David Lewis is the deputy director of the Department of Human and Cultural Services for the city of Jackson. A 2015 graduate of Mississippi State University, he earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture. After graduating, he obtained a position at Burris-Wagnon Architects, which led to his desire to further his education in urban design.
From 2016-2018, Lewis pursued a master’s degree in urban and regional planning at Jackson State University while he also worked as a project specialist for the Greater Jackson Arts Council. Lewis served for three years as vice-chairman of the board for Team JXN, where he assisted in launching The Mississippi Mile, a supporting event for the Bicentennial Celebration. He also serves on the Advisory Council for Downtown Jackson Partners. He received the AIA Friend of Architecture award in 2018 and Visit Jackson’s SUMMIT Friend of Tourism award in 2020.
Lewis and his wife, Mary Lee, attend church at Redeemer Jackson and reside in Belhaven with their dogs, Sam and Jack.
What city-owned facilities come under cultural services?
“Thalia Mara Hall at 255 E. Pascagoula St., the Russell C. Davis Planetarium at 201 E. Pascagoula St., the Arts Center of Mississippi at 201 E. Pascagoula St., the Municipal Art Gallery at 839 N. State St. and Smith Robertson Museum at 528 Bloom St.”
When do you expect entertainment will return to Thalia Mara Hall?
“Harry Connick Jr. was the last show at Thalia Mara Hall. That was on March12, 2020.
“Since then it has been rather quiet. We’ve had a few small events that have been distanced. Because we have fixed seating, we can make pockets or pods of seats available and work with groups to make sure that those pods are no more than four people and that the pods are all six feet apart.
“We were able to do most of the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra season this year. We have one event left this year with the symphony in April. During Christmastime, we did Ballet Mississippi’s ‘Nutcracker Sweets’ at a very scaled back and socially distant format.
“We just had an abbreviated version of the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s Match Day, which included only the fourth-year medical students. The Charles Evers memorial service was at Thalia Mara Hall, which allowed plenty of room for everyone to be socially distanced.
“We’re starting to get a lot of calls about upcoming dates. If things go well and vaccinations continue, then hopefully we’ll be able to open up a little bit more. People want to go see concerts as soon as it’s safe. We’re working to solidify our upcoming seasons. The Broadway season is going to return. The symphony season will return in full. We’re looking forward to filling the house as soon as it’s safe.”
Attendance was up 33 percent at Thalia Mara Hall for 2018 to 2019. How did that occur?
“We had a really significant season of Broadway shows. They usually bring a big production every three or four years but in that year they brought a week-long run of ‘Les Miserables.’ We also had several sell-out performances that year. Lauren Daigle was here and that was a quick sell out.
“We had two nights of ‘The Sound of Music’ and two nights of Tyler Perry’s ‘Madea’s Final Play.’ We had the ‘Price is Right! Live!’ and we had Mavis Staples.
“We did our best to increase our social media presence. We doubled and tripled our following on Instagram and Facebook through just simply organic outreach and making sure we were on top of it. There wasn’t really any staff person that was able to do that prior to me being in place and so we worked on everything. I spent hours on the phone with promoters saying, ‘Here are the places around the city I think are the most effective billboards, if you’re doing digital billboards based on traffic patterns and you want to catch somebody heading home during the holiday season.’ I worked very diligently and very intentionally with all of our promoters to make sure that their impact, their outreach was the most effective. We started to build our network of magazines and make sure that when we had big events here on opening nights the media was here.”
How do you provide educational opportunities for students?
“Through our Increased Access to the Arts Program, we set aside two to four of our small allotment of complimentary tickets for teachers and students and let the Jackson Public Schools distribute as it sees fit. We do that for as many shows as we can. On a few special occasions, I’ve worked with Broadway companies to take two of their performers from a touring show to Power APAC to speak with the theater students.”
What task forces have you served on?
“I’ve served on the mayor’s Task Force for the COVID-19 Pandemic and co-chaired the Economic Recovery Committee with Rickey Thigpen, president and CEO of Visit Jackson.
“We know what reopening looks like in the summertime and want to make sure that we’re very strategic based on what our citizens need and what the science says.”
Did you work on plans for the city’s Vaccination Days on March 6 and March 27?
“Yes, I helped with logistics and the day-of planning, alongside Keyshia Sanders, director of constituent services. We worked alongside our partners at the Mississippi State Department of Health and many others. I oversaw with most of the logistics for volunteers and people getting their shots those days, making sure we kept everyone social distanced and got everyone to the right place in an orderly fashion. We gave out over 1,800 vaccinations at the first vaccination day and had 97 percent of people sign up before they left for their second vaccination at the follow-up event. With some additional Johnson & Johnson one-dose vaccinations provided for the March 27 Vaccination Day, we were able to fully vaccinate over 2,200 people. This was the state’s largest single-site vaccination day to date and is the equivalent of over 1 percent of the population of the city of Jackson.”
What is the latest news about the Russell C. Davis Planetarium?
“The planetarium has been closed to visitors since April 2018 due to issues with roof leaks. The manager, Mike Williams, and I took the opportunity to step back and ask ourselves, ‘Is this the time to do a full renovation?’ We said, ‘Let’s take our time. Let’s do this right. Let’s make it something remarkable.’
“We are moving along with that. We’ve got some exciting things coming here in the next few weeks. We’re hoping to kick off construction and celebrate the city’s bicentennial, which kicks off at the end of this year.”
Is there anything new at the Municipal Art Gallery?
“The Gallery manager, Michael Mathews, has kept the venue in impeccable shape, as always, and kept the energy alive with exhibitions and club meetings for many years.
“The Municipal Art Gallery is the state’s oldest art gallery. It was built in 1869 as a family home and converted to an art gallery in 1926 and has served in that capacity ever since. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. We’re hoping in the next three or four years to do a full historic renovation of the building.
“We’re doing some beneath the surface work such as plumbing and refreshing some details inside so the galleries have an inviting look when we start to host clubs again, hopefully in the fall.
“Clubs haven’t met there since the pandemic. Some have met virtually, communicated via email or mail and newsletters, but none have met there in person. A variety of clubs, among them Chaminade Music Club, the oldest music club in Mississippi, and the Research Club meet at the Municipal Art Gallery. We anticipate that the clubs might come back in the fall but that decision is up to them and if they’re comfortable doing so. It depends on vaccination rates and that they feel safe.
“The Municipal Art Gallery is also a popular location for annual piano recitals. Maybe next year piano students will be back for their performances in the space.”
What organizations are housed in the Arts Center of Mississippi?
“The Arts Center of Mississippi is the former location of the Mississippi Museum of Art. The Arts Center is where the museum was located before it moved to its current location.
“The nine arts organizations housed at the Arts Center are the Greater Jackson Arts Council, Ballet Mississippi, the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Opera Mississippi, Crossroads Film Festival, Mississippi Jazz Foundation, Arts for All, the International Ballet Competition and the International Museum of Muslim Culture.
“The manager is Alexis McGrigg, who is an emerging artist herself.”
How does the Smith Robert Museum and Cultural Center complement the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum?
“The Smith Robertson Museum is a precursor to the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, which provides an in-depth look into the civil rights movement. The Smith Robertson Museum is open and we’re excited about a new exhibit and library that we hope to unveil by the end of the year.”
Do you work with Visit Jackson, the city’s tourism arm, and the Greater Jackson Arts Council?
“Absolutely. The city owns facilities that encompass the world of tourism. Before I came to work for the city, I worked for the Greater Jackson Arts Council and worked with the city of Jackson on a quality of life program that included public art and Food Truck Friday.
“One thing we’re working on now is the preliminary work for the city’s bicentennial. We’ll prep for a launch at the end of this year. The bicentennial will be celebrated from this holiday season, after Thanksgiving, through the end of December of next year.
“That’s based off of three dates. One is November of 1821 when the state legislature decided to centrally locate the capital city. Then in April of 1822, the city of Jackson was formally planned. In December of 1822, the state had its first legislative session in the new capitol building and in the new capital city. We’ll close out our celebration in December of 2022.”
Will the city’s bicentennial be heavily promoted?
“When we get our brand together for the bicentennial and launch it, we hope for some national presence as well as local presence and regional presence. It’s a great opportunity for us coming out of the pandemic to get in front of everybody and say, ‘Here’s why you should come to Mississippi and see what’s going on.’
“We want to create a moment of pride for the citizens of Jackson, the citizens in the metro area and the citizens of Mississippi to look at the capital city. We have some really remarkable things to celebrate. There’s a dynamic arts and culture scene here, an outstanding culinary scene and some next level tourism offerings.The future is bright for the city.”
Name an accomplishment you’re proud of.
“One really great thing is the way that the Department of Human and Cultural Services stepped up during the pandemic. We were hearing from the community that not a lot of seniors were able to get vaccination appointments. It can be hard to stay up-to-date about when new appointments are made available and to make an appointment if you don’t have good access to the internet.
“We decided to find a way to better reach senior citizens, who happen to be among the most vulnerable to the coronavirus. We worked with the Mississippi State Department of Health to schedule Vaccination Day. We worked with local churches and senior citizens groups to identify seniors who needed to have access to the vaccine and we made calls. We were able to get between 500 and 1,000 seniors signed up for appointments before we opened the day to the general public.”
What do you like about your job?
“My favorite part of my job is that every day is different. My background is in architecture and urban planning and it might not seem like on paper that I would use the things that I learned in those programs every day, but I do, whether it’s actual design on signage or dreaming how the planetarium is going to look.
“Creative problem solving is one of the biggest things that I do on a day-to-day basis.
“That’s why I got tapped to do logistics for Vaccination Day after I asked questions about that during a planning meeting. I think about, ‘What did I learn from standing in line and traffic flow at Disney World?’ and ‘How does that apply to Vaccination Day?’ when it comes to getting people through in a smooth manner, where volunteers should be strategically placed and what they should say to make people feel welcome.”
You sound like you are detail-oriented. Is that true?
“I am very detail-oriented. I sometimes feel like I may not be detailed enough, which I guess is a true sign of somebody who’s detail-oriented. When the memorial service for Charles Evers was held at Thalia Mara Hall, I wrote a 29-page manual for it since I could not be there that day.”
What do you find challenging about your work?
“What I want to make sure that everybody knows is that when things may be hard in the city of Jackson, there are dedicated, hard-working people who care about this city and are doing their very best to make it better. Sometimes that gets lost because that’s not the most compelling story for the front page of a big newspaper or the opening line of the evening news.”
“I could not be more blessed to do the work I do for the mayor and for our citizens. I know at the end of the day that whatever I’m working on is hopefully going to better the city of Jackson.”