A conversation with Bradley on ‘New Symphony of Time’

Betsy Bradley, who has served as director of the Mississippi Museum of Art since December 2001. Previously, she served as executive director of the Mississippi Arts Commission for six years after four years as its deputy director and community arts director. Bradley is a graduate of Vanderbilt University and Millsaps College, where she earned a master’s degree in English and a bachelor’s degree in English respectively. She recently spoke with Sun staff writer Nikki Rowell about the opening of the museum’s new permanent collection exhibition, “New Symphony of Time.”

Tell me a bit about the “New Symphony of Time” exhibit and what museum goers can expect.

“We wanted to have a fresh look at some stories that ask questions about what Mississippi is, how it’s manifested through imagery and artwork and how people experience it. So, the exhibition is inspired by a poem written by Jackson’s, and really the country’s, most beloved African American poets Margaret Walker.

The poem goes through a lot of themes that we think resonate with life in Mississippi, like ancestry, migration, home and what’s our relationship with the land like, our struggles for liberty and freedom in Mississippi and how all the different people in Mississippi are connected through time and place. So, the exhibition explores those questions and brings together artwork from different people and periods that can help draw out conversations about what it means to be in Mississippi.”

I noticed that the exhibit is not organized chronologically, but instead by theme. Can you talk about those different themes and the organization of the pieces?

“We wanted it to have the same impact in some ways that the “Mississippi Story” did, which was to bring out stories that artists have told through their artwork, but also that remind visitors and people who come look at the exhibition of their own stories or stories of people that they know. The first one is about ancestry. You know, the first question we ask of, ‘Who are your people? Where did you come from?’ And thinking about the different places that our ancestors came from and what that means.

It continues into the next section about the movement from ancestral lands to this place and what that journey was like. For a lot of people, it was a forced journey. It was painful and traumatic. For others, it was about seeking some kind of freedom. Once we all got here and were in community with each other, how did we then get to create home places. What were community rituals? What were religious rituals? What were celebrations about? How did we come to create these traditions that make us say, ‘Oh, that’s such a Mississippi thing?’

Then, you go more into our relationship with the land. This section is called ‘Nature and the Sublime,’ because the land and nature has had such a powerful impact on Mississippi, whether that’s the power of nature manifesting itself through tornadoes or floods or fires. But also, the very water and soil of Mississippi have generated a lot of economic power, but also real terror and difficult relationships with working the land. The work that enslaved people had to do, the work that sharecroppers had to do. So, how do we make sense of all of that? Do we love the land? Do we fear the land? Do we hate the land? How do we come to understand our relationship with it.

Then, we begin to think about what that means in terms of how we live together and what our country’s founding principles of liberty and justice and how that was more true for some people than for others and how here in Mississippi there have been different ways we have fought for equality and justice. That can be everything from the Civil War to World War I. You can see Imagery from the Vietnam War and a lot from the Civil Rights Movement that demonstrates the strength of Mississippi’s people.

Finally, bringing it all together in how we’re all human beings with basic needs for liberty and shelter and spirituality across country and across time. Those are the different sections.”

The organization of the exhibit is interesting. Tell me about the process of pulling this together and figuring out how to organize the exhibit.

“We had a curatorial team that put together the exhibition. Elizabeth Abston, our curator for the collection, really knows very well all of the artwork that we have in the collection, so when we were talking about different stories and possibilities, she could really pull out different works and different times and different types of artworks to really make you see things in a fresh way. So, when you have a brand new photograph next to a 300-year-old painting and see that the same imagery is of interest to artists from different countries in different centuries, it helps one to understand the power of consistent care and understanding of place and people. I think it also helps to see how a photographer treats a subject matter, versus how a sculptor or painter does, because they are just using different tools to talk about the same things, whether it is family or place. It helps you see things in a bit of a different way. I like the fact that we’ve mixed these mediums. I think Elizabeth did a great job finding the right objects to put in the same place together.”

How many works will this exhibit have?

“It’s about 170 works. There are about 120 artists.”

Are these all Mississippi artists?

“No. Some works about Mississippi are done by artists who live other places, but have traveled through here or studied here, had experiences here and made art about it. And then, in every exhibition section, we have one work that is not by a Mississippian or about Mississippi but offers some kind of context to the work that’s on display there. In the nature gallery, for example, we have a painting by Georgia O’Keefe that people really love. You know, Georgia O’Keefe is one of the most famous artists who taught us how to look closely at nature, which we hope gives visitors a new way to understand Mississippi art.”

How long will the exhibit run?

“This is what we call semi-permanent, so it will be up for several years. We have structured it so that we can change out different rooms and sections based on new art that we get or different stories that we want to tell about an individual artist or different theme.”

Do you have any personal favorite pieces in this collection?

“What’s exciting for us is that there are a lot of new works that visitors haven’t seen before. So, one of my favorites is a new work by Felandus Thames who is an artist who grew up in Mississippi but has a career in New York right now. It’s that beaded work that is a homage to Myrlie Evers and captures a photograph of her. But it’s such an interesting, new treatment of her and her power. I love that. I’m excited about a video installation by Rico Gatson about Talahatchie County because it’s a new medium and a new way of thinking about that history. I’m also really excited about two Sally Mann photographs that we just purchased. They are also both taken in Talahatchie County.”

The exhibit is all about telling Mississippi stories. Are there any particular stories that stand out to you?

“I think what stands out to me is that there is not just one Mississippi story. I think really the beauty of the state is apparent in the artwork that you see. The strength of the people of Mississippi and those ties between different people, whether it’s practice of religious traditions or ways that people have fought together for equal rights and freedom. I think you can immediately see when you walk through this exhibition beauty and strength and devotion of people to place and to each other.”

When will the exhibit open?

“It opens on September 7. Members get a look on September 5, so members should make sure their membership is up to date. We’d like to invite everyone to the members party on the fifth.”

Tell me about some of the opening weekend events surrounding this exhibit.

“We will open on Friday for members. Then, Saturday we’re going to have different guided tours. We’re going to have one of the artists from New York come and be in conversation with a scholar who has written about Margaret Walker. I’ll be moderating that. We’ll be having other kinds of activities during the day on Saturday, September 7. So, there will be a little something for everybody.”

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1. She took her first ceramics class at seven years old at Pickenpaugh Pottery. 2. She and her father got their black belts in Tae Kwon Do together.