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Power House

Oxford’s Arts Council celebrates 50 years and plans an impressive expansion to the Powerhouse.

Written by Leslie Criss | Photos Provided by Yoknapatawpha Arts Council

A stone’s throw off Oxford’s University Avenue, on the corner of South 14th Street, sits a building that served the community with much-needed power in years past. In its current iteration, it continues to offer life-affirming power in a more creative sense.

If you’ve ever driven by the building and thought of it only as a place that puts on plays or serves as a nice venue for a special occasion, well, you’re selling the Powerhouse way too short. Even a cursory look into its past and present yields a powerful story.

Under the management of the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council, celebrating its 50th anniversary, the Powerhouse became the nerve center for YAC when in 2001 the council received $300,000 from the Mississippi Arts Commission, which was matched with a grant from the City of Oxford. The funding was to remodel the building once known as the Oxford Electric Department, which had originally been a generating plant. The Powerhouse, as it would be known, became home to YAC and a center for the arts.

The original building was completed in 1928 and provided power to Oxford until the Tennessee Valley Authority became the city’s sole provider of electricity in 1952. The building was then used as a storage

warehouse until it became the Powerhouse Community Arts Center in 2008.

The mission of the arts council then was to have a place for community theater, dance, visual arts, music and more. The mission remains the same today, though the vision of YAC has become even more all-encompassing.

Not only does the Powerhouse offer a place where emerging local artists can find immeasurable support, but it also offers a building equipped for showcasing the work of Theatre Oxford and others, including musicians, writers, storytellers and artists. It is also a space for classes and workshops for artists and art lovers of every age.

“I like to let artists and others know this place, this organization, is an umbrella and a toolbox to help them get their own programs and projects going and be sustainable,” said Wayne Andrews, director of YAC for nearly 12 years. “We are also like an incubator for business startups by creatives.

“The creative people bring their ideas about which they are passionate, and we provide support. That can mean helping to find champions for their projects, providing the use of our sound system, teaching about creating a business plan or applying for grants — the list is long. Their focus is on their creative program; we work to help make it sustainable and stable, so they are able to go off on their own.”

A native of Connecticut, Andrews is connected to Oxford and Mississippi by marriage — his wife Mary Margaret is a product of the state and a graduate of Ole Miss. He’s also connected by heart. A single conversation with Andrews about his love of his community is a dead giveaway. What he does, along with a small staff, is a labor of love. He’s a business major who had a great appreciation for the arts instilled in him at a young age by his parents, making him a perfect fit for his position.

He speaks with great pride about the things that have grown out of the Powerhouse and YAC through the years, events like the Oxford Film Festival, the Fiber Arts Festival (the oldest, longest-running festival in Mississippi), modern dance shows and so many more.

The Powerhouse is busy. One group ends an event, and an hour or so later, another group comes in to start one. The downside to that? There’s simply not enough space anymore. But the news is good: A solution is in the works. Some renovations and additions will create the Yoknapatawpha Humanities Center at the Powerhouse.

The construction work won’t begin immediately. A match must be found for a National Endowment for the Humanities grant. There’s fundraising taking place; the initial conversation with the city and the state were supportive; and there are historical guidelines that must be followed by those involved in doing the work.

When the expansion is completed, there will be a makers’ space, a culinary center, a resident artist space, meeting areas and more. Andrews said the space is for north Mississippi, not just Oxford.

“Anything happening in north Miss-issippi will help the region,” he said. “We envision this space as a Humanities Hub. A space that connects the culture bearers of the Hills Region to the tools to share this story with the wider community.

“It’s how you make a town — a community — thrive. You have a place where people feel welcome and feel a part of. Quality of life and economics will follow if we put place first.”

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