Photo by Michael Barrett
To those who know him, Malcolm White acts from the heart and expects nothing in return.
His childhood was filled with live theater and musical concerts, marching bands and choirs, sports and a considerable amount of time spent in the library, all of which created the philosophy by which White works today as the executive director of the Mississippi Arts Commission.
“Mississippi’s greatest asset is our story,” said White, a Stone County son and 1978 University of Southern Mississippi graduate who has lived all over the state. “It’s our history, our arts and our culture. I certainly didn’t realize it at the time, but I was immersed in it all my life. It has never been a conscious thing for me, but I think very much like Europeans do, with the mindset that arts and culture is an essential part of everything we do, not just an extracurricular thing.”
Cutting his teeth on the hospitality industry at such Jackson restaurant establishments as Oliver’s and George Street Grocery, White partnered with his brother, Hal, to open Hal & Mal’s restaurant/bar/event venue in Jackson, which for 25 years has remained one of Mississippi’s most celebrated gathering places.
“I got to know Malcolm when he worked at both Oliver’s and George Street, and found we had many common interests,” said Jackson attorney Peyton Prospere. “We both enjoyed food, drink, politics and sports–Mississippi culture, generally speaking.”
Prospere and White had sublet a place in New Orleans together. “It was a place to get away, and during that time, we both got to know the Quarter better, and I got to know Malcolm better,” said Prospere. “I realized then that he is so integral to the cultural life of both Jackson and Mississippi. He’s a club owner, sports aficionado, political spectator and arts patron, and he brings a real passion to all of those endeavors.”
Michael Rubenstein, director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, graduated from Booneville High School with White.
“Malcolm isn’t that different now than he was in high school,” said Rubenstein. “He heard a different siren song back then. He has always been an independent thinker, and his skills have followed his career.”
For several years, Ben Allen, president of Downtown Jackson Partners, worked with White in many capacities. When White makes a compelling argument for something, people listen, Allen said. “When I served on the City Council in Jackson, we worked with Malcolm Malcolm White for the parade, and now he serves on my board of directors.”
The annual Mal's St. Paddy's Parade & Festival was begun in 1982 as a fundraiser for the Blair E. Batson Children’s Hospital and has become a major destination event for Jackson. In 2005, the Jackson Convention and Visitors Bureau selected the parade as the “Event of the Year.”
Betsy Bradley, executive director of the Mississippi Museum of Art, served on the Mississippi Arts Commission Board when White was awarded the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts in 2004.
“He got it for being a patron of the arts,” said Bradley. “Most people knew him as being a restaurant and bar owner. But what he was doing for musicians and putting together the parade and all he did to get people to celebrate their community in such creative ways was kind of under the radar. By recognizing his efforts with the award, more people got to know more about the contributions Malcolm makes not only in Jackson, but in the state.”
Bradley said White has a special ability to bring people of different backgrounds together for a common cause. “He’s a passionate leader and visionary who can galvanize people. Malcolm can talk to governors and other officials as well as he can a musician or artist or anyone else. He’s comfortable with everyone, and he makes everyone feel special. He’s one of those people who make things happen, and he’s willing to jump in and do the work.”
In addition to the Governor’s Award, White received the Tourism Visionary Award from the Jackson Convention and Visitors Bureau in 2004. In 2003, his work to foster better race relations garnered White the Friendship Ball Award sponsored by Jackson 2000. Also, WLBT honored Malcolm with its Spirit of Mississippi Award.
“When I start anything, I try to develop a strategic plan so that if people want the things I’ve created to go on, they can,” said White. “In addition to those things, I try to be the best brother, neighbor, director and friend I can be. But what I hope I’m most remembered for is being a good father.”
White was hired as the executive director of the Mississippi Arts Commission in October 2005. In addition to promoting and advancing the arts across the state, he has worked to rebuild and create new possibilities for artists and arts institutions of Mississippi Gulf Coast communities devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
“My big concern is that funds used to rebuild the lower six counties of Mississippi after Katrina would be used entirely on infrastructure and the like,” said White. “That’s important, of course, but I wanted to be sure that arts and culture wouldn’t be left out. That’s such an essential part of the coast area. And yes, I’m passionate about it, because that’s where I grew up, and that’s what got me to where I am today.”
Kathryn Lewis, a teaching artist in Hattiesburg, has worked with White on projects for the coast region. “I’m from Perkinston, where Malcolm grew up. I’d gotten to know him casually at Hal & Mal’s and always knew him as a big arts advocate. But when he became director of the MAC, we began a journey together that helped me get to know him much better,” she said.
The Telling Tree Project in Stone County is about celebrating the place you call home. “There’s a uniqueness of being raised in a place where you are kin to just about everyone in the county,” Lewis said. “Malcolm has always had a special sense of place, no matter where he is. One thing that really stuck with me is when he said, 'You can stand in the Red Creek in Stone County, and that water flows into the Pascagoula River, which flows into the Gulf of Mexico, which takes you out into the world.' He understands how important a place can be, but that we are all just a part of the bigger whole.”
While one of the great joys of his job is to rub shoulders with famous Mississippians such as Morgan Freeman and John Grisham, White is just as excited to go into a school setting and see the light bulbs go on in the brains of kids as they make connections.
“It makes me crazy that our schools spend so much time developing the left side of the brain, when there’s a whole other half that needs to be developed as well,” said White. “I want to make sure that the entire right sides of the brains of the 2.9 million Mississippians I serve are fully engaged.”
White believes that art is simply a manifestation of creativity and that his job is to promote outstanding artists as well as kids in Very Special Arts.
“By expressing themselves artistically,” said White, “people can communicate better in a sometimes difficult world.”
Susan Dobbs was marketing director of the Jackson Zoo when White produced an event for the zoo called “Swamp Fest,” that lived up to its name.
“The gates opened at noon, and by 1:30 p.m., the skies opened up and we got about five inches of rain,” she said. “But I knew then that we were kindred spirits and that I wanted to work for him some day.”
Dobbs is now public relations director for MAC. “I have more respect for Malcolm White than ever. He is a true visionary who really sees the big picture. We are so lucky to have him in our state. His spirit is bigger than all of us.”
White admits to having the coolest job in the state. “I am passionate about breathing in and out, and I get excited about the clouds, the twilight, sunsets and full moons. I’m passionate about music, books and stories. And I’m passionate about my daughter, who is my greatest achievement. I don’t believe we were put on this planet to be apathetic. I think we were put here to rock ‘n’ roll.”