Chancellor Dan Jones and a passionate group of supporters are advancing the reputation of the University of Mississippi's cultural arts with consultation from one of the leading figures in contemporary music.
Through a series of salons and special events, the university is raising private support for the new Chancellor's Fund for the Arts. To spearhead the effort, Bruce Levingston has been appointed special adviser on the arts to Jones. Levingston has been described by The New Yorker as "elegant and engaging … a poetic pianist who has a gift for glamorous programming," and The New York Times called Levingston "one of today's most adventurous musicians."
Alumni and friends have responded with $50,000 in initial gifts to build an endowment for an artist-in-residence program, much like the existing John and Renée Grisham Writers-in-Residence program. Just as prominent writers like Tom Franklin, Jack Pendarvis and National Book Award-winner Jesmyn Ward have enriched the Ole Miss-Oxford community with their presence, mentored promising students and elevated the national profile of the creative writing program, stewards of the Chancellor's Fund for the Arts envision visiting artists and musicians achieving notoriety for all UM arts.
Levingston, a native of Cleveland, Miss., is directing his energies to the initiative. "In addition to establishing artists-in-residence, the goal is to reach out in a truly interdisciplinary way," he said. "We want to establish a pattern of bringing interesting and relevant artists and thinkers to Ole Miss, but also to send a little bit of Ole Miss and Oxford back with them – to share with the rest of the world what's happening here, cultivated by Oxford's enterprising arts community."
The UM effort comes one year after the Mississippi Development Authority and the Mississippi Arts Council released a joint study on the economic impact of artists and creative enterprises. The report attributes over 60,000 Mississippi jobs to the creative economy and accounts that the arts increase productivity, stimulate innovation and growth, improve learning and generate wealth across many sectors.
"You can look around our campus and Oxford and visibly see the impact that our decades-long cadre of writers have had on education and our economy," said Chancellor Jones. "We are known throughout the world for William Faulkner, Willie Morris, Ellen Douglas, Barry Hannah and Larry Brown. Scholars come to Ole Miss from Japan, Germany and elsewhere to study our writers – we can make that true of all our artistic disciplines, and benefit our students magnificently in the process."
Levingston brings a wealth of experience to his role at UM. As founding chair and artistic director of the nonprofit foundation Premiere Commission Inc., he commissions and premieres new works by young artists and composers, helping to promote burgeoning talent to the national stage. Many of the world's most important composers have written works for him, and his Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center performances have won notable critical praise.
Levingston is helping UM prepare, fundraise and heighten awareness of its artists. Thus far, he has coordinated engaging events such as a lecture by renowned art historian and Dean of the famed Yale School of Art Robert Storr, as well as a performance by the popular string quartet Brooklyn Rider, an acclaimed group that brings classic and contemporary compositions to a 21st century audience. Also a senior Barksdale Fellow of UM's Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College, Levingston facilitated the Honors College and the Department of History's hosting of distinguished American politics, business and finance commentator, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Ron Chernow to interact with students and community members.
"It means a great deal to me to be here," said Chernow of his visit to Ole Miss. "I have found this not only an extremely enlightening visit but also very moving. History is the oxygen that's in the air here – how could any historian not be stimulated?"
Chernow also found UM students very engaging. "I can't imagine students asking more probing or sophisticated questions about biography from a theoretical standpoint… They pulled things out of me I don't normally talk about."
Philip Jackson, a contemporary realist painter with extensive national acclaim and a UM assistant professor of art, emphasized the impact of private support to UM arts. "If not for an Ole Miss alumnus' generous lending of his private collection, we would not be bringing renowned American realist painter Bo Bartlett to campus," said Jackson. Bartlett's upcoming exhibition, curated by Jackson, will be at the University Museum April 18 through July 13, and Bartlett will lecture and lead a panel discussion April 25 and 26.
Jackson is inspired by the new energy the initiative brings. "Our visual arts tradition – artists like Glennray Tutor, Jere Allen and others – is not yet as strongly received as our literary tradition. We have also recruited highly celebrated artists to our faculty – Matt Long is a potter known all over the country, Durant Thompson's sculptures have been commissioned by several famous Americans, photographer Brooke White recently returned from a Fulbright Fellowship to India, I could keep going. When people make these connections, the reverence and support will be there. Bruce brings this energy to our faculty, our alumni, and our students – and he is making these connections."
Inaugural events to undergird the Chancellor's Fund for the Arts have been held, with additional events and salons slated for Oxford, Jackson, New York, Houston and Boston. A recent event at the home of Ambassador John Palmer in Jackson featured Levingston showcasing selections from Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Schubert. Guests enjoyed dinner prepared by James Beard-nominated chef and Ole Miss alumnus Taylor Bowen-Ricketts of the Delta Bistro in Greenwood.
Palmer was inspired to support arts education, and especially to support Levingston and his new program at Ole Miss. "Bruce is an extraordinary pianist and artist, and the perfect leader for this initiative."
"Over the years, I have developed friends who are alumni of Princeton and other top schools," said Ambassador Palmer. "Their knowledge of works by great composers and artists always impressed me – and they learned it during their general undergraduate studies, not as arts majors. A vibrant arts community is a must for good quality of life. This is especially true for our students who will have this as part of their foundation."
Donors and university leaders believe the initiative will help showcase talented UM students and highlight the cultural activities of the Ole Miss community.
"We always come to Oxford for the annual Pride of the South Benefit Concert at the Ford Center and bring friends," said one of the fund's donors, who wished to remain anonymous. "I want my friends across Mississippi to know about the musical and artistic talent our young students have. They work hard to cultivate their talents, and I want to encourage them and establish more opportunities for learning and apprenticeship. This effort has a lot of potential if we all support it."
Levingston has other collaborations in the works with other UM faculty and departments: a film project with screenwriter Chris Offutt, a commissioned work on civil rights with the Southern Foodways Alliance at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and a partnership with the UM schools of Law and Business Administration. "These interdisciplinary collaborations will raise arts and humanities awareness not only in the university community but also around the state and the nation," said Levingston.
The Chancellor's Fund for the Arts is open for contributions from individuals and organizations. Contributions can be made by mailing a check with the fund noted in the memo line to the University of Mississippi Foundation, 406 University Avenue, Oxford, MS 38655-0249; visiting online at www.umfoudnation.com/makeagift; or contacting Sarah Hollis, associate director of university development, at 662-915-1584 or firstname.lastname@example.org.