For decades, Mississippi University for Women has served as a hub for music, literature, theatre, art and lectures. Located in the heart of historic Columbus, Mississippi, The W is home to premier cultural events, which attract guests from both near and far. From the second annual Music by Women Festival to the signature Welty Weekend at The W, audiences all come for one reason--a shared experience through the cultural arts.
INCLUSION AND DIVERSITY
When it comes to the many events and activities hosted on The W’s campus, two words come to mind for Dr. Julia Mortyakova: inclusion and diversity.
“We are sharing our cultural wealth with people in Columbus and guests from around the world,” she said, speaking about the many concerts and recitals held in the Connie Sills Kossen Auditorium, particularly the Music by Women Festival.
In just two years, the festival has grown from 170 presenters and performers to 250 from places such as Canada, Mexico, Brazil, New York, Wisconsin and Arizona, just to name a few. The festival features papers, presentations, workshops, panels, lecture recitals and performances all related to the subject of music composed, taught and performed by women.
“This is truly an international event, and it was a niche that needed to be filled,” explained Mortyakova. “There are few classical musical festivals that are dedicated to featuring music by women."
The festival also is an experience for the participants, many who come together for the first time to make music on The W’s campus. Mortyakova said, “Proposals are submitted through a blind submission review process so that well known composers and graduate or undergraduate student composers have an equal opportunity to have their work premiered by a professional performer.”
“I hope the festival exposes the community to this beautiful music that they may not know,” Mortyakova said.
“It’s incredible that we are able to offer such high quality performances at no entrance fee. We want everyone to feel like they belong regardless of their age, race or economic background.”
Dr. Mortyakova said this event and many others wouldn’t be possible without the support of the administration, particularly President Jim Borsig, support through the Leslie Farrell Threadgill Lecture and Artist Series and local, state and federal support from agencies such as the Mississippi Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts.
AN INTELLECTUAL EXPERIENCE
Community and culture have been coming together for almost 30 years as part of the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium. Participants are able to connect with authors in an intimate setting.
Over the years, this annual weekend, which honors the world-renowned MUW alumna Eudora Welty, has drawn noted authors, journalists, scholars and artists.
Featured authors have ranged from Eudora Welty in the symposium’s first years to John Grisham, before he was a household name, to Mississippi-born poet Natasha Tretheway, who was appointed United States Poet Laureate in 2012 and 2014.
“We want to make this event as open and as accessible as possible to the community.” said Dr. Kendall Dunkelberg, who has directed the Symposium for the last 10 years. “Each year we present a wide range of writing styles for a diverse audience. It’s a chance to learn about new Southern writers and their writing process.”
High school students from around Mississippi are even able to participate in this cultural exchange. The Ephemera Prize, which was recently added to the Symposium, is an opportunity for students to submit their best poetry, essays and stories. Winners are able to read at the Writers’ Symposium and rub elbows with the authors, some of whom have judged the contest.
The Symposium, which is free and open to the public, is made possible through generous support from the Robert M. Hearin Foundation.
The Welty Gala, sponsored by the MUW Foundation, also is a part of the signature Welty Series held in October.
Guests are able to hear authors of current best sellers discuss their work. Headliners have included guests such as Jeffrey Toobin, CNN’s chief legal analyst and a staff writer for The New Yorker, and Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin. The Welty Gala raises scholarships for deserving students.
A CLASS ACT
Throughout the year, The W’s theatre department puts on four to five performances. Usually there are two main stage shows, which have a small admission, and two to three smaller events that are usually free and last one or two nights.
David Carter, Department of Theatre chair, said, “We start planning the year before. The main criterion is who may be available in our student body to cast the shows. Also, we try to provide a balance between contemporary, classical, musical theatre and children’s show. We try to keep the larger shows mainstream and the smaller events edgier and more provocative.”
He noted there is a small charge for some of their performances, explaining that producing plays is expensive. Carter said, “The royalties alone can cost hundreds, even thousands of dollars--plus the cost of production--sets, lights, sound and costumes. We have to be self-sustaining so we can afford to put on shows in the future.”
“We don’t bring any acts to campus. We’re not a booking agency. We do hire guest artists but everything we do is produced here, by our department,” he added.
Carter said The W offers some of the best shows in the state of Mississippi.
“The faculty all work professionally in theatre, as do many of the alumni, who come back time and again to lend their advice and expertise. Also we are a smaller program and that’s a good thing for theatre.
“Theatre is an intimate community and is one of the last hands-on professions around. You have to know each other and be comfortable working long hours together.
Our students are part of an ensemble and that shows in the quality of our work. So you can see good shows, staffed by working and aspiring professionals all for less than half of what you would pay to see at a professional regional theatre.”
A MUSEUM AND GALLERY
“Art is a window into an era,” explained Dr. Beverly Joyce, who has served as The W Galleries director since 2015. “As an art historian, I know these objects have their own history and context.”
The W’s Galleries were established in 1960 when the Department of Art and Design moved into the building now known as Summer Hall. According to Joyce, this makes the Galleries the first dedicated gallery space in the IHL system. “These galleries are the Permanent Collection Gallery, Gallery B and the recently renamed Hudson Gallery,” said Dr. Joyce. “The name change came about because of the redundancy in naming both the building and the largest gallery after Eugenia Summer. The art department voted to change the name in honor of Ralph Hudson, longtime department chair who started the permanent art collection and got us into our current building among many other accomplishments.”
Joyce said The W’s permanent collection sets it apart from other university galleries. “It’s not common for galleries to have a permanent collection, especially one the caliber of ours.”
Hudson started the department collection in 1948 with two student organizations—Kappa Pi and Palette and Brush—making the initial purchases. For several years, the two groups purchased two paintings annually. Eventually the collection was fleshed out with help from faculty members, the department and donors.
In addition to the department permanent collection, the university already had 40 items of American art plus an allocation of about 120 Work Projects Administration/ Federal Art Project prints.
“We have about 900 works in our permanent collection, most of which are by professional artists. The primary focus of the collection is work by Southern artists, although we have a nice collection of European Modernist prints and a collection of Japanese prints.
“Our approach to the Galleries is a hybrid model in that we function as both as a museum and as university gallery,” Joyce said.
Exhibitions regularly feature alumni, as well as faculty from the state’s community colleges. There are also lunchtime cultural events for university constituents, including Nepalese dancers, mini concerts, gallery talks, etc.
Joyce said another outreach component for the art department is the recent creation of a 10-member advisory board for the Galleries. “The purpose of the board, which includes a cross section of representation from the campus and community, is to find ways to interface with our main constituency groups (university, alumni and the region).
A COMMUNITY BOND
Studies show that the arts and culture help fuel the economy on a local and state level. Throughout the year, The W offers more than 100 cultural events, many without charge, enhancing the quality of life in the region.
These events would not be possible without the generous support of endowments such as the Leslie Farrell Threadgill Lecture and Artist Series, the Diane Legan Howard Art History Lecture Series and the Nell Peel Wolfe Lecture Series.
As The W’s largest lectureship endowment, the Threadgill Lecture and Artist Series promotes family and cultural influences to advance the artistic and intellectual environment of the university and strengthen the cultural bond between the university and the public. The gift was named in honor of alumna Leslie Farrell Threadgill of Columbus, who graduated from The W in 1952. She was a community volunteer throughout her life The endowment has brought symphony and popular music performances to the campus free of charge for the campus community and the public.
Guests have been delighted by the voice of tribute artist Carla Delvillaggio, with Barbra Streisand’s signature look, and entertained by crooner sensation Nick Hilscher in a Frank Sinatra Tribute Concert. Other performances have included the excitement and high vocals of Motown to “Beatlemania Magic,” a show dedicated to Beatles fans of all ages.
Anyone who has a passion for the arts is able to enjoy the Diane Legan Howard Art History Lecture Series established in the alumna’s honor to celebrate her love for the arts through a scholarship and lecture series started in 2012. Howard was a 1959 graduate, who studied art history and graduated summa cum laude. An avid antiques collector, Howard was born in Macon and resided in Columbus for many years before moving to Arizona.
The Art History Lecture Series has seen the likes of presentations that study portraits of free women of color in antebellum New Orleans and research and publications about the intersection of gender and visual culture in 19th century French art and in feminist art of the 1970s.
The Nell Peel Wolfe Lecture Series has been hosted by the university’s Gordy Honors College for five years. A gift from the Wolfe family, of Tuscaloosa, the series honors the legacy of Nell Lyon Peel Wolfe (’30), one of four sisters from Waynesboro, Mississippi, all of whom graduated from then- Mississippi State College for Women.
Wolfe’s interest in the arts and literature have come to fruition on campus with presentations by Bill Rosemann, an editor for Marvel Comics; alumna Peggy Wallace Kennedy, the daughter of former Alabama Gov. George Wallace; and more recently, John T. Edge, author and director of Southern Foodways Alliance.
In addition to the Nell Peel Wolfe Lecture Series, the Honors College also hosts its Forum Series featuring national, regional and local speakers throughout the year. “We have scholars and cultural leaders, activists, filmmakers—a full range of offerings,” explained Dr. Kim Whitehead, director of the Honors College. “We provide a mix of academic and arts presentations that appeal to diverse audiences.”
Whitehead said the events offered in the Forum Series, from showcasing students’ undergraduate research to highlighting a faculty member’s study about increasing African-American men’s participation in the healthcare system, are an opportunity for lifelong learning in the greater community.
“We offer variety in a year-long series and help create a richer cultural life for the area,” she added.
Andrea Nester Stevens, executive director of development and alumni, said, “We are grateful for the cultural opportunities made possible through the generous support of alumni and friends of The W. Many of these events and activities would not be possible without their assistance. We welcome our alumni home and invite the campus and community to take advantage of these opportunities that expand our minds and souls.”