a conversation with David Lewis on city’s cultural services
David Lewis was recently named deputy director of cultural services for the city of Jackson. Previously, Lewis had an up-close view of the city’s arts community, as manager of the Arts Center of Mississippi, a facility in downtown Jackson. Lewis has a degree in architecture from Mississippi State University and recently finished up work on graduate degree in urban planning at Jackson State University. He recently spoke to Sun Senior Staff Writer Anthony Warren about his role and efforts to boost arts in the capital city.
What are your plans for cultural services, and how do you see your role in the future?
My role is to run Thalia Mara Hall and the arts center, and oversee the Russell C. Davis Planetarium, the Smith Robertson Museum and Municipal Art Gallery, though the latter three facilities have their own managers as well. I see my role as expanding cultural services beyond these five buildings and reach its arms out to the rest of the community.
How do you do that, expand the reaches of cultural services?
When we get complimentary event tickets, we’re able to provide a percentage of those (20 to 40 percent) to students and teachers at JPS. As part of our ‘Increased Access to Arts’ program, we make sure there is increased access to the arts, whether it’s through comped tickets or other services. When Les Miserables was in town, we were able to bring students to one of the performances. We worked with the Broadway company to provide free tickets to students and two cast members went and spoke to the theater department at Power APAC. Students asked some of the most in-depth questions.
At the arts center, where I had the pleasure of working for the last three years, I worked with the Greater Jackson Arts Council (GJAC) and other groups in the building to ‘level up’ the types of programs we provided to the public … we want to make sure our free content is elevated as well, so citizens of Jackson are provided with the most robust and diverse arts program we can provide.
How many tickets have y’all given to students?
Since I’ve been working on the project, we’ve given out over 100 through our partnership with JPS.
Switching gears, what kind of exhibits are held at the arts center?
The arts council is the creative manager of the building. They generate a lot of the content, especially when it comes to exhibits. While I was there, we were able to bring in a contemporary art exhibit that was very immersive and abstract, and all of that was done by students and young art professionals.
Years ago, the city unveiled this major plan to build a hotel at the arts center and construct a sculpture garden in front of it. What happened to that idea? Is it still in the works?
I’ve seen those plans. What I think they were trying to do was gauge interest. I’m not as intimate with those details.
How do you address structural needs there?
There are several things we’ve applied for grants for. We have CBDG (Community Block Development Grants) to get ADA-accessible bathrooms put in. We look to CBDG funds, as well as city funding, to cover basic needs – structural, bathrooms, elevator fixes. It is an old building, so we’re always encountering things here and there. We try to stay on top of it.
Tell me about the capital campaign that was launched recently by the Greater Jackson Arts Council. How much are they trying to raise?
They just launched a fundraising campaign to renovate the interiors of that space; $600,000 of which we have already raised $250,000.
Let’s talk about Thalia Mara Hall. Work was completed on the first phase of renovations there several years ago. What’s next for the auditorium?
There was always a phase two of the initial project. Given that we’re now five years out of phase one, it is time to start the conversation about phase two. Most of that phase would be focused on the exterior of the building and making the presence and approach to the building as great as it can be. Thalia Mara is a beautiful building, but the outside could use some TLC. Our groundskeepers do an amazing job, but I want to think beyond that. I want to look at the way people come to the theater. The trip from getting out of their car or getting dropped off – what is that journey like? Does it tell a story just as dramatic as what people see on the inside?
Has the debt for the first phase been paid off?
I don’t know for sure, but the city and I have started having conversations on that.
When is the next International Ballet Competition? And do you think those improvements could be made before then?
It’s not until 2022, so we’ve got three years. With the type of renovations, phase two will is going to be much larger than phase one, so it will probably take a little bit longer to put the plans together, raise the money and start construction. It may start before the IBC, but it depends on how quickly we put together the plans.
How busy is Thalia Mara now?
It changes from year to year. This year, we’ve had a very busy year. We’re set to pass our highest-grossing year to date before we end the fiscal year. The work I do is making sure we have good relations with our promoters, making sure we’re on top of our scheduling, and that we’re working with different groups so everyone is fit in. We want to be as open and welcome to everyone as possible.
How many event days did Thalia Mara have in March and April.?
In March alone we had 17 performances. In April, we will have four or five days off. Ballet Mississippi was rehearsing the week before last. Last week, the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra was rehearsing. We have Million Dollar Quartet this weekend, and next week, we have the Mississippi Opera rehearsing.
Why is the hall so busy now? What do you credit that to?
I think it’s to the fact that people want to see our shows. Really the community has bought into what we’re providing. It’s a testament to the offerings we provide.
Has the city increased marketing for the hall?
Yes. One of the first things I did was ramp up our social media presence.
I’m a big fan of the planetarium. Has it reopened yet?
It has not. Workers on the roof are now finishing up. After that, they’ll start renovations on the inside.
Tell me about those.
Mike Williams is manager over there. He has a great vision of elevating the exhibitions and giving the planetarium a spaceship theme. We want to take the opportunity to do this right and make sure the experience people have will be one-of-a-kind and not something they’re going to see anywhere else.
Do you have a date for when the planetarium will reopen?
I don’t have a date as of right now.
Is work there moving along as scheduled?
We’ve had a series of unseen setbacks with the weather, but at this point we’re on schedule.