Coming Home to The MAX

By Pam Windsor  |  Photography courtesy of The MAX

Meridian native Coleman Warner returns home to help shine a light on the Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience.

It might seem as though Coleman Warner has been preparing for the position of Director of Development at the Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience (The MAX) his entire life. His many years as a newspaper journalist, his work over the past decade at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, and even his time on the Board of Directors at The MAX has given him the perfect blend of combined experience to raise funds, build partnerships, and boost membership. The job has also brought him full circle, back to the hometown he left as a teenager.

“I love Meridian,” Coleman says. “I was born here. My mother was a theater instructor at the community college, my father was a lawyer and a politician, and I lived in Meridian until I was 13 years old.”

He moved away after his parents divorced but maintained a strong connection and still has family in Meridian. It is also where he met his wife, who at the time was a schoolteacher at the very school he attended as a young boy.

As development director, Coleman looks forward to shining a light on Meridian, and encouraging people to visit The MAX and learn more about the many talented artists, writers, and musicians with ties to Mississippi. A partial list includes iconic names like Elvis Presley, Jimmie Rodgers, William Faulkner, John Grisham, Charlie Pride, Tammy Wynette, and Oprah Winfrey. It’s surprising to see so many famous names from such a small state.

“It’s a great story to tell,” Coleman explains. “It’s diverse, it’s historic, and that appeals to the journalist side of me. The storytelling part of it, digging into the personal histories of these various artists and where they came from, what they had to overcome, how they tapped into the wider currents of the creative world, then had an impact far, far beyond Mississippi.”

Warner notes that while his work at the National World War II Museum as director of the President and CEO Emeritus Office may have involved different subject matter, the approach is still the same. At both museums, he says, the goal is to highlight history through storytelling.

“The National World War II Museum was able to tap into people and their stories from all over America and beyond, then feed those stories back to reconnect the dots of history,” Warner explains. “The mission was powerful and far-reaching, and The MAX is similar in that regard. If you think of somebody like Leontyne Price, Elvis Presley, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, George Ohr, B.B. King, and some of these other artists, their reach was, in many ways, worldwide.”

While these writers, musicians, and artists are known as legends in their chosen fields, most people don’t realize their Mississippi connection, he attests. Warner and others at The MAX are working to change that. Once travel restrictions imposed by the coronavirus begin loosening up, Warner plans to begin speaking to different groups across the state and elsewhere to let people know about The MAX and all it has to offer. He says encouraging people to commit to becoming members will be key to its long-term success. It is another takeaway from his time at the National World War II Museum.

“Their membership base there was national in scope and that proved critical over and over again, especially after Hurricane Katrina,” he says. “And I think the potential membership base for The MAX, which is currently in the building phase, can be very much national in scope. You have Mississippians who’ve moved away to other parts of the country and beyond, and you certainly have the threads of these musical and other artistic influences that reach all over the country.”

And while The MAX showcases talented Mississippians who have made their mark on arts and entertainment in the past, Coleman says the museum is also focused on the future. 

“One of the things I’m going to be asking as I go to other communities around the state is who is the most interesting emerging artist in your community? Who is big in music, visual arts, theater, or even pottery or cooking that you identify as a person that’s going to be a big deal one day if they get the right platform?”

He and others at The MAX believe they can play a critical role in inspiring young people to not only appreciate the arts but inspire them to envision themselves as artists.

“The living, breathing, important mission of The MAX is not to just celebrate historical or cultural icons,” Warner insists, “but to help identify and inspire the next generation. And that sort of forward leaning part of the mission is very exciting to me.”

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