One of Arts in McNairy's first programs was the summer art camp hosted by Selmer Community Center. Local kids received fun and educational instruction in a variety of arts disciplines during the weeklong camps. Artists and arts educators Shelia Treece and Ronnie Christopher are shown above preparing student artwork for showing at the close of the 2001 camp.
By Shawn Pitts
The word “art” has an off-putting ring to many people. Add the adjective “fine” and it’s even worse. For some, such a phrase evokes notions of highbrow institutions or forms of art that seem, by design, inaccessible to ordinary folks. Similarly, “culture” may sound just as distasteful with its overtones of elitist exclusion.
But the arts and culture are as common to everyday human experience as the air we breathe. Any activity that taps into the deep reservoir of individual creativity may rightly be regarded as an art form, and culture is simply the creative traditions we share and value as a community. Viewed in this light, arts and culture are stripped of their negative baggage and we begin to see our neighbors and our neighborhood from a fresh and healthier perspective. Everyone from the local local banjo picker, story teller and quilter to the classically trained violinist, poet and oil painter may be respected as a contributor to the creative life of our community.
These insights are especially important in rural communities where many residents may feel alienated or disconnected from urban cultural centers that do not mirror their artistic interests or serve their creative needs. Twenty years ago—March 6, 2001 to be exact—this was very much on the minds of a small group of citizens who met at Selmer City Hall to form Arts in McNairy (AiM). No one knew it at the time, but we were in for the adventure of a lifetime. Though the groundwork had been laid as early as August of the previous year, that March meeting marked the official launch of an organization that would rally McNairy and surrounding counties around a staggering variety of cultural programs in nearly every creative discipline.
Over the years Arts in McNairy has been recognized at the local, state and national level for excellence in rural arts programming. I am firmly convinced that the acknowledged quality and sustainability of the group’s efforts are directly connected to the leadership’s tenacious focus on the community rather than the organization itself. Yes, as the vehicle that delivers key programs, the infrastructure of the organization must be thoughtfully maintained and funded, but the uncompromising mission to persevere and enrich McNairy County’s cultural life was Arts in McNairy’s north star from the outset. It is the primary reason the organization is still going strong at twenty and looking to an even brighter future.
As we commemorate two successful decades of creative community building, it is my great honor to share some of Arts in McNairy’s history as well as the leadership’s forward looking vision with readers of the Independent Appeal through a series of short, guest columns. I was there for that first 2001 meeting along with Independent Appeal publisher, Janet Rail, who was subsequently appointed to AiM’s inaugural board of directors. Janet intuitively grasped and championed the AiM mission. She ensured the Independent covered every new twist and turn in our development and offered generous sponsorships for important programs such as the popular community theatre season and annual Music Hall of Fame. We couldn’t have built a successfully arts agency without that kind of media support and we are deeply grateful.
We also owe an eternal debt of gratitude to the many volunteers, audience members and financial partners who have supported Arts in McNairy every step of the way. A wise mentor once told me, “a nonprofit is dead in the water if the community doesn’t understand and embrace its mission.” He couldn’t have been more right, and AiM has had the great advantage of working in a community that was hungry for arts programs and eager to explore every new avenue of creativity put before them.
It’s been quite a ride, and I think I speak for AiM leadership when I say we can’t wait to see how the next twenty years unfold.
This article first appeared in the McNairy County Independent Appeal March 10, 2021