inspired by the work in Jackson? Bring people together with a Pop-Up Museum or find creative, positive uses for your own empty spaces with the Your Idea Here toolkit, available on Creative Exchange’s Toolkits page!