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Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience in Meridian Offers Multimedia Exhibits

Mac Gordon

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The Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience, better known as The MAX, has prospered in the role envisioned for it as the showcase shrine for the state’s many stars in the cultural arts.

MAX has seen solid success since its doors in downtown Meridian opened in April 2017. Laura Hester, the center’s head of communications and programs, said 124,000 people from throughout the world have visited MAX.

“It truly is a wonderful representation of our state,” Hester said. “We love groups. We see field trips, church and other tour groups daily. We encourage a visit to Meridian to see all that we offer.”

What it offers is a brilliant multimedia mixture of cultural arts exhibits and live performances that complement MAX’s “Hollywood-style Walk of Fame,” featuring 28 Mississippians of genius thus far. The next induction of artists into the Hall of Fame will be Dec. 15 in the nearby Riley Center.

You know most of the Hall of Famers by name and talent. The musical notables include Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Leontyne Price, Muddy Waters, Tammy Wynette, Jimmy Buffett, Meridianite Jimmie Rodgers, Charley Pride and, a personal favorite, Bo Diddley.

Writers already enshrined include our best, naturally – William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Willie Morris, Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, John Grisham and Tennessee Williams,

Film stars already in the Walk of Fame include Meridian native Sela Ward, Morgan Freeman, James Earl Jones and Oprah Winfrey. Other artists like potter George Ohr, painter Walter Anderson and, another favorite, Muppets’ creator Jim Henson also adorn the facility’s hallowed spaces.

As a legislative staffer, I attended hearings early in the 2000’s to discuss a site for the project. Some lawmakers thought it should land in Jackson, as did I. Then-Speaker of the House Tim Ford sent me to learn about the issue at meetings led by former State Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce Lester Spell, a prime supporter.

In the end, after fairly benign debate, Meridian was announced as the winning site, and residents of the state’s “Queen City” stepped up and approved a 2-percent food and beverage tax to help finance MAX. The facility has no remaining debt.

I would not take credit for as much as one light bulb in the stunning facility. But, I did write a column promoting the general idea long before it became a reality, as did Danny McKenzie, another columnist for The Clarion-Ledger.

We believed Mississippi should establish a central site to show off the hundreds of cultural arts luminaries this place has produced since statehood. For the record, neither knew the other had written about it until much later.

Back to the State Capitol, where the Legislature annually invites well-known celebrities in myriad fields to address lawmakers. In the early 2000’s, I heard actor Hal Holbrook declare from the podium in the House of Representatives that one of the two best playhouses worldwide he’d ever experienced was in Meridian.

That structure is today known as the Riley Center, a renovated grand opera house owned by Mississippi State University, which has a degree-granting branch campus in the city. (The other place favored by Holbrook is another renovated opera house in Columbus, Georgia.)

The Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience occasionally partners with the Riley Center for functions, but mostly utilizes its own venues, including an outdoor courtyard and a rooftop terrace along with indoor spaces, for the staging of events and exhibitions.

This state has compiled a sterling array of shrines and museums to showcase native sons and daughters who’ve excelled in the cultural arts. MAX is proving to be among the best at telling that story.

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