In 1911 a small group of art-conscious Mississippians founded the Mississippi Art Association (MAA). From the start, the Jackson-based organization strove “to seek out and foster the creatively artistic talents of the people of the state.” The group’s efforts resulted in the present-day Mississippi Museum of Art (MMA), currently located in downtown Jackson.
The MAA originated from the Art Study Club, which Bessie Cary Lemly (1871–1947) organized in 1903. Club members and their supporters participated in an oil exhibition held at the 1911 state fair. After an enthusiastic response to this first exhibition, the group became the Mississippi Art Association. The first meeting took place at the Mississippi State Fairgrounds, and members elected Lemly president.
The MAA’s sole purpose initially was to exhibit at the state fair. Within five years, however, the association began collecting funds to hold juried exhibitions at the fair. Purchase awards went to first-prize winners, thereby allowing the association to begin acquiring works in 1912. The first piece acquired was an oil on canvas, The Shower (ca. 1911), by William P. Silva (1859–1948). The MAA’s collection, in turn, provided the foundation for the MMA.
Over the next ten years members focused on spreading art within the community. The organization was instrumental, for example, in bringing formal art education into the public schools. Members of the MAA and the Art Study Club lobbied successfully for legislative funding. In the 1950s the organization introduced a program under which Jackson artists instructed local children every Saturday at such places as Wolfe Studios, the Junior Red Cross, and the YWCA. This program eventually expanded to include the cities of Hazlehurst, Vicksburg, and Clinton.
The MAA also began pushing for a permanent home for its collection, which by 1916 had grown to include works by Ellsworth Woodward (1861–1938), Betty McArthur (ca. 1865–1944), and the organization’s own Lemly. The association continued to hold its annual show at the state fair and to acquire paintings via purchase awards. Members stored these works in their private homes. In 1926 Thomas Gale presented his family home on North State Street to the City of Jackson for educational, civic, and cultural purposes. The MAA held its annual meeting there, and the association was incorporated the same year. In 1927 the collection moved there, and the building subsequently became the Municipal Art Gallery.
In 1931 the Municipal Art Gallery premiered the Annual Watercolor Exhibition to complement the popular oil exhibition. The collection grew slowly over the next forty-five years, reaching fifty-eight pieces by the end of World War II. Though small, the collection still required more functional gallery space. On 3 March 1955 a building fund was established.
Two decades later, the collection, which had grown to include more than four hundred pieces, moved to the First Federal Savings and Loan of Jackson. In 1978 the MMA opened its doors at 201 East Pascagoula Street. Today it is the largest art museum in the state, housing more than four thousand objects in its permanent collection. The collection includes nineteenth- and twentieth-century American landscape paintings, American and European works on paper, and southern and Mississippi art; photographs; eighteenth-century British paintings; Japanese prints; pre-Columbian ceramics; folk art; and contemporary art.
Currently under the directorship of Betsy Bradley, the MMA fulfills its founders’ mission to promote the work of Mississippi artists and bring art education to the public. The museum offers nearly twenty exhibitions each year, including the annual watercolor exhibition; provides summer art classes for children as well as with other youth-oriented activities; and offers film screenings, lecture series, group tours, volunteer programs, and online teaching materials.
- Patti Carr Black, Art in Mississippi, 1790–1980 (1998)
- Patricia Odom Drake, “A Historical Study of the Mississippi Art Association from 1911 to 1975” (MA thesis, University of Southern Mississippi, 1976)
- Mississippi Museum of Art website, www.msmuseumart.org; Cantey Venable Sutton, History of Art in Mississippi (1929)