Why Did the Riley Foundation Cut a $4 Million Check to a Mississippi Art Center?

Many small American cities have their own guardian angels in the form of philanthropic foundations. These foundations establish deep roots in a community and almost act like a proxy government entity, pouring millions of private dollars into the city's arts and culture scene.

There are countless examples of such guardian angels, but when we're thinking about these relationships — think the Knight Foundation in Miami, for example — it is often within the context of a big city. And while it is certainly important to follow developments in large metropolitan areas, it's easy to forget the incredible work being done in smaller cities across the country.

One recent example is the Mott Foundation's work in Flint, Michigan (population 100,000). Another is the Riley Foundation's recent investment in Meridian, Mississippi (population 41,000). The latter foundation, which has served the city of Meridian and Lauderdale County for over 15 years, recently gave a $4 million grant to the construction of a new $45 million arts center in the heart of the city.

First, a bit more about the center itself. Dubbed the Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Center (MAEC), it will be housed in a two-level structure, totaling 58,500 square feet of space, including 22,000 square feet of exhibition space. The center will include a the Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Hall of Fame, a Hollywood-style Walk of Fame, a gift shop, broadcast studio, art studio, multi-purpose room, outdoor stage and a courtyard which can also be used for programs.

As you can imagine, the center's planners effectively framed it as both an educational and economic investment for the community. To the former, planners stressed that the $45 million center's commitment is to help embrace the state's "home-grown talent." The center plans to honor native artists and their achievements in dance, visual arts, drama, literature and music. (Symbolically, the center will open in 2017 — the year Mississippi celebrates its bicentennial.)

However, it took more than just appealing to home-state pride to secure the funding. Planners successfully articulated a powerful economic case that appealed to politicians and civic leaders. According to mayor Percy Bland, "It's going to mean growth. It's going to transform this city and this area to have a facility like this in our city." The center is projected to draw approximately 200,000 visitors per year, and will steer its visitors to other museums and attractions throughout the state.

We'd particularly like to draw your attention to that last phrase. By steering visitors to other museums in the state, center planners were able to frame the investment as something that is not just good for Meridian, but for the state as a whole. By doing so, they can effectively position themselves to raise money at the state level, which is exactly what they plan to do next.

According to Clay Holladay, board member of the East Mississippi Business Development Center, "We've had great support locally and great support from our state government, the state legislature, and of course the governor and lieutenant governor as well. Now we are going statewide with our campaign."

This inclusive and forward-looking thinking certainly resonated with Riley Foundation, dubbed "Meridian's Guardian Angel" by Meridian native, actress Sela Ward.