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Emerging Stronger: The MAX
Interview with Mark Tullos, President and CEO
The Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience (The MAX)
Having kicked things off in Episode one with Hannah Bryan and The National Videogame Museum, episode two sees us catch up without another young organisation that have spent much of their existence in the presence of a global pandemic.
Mark Tullos, President and CEO of the Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience (The MAX), kindly caught us up on the incredible things the pandemic taught their organisation about their people, their channels, and their future.
Here’s what Mark kindly shared with us...
What did the pandemic teach your organisation about itself?
What I learned personally from this experiences is that these type of challenges people deal with in different ways and some people on our staff, particularly those that were very project and goal-oriented, really suffered I think the most because their plans, their goals, everything's just sort of shot in the foot. Especially if you're developing a new program and education that you had just gotten off the ground and then all of a sudden it's dead in the water and you're sitting at home zooming with different peers, but there's really nothing you can do. There's no business you can conduct. That's probably where I saw the most frustration and we had, we had some people leave and we had some people with some serious breakdowns, and we had some people that decided that this was not the profession to be in, and they went on to other things. So it was a real challenge for me to see that level of stress on staff that I've never seen before.
“It was a real challenge to see that level of stress that I’ve never seen before”
What did the pandemic teach your organisation about its audience?
I think the most transformative thing that happened to us as an organization was really understanding how we could better communicate with our audience. We're not only a visual arts institution, we feature Performing Arts, literature, everything across the gamut because all of the artists that have come out of Mississippi, that have made significant contributions. The first African American opera singer in the Metropolitan Opera, in the world was from Laurel, Mississippi. And of course, you got the Morgan Freeman's and the Elvis Presley's and the Robert Johnson's and all of these great, iconic, musicians and authors. So we have a lot of events, or what we called ‘lectures’ prior to the pandemic. Yesterday we had a great Brown Bag concert with an emerging musician here in Mississippi. They’re beginning to get back to normal attendance levels. So when we shut down in covid we had to figure out how to retool do performances. So, this wonderful tool, Zoom, and all the other platforms like sling software that lets you broadcast on multiple channels simultaneously - Facebook, YouTube, and on your own website. I guess if there was a silver lining to this, that's where we began to connect more with people - through the digital media and the streaming. We give ourselves a real kick in the pants every time we think of the 18 months of programming that we did, that we weren't either recording or streaming because we had great musicians and speakers performing here. They spoke and we didn't record them or stream it. So for instance, whenever a particular author came to speak, like John Grisham, or someone of that nature, we might be able to fit a hundred people in the room where he's going to speak and it's an honor to be there, but we could have shared that with thousands and thousands of people if we had been streaming it. That is something that's never going to leave our toolbox. We now stream everything, practically everything, even that little Brown Bag concert yesterday. We had at tops about 25 people there because it was freezing, and we usually have a lot more than that, but online I saw that the stream was seen by at least 400 people.
“ I guess if there was a silver lining to this, that's where we began to connect more with people - through the digital media and the streaming”
What's the most important lockdown lesson your organisation learned that will serve you into 2022 and beyond?
You never know what you're doing until you stop doing it - and during the pandemic we stopped doing everything. We were talking about this in our finance committee meeting the other day, because they were asking us how we get back to our income levels and earned income and class revenues to support our mission. We said we're just gradually going to build back, block by block, the things that we think are the most central to our mission, the ones that are supported either by grant support or strong revenue stream, from income of admissions, or participation fees, or whatever. And I don't know that every organization should do that, but I think we're more cognizant of that than we ever have been. We managed not to lay off any employees through the first PPP loan that we received. That lasted for six months. We entered into the second PPP loan and they weren't as stringent upon letting people go. We still maintained a lot of people until we started seeing resurgence of the second wave, then we said we're going back into this again. So we had to lay a lot of people off, which was very painful because we have a tight team here and I think that one of our key learnings now is that we're going to be very careful. We've seen the dark side of what can happen to a non-profit, whenever a pandemic or a recession, or a severe recession hits. For our sector it was like a severe recession - we had a product that we couldn't sell and we couldn't make. If you were making toilet paper it was a boon for you. But for museums, we were shut down. So we're very cautious now. I don't think that we're less ambitious, but we're a lot more frugal and careful than I think we would have been before the pandemic.
“So we're very cautious now. I don't think that we're less ambitious, but we're a lot more frugal and careful than I think we would have been before the pandemic”