Potential design unveiled for $50 million Mississippi International Arts Pavilion as fundraising begins

Published 2:42 pm Monday, July 8, 2019

JBHM Architecture President Richard McNeel loves turning obstacles into opportunities. That’s one of many reasons he was thrilled when his firm was asked to design a world-class museum and exhibition center in Vicksburg.

JBHM designed the Mississippi International Arts Pavilion to rise from the bluffs of downtown Vicksburg. While the picture-perfect location near the Vicksburg Convention Center showcases the city’s defining feature — the mighty Mississippi River — it also poses what some architecture firms would consider a handicap.

“The site slopes 65 feet diagonally, which is comparable to a five- or six-story building,” McNeel said. “A lot of designers would see that as a negative, but we saw it as a great opportunity that would actually solve a lot of problems, especially in incorporating the museum’s back-of-house functions.”

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McNeel’s fluency in architecture, art and history appealed to Jack Kyle, executive director of the Mississippi Commission for International Cultural Exchange Inc., the nonprofit organization spearheading the Vicksburg project.

“I’d worked with Richard on a similar project in Vicksburg and found him to be very knowledgeable about historic architecture, as well as a pleasure to work with,” Kyle said. “He was very attentive in interpreting how the Mississippi International Arts Pavilion should be designed from the standpoint of exhibiting artwork, and he was also was receptive to my needs.”

From 1996 to 2004, Kyle organized four international exhibitions in Jackson that drew 1.8 million visitors and generated an economic impact of $200 million. The Mississippi International Arts Pavilion will house a variety of spectacular treasures from the exhibitions, in addition to 10 art galleries, an auditorium, a sculpture garden and plaza, a restaurant and gift shop.

With the site secured and the design phase nearly complete, Kyle is focused on fundraising for the $50 million project.

McNeel’s knowledge and experience were instrumental in helping JBHM design a multifaceted facility capable of hosting major exhibitions as well as public and private events. Over the course of his career, McNeel has visited world-renowned museums in the U.S. and Europe and has always taken an interest in art. In fact, his first job in 1971 was at the Philmont Scout Ranch’s Seton Museum in New Mexico.

“Philmont was where I got involved in cataloguing art, staging exhibits and learning how to store and handle art,” he said. “I’ve also been on several back-of-house tours in major museums, and I’ve learned that functionality aspects such as loading and unloading, climate control and security are critical to how museums work.”

Another challenge for the JBHM team was designing a building in a city famous for its historic character. Tourists flock to Vicksburg year-round to see beautifully preserved antebellum homes, important Civil War sites and battlegrounds, and the Old Courthouse Museum, a towering Greek Revival edifice that has commanded the city’s skyline since 1860.

By bucking the trend toward contemporary and modern designs, JBHM conceptualized a building that incorporates 21st century architectural advancements in a stately, elegant outline that blends in well with Vicksburg’s historic riverfront.

“Richard and his team have done a superior job of interpreting my vision for a Neoclassical building that will display art from the world’s finest museums,” Kyle said. “JBHM Architects designed the Mississippi International Arts Pavilion to be a one-of-a-kind building that will complement Vicksburg’s historic appeal and its greatest architectural structure, the Old Courthouse Museum.”

Just as the iconic courthouse has weathered the ages, so must the Mississippi International Arts Pavilion — and the ground on which the building stands will play a key role in its longevity. Fortunately for the project team, Mississippi Delta soil is yet another subject in which McNeel has amassed decades of direct experience, starting in the early 1980s at Grand Gulf Nuclear Station in Port Gibson.

“An office building at Grand Gulf was my first encounter with loess soil conditions,” he said. “In following years, working for JBHM on several design and construction projects in Vicksburg increased my understanding of loess soils and the city’s topography. Those experiences helped inform some basic design considerations for the Mississippi International Arts Pavilion.”

McNeel believes the Pavilion is a strategic move for Vicksburg, home of one of the South’s most popular tourist attractions, the Vicksburg National Military Park. More than half a million people tour the park every year, so it stands to reason that they’d be more likely to extend their visits if Vicksburg offered another major attraction. Overnight stays would undoubtedly boost business for local hotels, B&Bs, restaurants, museums and shops.

“The Mississippi International Arts Pavilion is meant to contribute to the city beyond just exhibiting art,” McNeel said. “Having another must-see destination will draw even more visitors and events to Vicksburg and help build the local economy. From an economic development standpoint, it could be huge.

“I’m thankful JBHM was given the opportunity to lead the project,” he said. “It’s been a wonderful experience, and we’re excited about seeing the Mississippi International Arts Pavilion come to fruition, hopefully in the near future.”

For details about the Mississippi International Arts Pavilion, visit https://msiap.com/.