FLORENCE — A year has allowed for plenty of growth and change for the University of North Alabama’s School of the Arts (SOTA), which celebrates its first anniversary this month.

The School of the Arts, a component of UNA’s College of Arts and Sciences, has about 600 students enrolled in eight major programs: Music, Theatre, Visual Arts, Cinematic Arts, Fashion Merchandising and Design, Interior Architecture and Design, Culinary Arts Management, and Hospitality and Event Management.

“The School of the Arts started as a vision amongst several faculty members, and there were several people who were instrumental in implementing this school,” said SOTA Executive Director Terrance Brown.

He and a host of other faculty involved in the arts began conceptualizing a “cohesive arts unit” for the university, which Brown said was “strongly endorsed” by College of Arts and Sciences Dean Carmen Burkhalter, UNA President Kenneth Kitts and Provost Ross Alexander.

After participating in a task force to develop a plan for what would become SOTA, which the board of trustees approved in December 2017, Brown and the rest of the arts faculty hit the ground running to bring it to life.

The result is a school with stronger links to the community and a more inclusive curriculum across the various programs.

“Programs do remain their own identity and their own economy, but also they find out how they can collaborate with each other to give students a more holistic approach to artistic education,” Brown explained. “That’s one of the biggest things that we’ve seen.”

For Meghan Raney, a rising senior studying vocal performance, SOTA has provided a way to connect to students in other arts programs, something she said she has particularly enjoyed.

“It’s nice for us to kind of have a more centralized arts program,” Raney said. “…We’ve never had this kind of centralized unity before. … I’ve met students from the Visual Arts and Design program that I never would’ve met if not for the School of the Arts. It’s opened up projects for all of us, too.”

Brown said SOTA’s work in the community and partnerships with local entities have helped the school broaden its horizons.

“We’ve been able to make stronger links to the community at large, and that’s something that within the arts is very important because … I consider the arts to be a preserver of culture and a protector of culture,” he said. “Also, the arts can pass on stories and history, so that’s one thing we’ve been able to increase this year.”

SOTA has partnered with some area schools, and Brown said he wants to continue the school’s work in the community in the year ahead.

“We are looking also to create more entrepreneurship links to the community in terms of artistic entrepreneurship,” he added.

Brown said SOTA is looking to establish a partnership with the city of Tuscumbia to create a makerspace. Partnerships with Marriott and Casa Holdings may also be established to provide scholarships and employment opportunities for students.

“I think the School of the Arts does open things up to the community a little more,” Raney said, adding she has seen this in the establishment of Gallery 126, SOTA’s first downtown art gallery.

The “SOTA Pop” podcast—the work of Brown, students Laney Green and Mark Gallegos, and administrative assistant Monica Collier—has also become an asset to the school. Brown said SOTA is “one of the few arts schools to have a podcast.”

Brown said SOTA has also partnered with Columbia State Community College for a matriculation agreement, which allows students in arts programs like art, theater and music to begin their education at CSCC and finish at UNA.

On Friday, Brown said SOTA will kick off an event for a new scholarship created in partnership with the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce. The scholarship will benefit students of a lower socioeconomic status who want to be involved in the arts.

“They don’t have to necessarily major in the arts, but just be a part of the arts,” Brown explained. “With that, they can get things normal scholarships don’t provide, such as if they need a new car battery, or if they need groceries one week, or their computer freezes and they need it for academic purposes—it can assist those students.”

SOTA’s inaugural I2E2 Conference will be held Sept. 20. Brown said this “equity and access” conference will address social issues and diversity in the arts.

Raney, who has been part of the SOTA office staff for almost a year, said her job has given her an opportunity to do what she loves around her school schedule. In addition, it has allowed her to see more fully how SOTA is developing.

“I kind of get to see some of the workings behind what goes on,” she said. “It’s super, super fun all the time, and it’s always an encouraging environment, and it’s always uplifting. Everyone is so kind, and I always get to learn more about what I do.”

While Raney said she was not afforded many opportunities to explore the arts in high school, she said she hopes others realize the power and influence art has in everyday life and make the effort to explore any form of art they may be passionate about.

“Whether people know it or not, the arts are connected to their lives, and the arts have affected their lives in some way, shape or form,” she said. “I’ve seen the arts change people’s lives. It definitely has brought me out of places that nothing else could, and the arts bring me more joy than anything else in the whole entire world does.

“The arts give a voice to people who are voiceless. I can’t express enough how important it is for everyone to have an opportunity to explore whatever art they want, and whatever art they’re passionate about.”

Raney said she hopes other SOTA students will enjoy the unity that has developed among UNA students in the arts.

“I hope that the students are able to realize that we’re kind of all in this together, and joining these departments is such a great opportunity,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity for exposure to all these other programs, too… but I hope the students continue to explore that unity and keep reaching out into different programs.”

—kendyl.hollingsworth@timesdaily.com or 256-740-5757

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