The view when driving over the 22nd Avenue bridge in Meridian has changed dramatically over the past year. Instead of seeing the iconic U Needa Biscuit sign painted on the side of an abandoned building on the right, a massive modern building now sits on the corner of 22nd Avenue and Front Street. It’s the long-awaited Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Complex, or THE MAX, as it’s also referred to, and it has changed the look of downtown Meridian. “With an estimated 200,000 visitors the first year, The MAX will have a tremendous impact on downtown Meridian as well as Lauderdale County,” said Bill Hannah, president and CEO of the East Mississippi Business and Development Corporation.
The MAX has changed the landscape and overall attitude of downtown Meridian, and area that is rapidly changing for the better. Sidewalks are being redone, buildings are being bought and brought back to life with new restaurants and retail, and there is a feeling of excitement and anticipation with area residents. “All these sleeping giants in downtown Meridian are waking up!” exclaims Mark Tullos, executive director of THE MAX. “One of the things that attracted me to the job is the inventory of wonderful real estate in Meridian, such as the remarkable Three Foot building where the abatement process will begin soon.” Tullos comes to Meridian by way of Louisiana, where he worked for the state overseeing the state’s museums.
THE MAX opened on April 27 with a grand black tie gala event. The next day it was open to the general public.
The idea of having a place where the stories of legendary Mississippian can be told began with the late country music singer and radio personality Paul Ott Carruth. In 2001, the Mississippi Legislature enacted Senate Bill #2666, establishing the Southern Arts and Entertainment Center, Inc. That was later changed to The Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience. Fundraising goals were slowed by such forces as Hurricane Katrina and a major economic recession; yet despite those obstacles, the State of Mississippi pledged $29 million to the project, and over $14 million has been pledged from private businesses and individuals. A two percent sales tax on prepared food and beverages in Meridian went into effect on November 1, with an estimated $2.5 to $2.7 million to be generated annually over the next ten years by the tax alone. Nearly 70 percent of Meridian residents voted for the tax.
So what exactly is the Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience? “It’s not a traditional museum,” explains Tullos. “We will have some artifacts, but we are not a collection facility. Instead, we will have interactive displays that help teach people about the contributions of creative, talented Mississippians. It will be an entertainment experience for sure, but the museum part is that this will be a teaching component. Not only will visitors learn about the musicians, actors, artists and writers from Mississippi, but they’ll learn more about the state itself and why so many are inspired here. We will share the overwhelming impact of Mississippi’s creative legacy, honoring legends of the past and inspiring young artists of the future.”
Each year a ceremony will be held for the year’s Hall of Fame inductees. Each recipient will be honored in The Hall of Fame, the place to honor world-famous musicians, actors and media personalities along with visual artists, authors and others, all of whom trace their roots to Mississippi. Considered the centerpiece of THE MAX, the Hall of Fame space will soar two stories and encircle visitors on all sides showcasing the many global icons that call Mississippi their home. The interactive exhibit will have touchscreens, sound and moving imagery. This year’s inductees are musicians Robert Johnson, B.B. King, Elvis Presley, Leontyne Price, Jimmie Rodgers, and Muddy Waters; writers William Faulkner, John Grisham, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, and Richard Wright; actors Morgan Freeman, James Earl Jones and Sela Ward; visual artists Walter Anderson and George Ohr; and entertainers Jim Henson and Oprah Winfrey.
In addition to being inducted into the Hall of Fame, Meridian native and actor Sela Ward also serves as Chairperson of the Honorary Celebrity Committee. Past chairmen include Faith Hill and Marty Stuart. Others serving on the committee are actors Tom Lester, Morgan Freeman and Jim Henson’s Kermit the Frog; musicians Leontyne Price, Jimmy Buffett, Charley Pride, Britney Spears and Three Doors Down; as well as author John Grisham.
The next question that may come to mind is “Why Meridian?” The answer is “Why not?” “Meridian is a perfect position on the interstate,” explains Tullos. “And we had room for it. I-20 goes right through here, so anyone going from Dallas to Atlanta passes through Meridian. We are also very close to Memphis and New Orleans. Instead of people pulling off to refuel or grab a burger, we want them to come to THE MAX and learn more about Mississippi, perhaps planning future trips to visit other parts of the state. We also feature other cultural institutions and museums around Mississippi. This is not a Meridian thing, this is a Mississippi thing. We promote all parts of the state.”
Paula Chance serves as the marketing and communications director for THE MAX. “We want to do all we can to get people to come visit us, but at the same time, each of the stories told here, and each of the interactives will lead to other people and places around the state. There is a kiosk that allows visitors to create their own tour map and it will customize trips to meet special needs and interests. The tour map will be available on smart phones, or can be printed out to purchase in the gift shop.”
It is estimated that visitors will spend two to three hours in THE MAX. There is much to see and experience. The second floor galleries explore six Mississippi influences on artists: The Home, The Church, The People, The Community, The Land and The World. “These are very sophisticated exhibits that serve as a teaching vehicle for visitors,” explains Chance. “For example, there is an actual chapel built inside for The Church exhibit. The brick on the exterior of the chapel as well as the pews are from a church in Collinsville that was destroyed by a tornado.” The stained glass window in the church designed by artist Andy Young of Pearl River Glass in Jackson. “The design tells the story of the arts in Mississippi,” says Young. The intricate design contains images of “Lucille,” the guitar B.B. King made famous, as well as other images that reference Mississippi art, music and literature.