With the addition of a new mural on University Avenue and Oxford’s arts center, the Powerhouse, located there – this semester Oxford Stories is embarking on a small solutions journalism project. Our reporters are starting a community conversation about the possibility of a continued arts emphasis in the University Avenue area.
Oxford, a small North Mississippi town, has become known as one of the artistic and cultural areas of Mississippi and the South. Authors, chefs, and artists contribute to the booming arts community.
But some say as Oxford continues to grow attracting more residents and students, some artists are being pushed out because of the cost of living.
Some believe enhancing an area by focusing on the arts, or supporting the idea of creating a designated arts district, might help support and attract area artists. That, in turn, could symbiotically benefit the community, generating more tax revenue.
Mary Stanton Knight, a filmmaker and University of Mississippi broadcast communications specialist, said being an independent filmmaker in Oxford has introduced her to many people in Oxford’s arts scene. She believes a designated arts district would be beneficial.
“It would be a way to preserve and continue the progression of the arts in Oxford,” she said.
While the Square is one of Oxford’s main attractions, Knight said it is an “economic bubble” for football and baseball weekends, and your typical 9-5 worker or middle class family may not always want to go to the Square.
Knight said there should be a place with more family-friendly and cost efficient restaurants, shops, and shows. Since Oxford’s revenue is often dependent on game day weekends, an arts district “would provide a steady stream of revenue for the town when there isn’t a game,” she said.
Instead of the Square, Jackson Avenue or University Avenue, Knight said the growing area by Sisk Avenue would be a great place to build an arts district or continue an arts emphasis.
This would “expand the town and give people an area other than the Square to enjoy the arts,” she said.
Knight said Oxford has the foundation and infrastructure needed to create a successful arts district. However, she believes there should be a committee or person to head the project.
Wayne Andrews, director of the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council on University Avenue, works hard to support the arts within the Oxford community. The Connecticut native has been the director of the arts council for more than a decade.
Since then, the Powerhouse, which houses the arts council, has become one of the town’s biggest performing arts spaces in Oxford, while also focusing on community programming.
The arts council provides “grants, brand development, and provides local artists a place to express their work,” said Andrews.
Unlike a sports team, “The arts never lose,” he said, adding that the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council’s mission is to be sustainable.
“We want to support local artists and give them a place to be creative, while also giving the people of Oxford the ability to experience the arts,” he said.
Andrews said the idea of an arts district in Oxford could be interesting.
“Usually, an arts district is the product of gentrification,” he said, “where an arts district is put into a bad town/neighborhood in order to attract people to the town to make money. In Oxford’s case, we are doing the complete opposite. Oxford is exploding.”
Andrews said the success of the town has caused “the creative class to be pushed out.” He said an arts district would give the creative class a place to express their work.
“The combo of a small town intertwined with a university makes Oxford the perfect place for an arts district,” he said, explaining why Oxford is a unique town for the arts.
He noted the James Beard Award winners and nominees in Oxford. The James Beard Award recognizes chefs, authors, journalists, and broadcast media.
This proves that Oxford is an artistic and cultural hub, but he said many artists, chefs, authors, and journalists are being pushed out due to the economic growth of the city, which impacts the cost of living and businesses expenses.
An arts district could help provide affordable business space and even residential homes for Oxford creatives, while also offering residents and visitors more opportunity to enjoy the arts.
Andi Bedsworth is owner of Art to Go, LLC, a business that brings arts education and instruction to Oxford and Lafayette County children and adults, offering a variety of art classes and camps in conjunction with the Arts Council at the Powerhouse.
“I have been in Oxford since 2004, and really started getting involved in the visual arts in 2008,” said Bedsworth. “The arts community has morphed over time as new artists come in and some leave.”
Bedsworth said many artists “leave because it is financially difficult to afford to stay in Oxford.” She said an arts district could be beneficial.
“We are all spread out, working in our own little nooks and crannies, making it hard for tourists and visitors to go out and see several artists working and showing in one day,” she said. “Having some sort of district would enable folks to see a large cross section of artists in a small amount of time.”
Bedsworth said the town is so small, she doesn’t believe there is a lot of room for growth in the middle of town.
“I would probably have to be on the outskirts of town,” she said. “With the right amount of marketing, a growth plan, and a team in place, it could definitely happen.”