We rise, we fly, we shine: Mississippi school celebrates 20 years of inspiration, art

Published 6:15 am Tuesday, May 9, 2023

The tallest building in Brookhaven marks the location of a school created for art, defined by art, and inhabited by artists. A vibrant mural adorns the bridge from the residence hall, and both modern and classic architecture cover the campus of the Mississippi School of the Arts.

Created in 1999 by the state legislature as the Mississippi School of Fine Arts, MSA is a residential school for 11th and 12th grade high school students on the former campus of Whitworth College. Friday night, MSA celebrated the beginning of its 20th year of instruction. The 20th graduating class will walk across the stage in May 2024.

As defined by the original House bill that led to MSA’s creation, “The purpose of the school shall be to provide a more challenging educational experience for artistically talented and gifted students of the state to develop their full potential.”

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A state-supported, statewide residential school, MSA provides advanced programs of study in music, theater, visual arts, dance, literary arts and media arts.

The Brookhaven Trust collaborated with MSA to renovate Mary Jane Lampton Auditorium, which was dedicated in September 1999. The Whitworth campus was transferred to the state for the purpose of MSA in spring 2000, donated $3 million in bond proceeds, and received a $1.5 million Housing and Urban Development grant to use for campus improvements.

Dr. Vicki Bodenhamer was hired as the school’s executive director and saw it through its construction and early development. Dr. Suzanne Hirsch succeeded her as director.

It transformed Brookhaven

“MSA has transformed Brookhaven,” said Bill Jacobs, former owner and publisher of The Daily Leader. “We wouldn’t have the development of downtown we have today it wasn’t for the arts school — the economic impact from that — it’s really one of our newer industries. It provides jobs, provides tourism.”

Jacobs said the school was the result of a lot of hard work from a lot of people “that has come out better than any one of us envisioned at the time.”

Mississippi First Lady Pat Fordice, whose husband was then-Gov. Kirk Fordice, had visited Brookhaven in the late 1990s and set the stage for things to come, Jacobs said.

“She said it was a shame we couldn’t find a good use for the Lampton Auditorium, and then suggested it could be an arts school,” he said.

In July 1998, Sen. W. L. Rayborn mentioned to Jacobs that he thought an arts school would be a good use of the old Whitworth College campus, and local legislator Dr. Jim Barnett “picked it up and ran with it.”

From that moment, Jacobs said it came together against multiple obstacles almost mysteriously.

“(The bill was introduced)  in January 1999 and we had a signed bill four months later,” Jacobs said. “Things just don’t go that fast in state government.”

Importance can’t be overstated

As executive director of the Brookhaven-Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce and of the Industrial Development Foundation, Garrick Combs said the importance of MSA cannot be overstated for many reasons.

“First of all, the development of the old Whitworth College site can be called the beginnings of the resurgence of the downtown area that we love now,” Combs said. “Also, students and their families and friends have been exposed to our community, and their word-of-mouth and positive impressions have boosted Brookhaven’s reputation far and wide.”

“Finally, the students add to our culture of the arts and add layers of talent and creativity to our local community,” said Combs.

The arts school’s local impact is significant, according to Mayor Joe Cox.

“We are fortunate to have Mississippi School of the Arts in the heart of downtown Brookhaven,” Cox said. “The school has helped countless students develop their unique artistic talents and realize their dreams. They have played a significant role in the enrichment of Brookhaven’s artistic heritage and had a positive economic, cultural and social impact on our community.”

From past to future

Recently, MSA partnered with Copiah-Lincoln Community College to offer students the opportunity to pursue an associate degree while still in high school. The pilot program will begin in January 2024, and be offered at no charge to enrolled students. Dual credit courses will be paid for by MSA with funding from grants and private donations to the school.

In its 2022-2025 Strategic Plan, MSA listed multiple long-term objectives, including:

  • Increasing full-time staff for all programs by 2027
  • Adding an instrumental music program by 2027
  • Increasing partnerships with a higher education institution for degree options by 2025 (accomplished by the Co-Lin partnership)
  • Expanding the guest artist program with in-depth residencies by 2025
  • Adding engagement programs that serve state youth through summer camps, touring programs, and activities

A visit to msabrookhaven.org online reveals page after page of awards won by the school, its students and its faculty and staff. Performances and gallery shows are available throughout the year for the public to visit and enjoy.

MSA’s students have consistently performed well on the ACT and have received millions of dollars in scholarships to prestigious programs across the nation.

The students and leaders of the arts school continually live up to the motto of the Mississippi School of the Arts — Now we rise, we fly, we shine.