The Tennessee Valley Art Association is a local organization that serves to accommodate all types of creatives in our area. In recent years, TVAA has been especially dedicated to creating art education programs for the local youth. Throughout the year, TVAA hosts several programs for various artistic mediums, from theater to visual art, written word, and film. TVAA originated in the Tennessee Valley Museum of Art in downtown Tuscumbia. Nowadays, in addition to being based in the museum, the association also owns and operates programs out of the historic Ritz theater in downtown Sheffield, as well as several of the buildings surrounding it.
Upon arriving at the Tennessee Valley Art Museum one rainy afternoon, I was lucky enough to be able to speak with executive director, Mary Seattle Cooney, right off the bat. According to Cooney, there are no slow seasons for TVAA. Whether showcasing a new exhibit in one of the museum’s galleries, offering vocal and acting lessons to area teens over at the Ritz, or brainstorming ways in which to engage local writers, there is always something new and different going on. It is clear from speaking to Cooney that the association truly acknowledges the interconnectedness of all subjects, especially when it comes to the arts.
According to Cooney, before The Tennessee Valley Art Association purchased the picturesque Ritz Theater in downtown Sheffield, local thespians had been gathering in the TVAA Museum located in downtown Tuscumbia once a week for what they affectionately dubbed “Theater on the Floor in the Corner.” As the theater program outgrew the gallery, board members began looking for a new location, where they could have the space these programs needed to expand.
Theater on the Floor in the Corner wasn’t the only group that originated at the TVAA museum site. Cooney claims that what began as string instrument lessons for children and adults in 1978 eventually became The Shoals Symphony Orchestra in 1986, with which the University of North Alabama Orchestra ultimately worked. It was during times such as these when Cooney and her associates at TVAA witnessed firsthand the desire of artists from our area to have more programs to educate and assist them artists in their various endeavors.
Nowadays TVAA is placing a special emphasis on students when creating programs. In addition to the four major shows a year TVAA puts on, they also offer a school of performing arts for 9-12th grade students. The program was originally developed for students attending local schools that didn’t have adequate theater programs at the time. Today, many of these schools have brought on their own theater arts programs. Therefore, the Ritz School of Performing Arts is now instead geared towards the carefully selected elite from each respective school. The program spans several counties. Lauderdale, Lawrence, Franklin and Colbert County school systems all have students involved. After auditioning and being selected for the program, individual vocal, acting and choreography instruction is offered to these students by professional instructors.
Summerstock is another youth-driven TVAA organized program. This annual production is a musical theater performance opportunity for people between the ages of 16 and 28. Summerstock was organized in 2009 and aims to prepare local students who plan to pursue theater seriously after high school. It is one of the largest productions TVAA organizes annually, with the largest budget. Summerstock even provides scholarships for students to study to produce a major play. In previous years, productions of Fiddler on the Roof, Guys and Dolls, and Les Miserables have been well received within the community.
During the two-month preparation for the show, students are given individual vocal, acting and choreography instruction in addition to rehearsals with the rest of the cast. An acting coach works with the students on characterization to ensure that they understand the history of their roles and are able to consider the mannerisms and motivations their characters might have had. Before the show, gallery talks are held in the beautifully refurbished building space adjacent to the Ritz. During these discussions, attendees are able to ask open questions about the show to the actors and director.
TVAA’s involvement in the arts doesn’t end with theater. In fact, it is only the beginning of the programs they offer. Back over in Sheffield at the museum, there are regularly alternating exhibits of both local art and pieces from around the world, according to Cooney.
“We display local art that is very unique, but also try to bring in art from outside the area in order to expose the community to what the rest of the world is doing, art-wise.”
Each year the museum hosts a member show as well, in which TVAA member art is showcased in the museum’s galleries for six weeks, and open to the public. Becoming a member is only $10 for students, and the benefits are seemingly endless. I actually impulsively joined that same day. It wasn’t difficult for me to join or for them to persuade me.
In addition, the TVAA museum also organizes an outreach art program for local schools. For this program, two volunteer teachers go into elementary, middle and high schools and work on an art project with the students. The only obligation is that the school allows the museum to keep the final product, and to install it in the museum as an exhibit. The students then take a field trip to the museum to see their art under the lights and labeled as it would be in a high quality art show. While the students are at the museum to view their own work, they are also exposed to the other exhibits going on at that time. Seeing their work on display in such a setting undoubtedly inspires children, and perhaps even affects their perception of themselves as an artist for a lifetime.
Creating need-based artistic opportunities is what TVAA has been doing best for decades now. In addition to the aforementioned programs for theater and visual arts, TVAA is slated to be involved in upcoming film event, South Arts, as well as working on developing a symposium for young writers in the area. It is easy to see why they have been so successful when you hear the passion in Mary Cooney’s voice.
“The arts do so much for youth. Composure, the ability to speak in front of groups. What would we do without our artists? When you are with like-minded people, and when the students realize that there are other people who think like they do, magic happens here.”