Gallery Spotlight: Mountain Valley Arts Council Showcases Northern Alabama's Wide-Ranging Creative Spirit
Creativity runs deep in northern Alabama’s Marshall County, and for over 50 years the Mountain Valley Arts Council (MVAC) has provided public venues for area painters, quilters, fabric artists, woodworkers, photographers, and musicians to share their work.
MVAC operates a thriving storefront gallery in the lakeside city of Guntersville’s retail district, and extends its reach with rotating displays in several public offices, including those of the Marshall County Commission and Probate Court, and the office of Alabama’s lieutenant governor at the State Capitol.
“Our gallery exhibits change each month and most feature multiple artists so the flexibility of our Gallery System art hanging system is a must, especially as we’re in a century-old building with old brick walls covered in concrete — nails were never an option,” says MVAC president Becky Scheinert.
In addition to the main display area, there’s a Members’ Wall where member artists can exhibit, and a Permanent Collection with art that has been donated or bought through purchase awards at Guntersville’s annual Art on the Lake festival.
“We often pair painters and photographers with area woodturners' work in an exhibit, as well as quilts, for a very rich art experience,” adds Scheinert. The group’s recurring shows include an annual Fabric Arts exhibit, an Art by Men exhibit, MVAC Members’ Favorite Art, and a November-December Holiday Art Market, each of which includes two dozen or more artists. Other exhibit themes have included art focused on fish, and the history of tattoos.
Workshops and Art Talks Build Engagement
Because encouragement of cultural arts is a key element of MVAC’s mission, the gallery hosts art workshops for adults, children, and teens. The group also offers child-oriented activities at the city’s Hydrofest boat races, programs for vulnerable teens through the local Child Advocacy Center and area missions, and creative opportunities for students at nearby Snead State Community College and retired adults seeking new artistic endeavors.
The gallery space also helps build engagement through a popular monthly series of interactive Art Talks where local artists, writers, collectors, and artisans make presentations on aspects of being an artist and attendees can ask questions, meet other artists and art fans, and enjoy the exhibits.
Prior to moving into its current gallery about three years ago, MVAC operated for 36 years from rooms in a Victorian home. “It had limited space, low foot traffic, and enough steps for Mt. Everest,” recalls Scheinert. While that did prompt the group to cultivate the public-building display spaces, it also made them feel fortunate to find their new location, a former retail store with no steps, large unbroken wall space, display windows, parking, and enough room for workshops and art talks.
Shining a Light on Quilts
An important bonus of the move was the ability to better serve the area’s very active population of quilters and fabric arts practitioners. MVAC made a concerted outreach to several quilting groups and began holding regular exhibitions in autumn of 2021. Some of these run for two months, providing a welcome alternative to weekend events where quilts, embroidery, crochet work, and other fabric art can only be shown for a couple of days at a time.
Quilt display poses some logistical challenges, which MVAC has addressed with a combination of innovative infrastructure and exhibitor coordination. Smaller, lighter quilts can be shown on stands made of PVC pipe; the Gallery System equipment can be used for fabric art display, as shown, but the MVAC also has the benefit of a purpose-built wall-mounted rod system created by area metal artist David Hammock that’s perfectly suited for larger pieces (seen in the image at the top of the page).
“The rods are long enough to hang queen-sized quilts, and have antique metal oak-leaf finials,” says Scheinert. “One finial on each can be unscrewed, so the rod can be inserted into a pocket or sleeve temporarily attached to the quilt, which we encourage exhibitors to put in place ahead of time.”
Quilts can be easily lifted onto the wall through the handiwork of an MVAC volunteer, who made a pair of poles with forked ends that simplify placement and centering. These are also handy for hanging banners at the MVAC-sponsored outdoor concert series, and Scheinert notes that they greatly reduce the need for ladders. “That’s a factor when volunteers and board members have cranky knees.”
Organization and Coordination of Activities
Like many community gallery operators, MVAC has found that a systematic approach to its work is important. The group’s board is a “working board,” says Scheinert, that takes the lead on organizing workshops, speakers, and concerts. Gallery manager Cheryl Trussell is usually on-site and handles art sales, artist contracts, bookkeeping, and other managerial tasks with the help of a two-day-per-week assistant.
“We are always on the hunt for local artists to promote; board members attend art festivals and connect with artists from contiguous counties and invite them to get our eblasts and visit the gallery,” adds Scheinert. “We set the exhibition themes or solo exhibits about a year in advance so that artists can know when to have art ready to exhibit.”
Close connection between MVAC’s leadership and its community have been essential in establishing the auxiliary display opportunities in government buildings. “My husband is an attorney who works closely with the Probate Court, so that was our in for that gallery,” explains Scheinert. “The current lieutenant governor is from our county, and his Chief of Staff reached out to us because we’re promoted in the local papers a lot. The lead contact in the County Commission's office is a fan of our concert series and reached out after seeing art in the Probate Court, which is part of the same building.”
While MVAC’s work bears fruit on a daily basis, one broad impact is that “both locals and tourists who visit Guntersville are surprised to discover how much artistic talent is in the area,” says Scheinert, who notes that artworks purchased from the exhibits have ended up in places as far-flung as San Diego, CA, and Stockholm, Sweden.