Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Voice for the Arts - Dr. Mary Ann Culotta

Samford Art Education professor Dr. Mary Ann Culotta has made a positive impact locally, across the state of Alabama, and beyond in her career as a passionate advocate for arts education.

She started out as a fine art major at Samford specializing in painting/printmaking. During her senior year, her "wise advisor" counseled her toward teaching certification. She student taught at Brookwood Forest Elementary in Mountain Brook and Berry High School in Hoover and, in her words, "fell in love with teaching."

She began her career teaching art at Berry and moved into more and more influential administrative positions, eventually becoming director of all arts education for Jefferson County. In this position, she worked to overcome the lack of arts education in many Alabama schools. "I would meet with students in these schools, and they would show me sketchbooks filled with beautiful artwork, but their school did not have an art teacher, so they did not have anyone to show them how to develop their talent.”

She knew of Howard Gardner of Harvard and his theory of multiple intelligences, which proposes that there are many different learning strengths that humans can have, such as visual-spatial and musical, and she felt that children with these strengths were underserved by schools with no art programs to help them learn in the way most natural for them. Other studies have demonstrated that arts programs in schools can help improve test scores and self esteem and correct behavior problems, so Dr. Culotta made it her mission to give all students more access to arts education.

She succeeded in placing a music teacher in every school in Jefferson County. She and her art supervisor Jan Stephens pioneered a program called "Start With Art" in partnership with the Birmingham Museum of Art. In this program students are exposed to art from the museum's collection related to other subjects they are studying, such as a certain period in history. This relating of art to the students' broader educational experience has been shown to help their learning, and the program has become a model for similar programs in other states.

Dr. Culotta also succeeded in getting the state to pass legislation making arts study a requirement for high school graduation in Alabama and helped institute the Academies of Visual Art and Theatre at Shades Valley High School, which any student in Jefferson County can attend if accepted. The theatre academy is one of the top ten in the nation and its director, Roy Hudson, was 2008 Alabama Teacher of the Year.

As Art and Design Examiner for the International Baccalaureate Organization, Dr. Culotta evaluates journals and art works of students in schools throughout the Southeast and sends the scores to the organization's headquarters in Cardiff, Wales.

Dr. Culotta is also an arts advisor for Shelby County Arts Council and serves on the boards of Space One Eleven Art Gallery, Birmingham Children's Choir, and the Virginia Samford Theatre. At the Virginia Samford she helped launch the STARS (Students Take A Role at the Samford) program, which offers theatre classes to students from any area. Also under Roy Hudson's supervision, the students put on their own productions at the Samford, such as their recent productions of Jeckyll & Hyde and Les Miserables.

Dr. Culotta is the recipient of numerous awards for her work: Educator of the Year from the National Arts Education Association, Administrator of the Year from the Alabama Music Education Association, the Governor's Award for her achievements as a leader in the arts, and Proclamations from County Commissioners for the Jefferson County Music Festivals. "The first two awards are meaningful to me because they are from my peers," she says, "and the second two because they are from the community and help bring attention to the arts."

On a personal note, Dr. Culotta continues to create works of art using eclectic media, and some of her pieces can be seen at Jennifer Harwell Gallery in Birmingham. "Being an art teacher caused me to have to become an 'expert' in many media, and that influenced my work. I now consider myself a mixed-media artist rather than just a painter," she says. A current project involves painting on Victorian ceiling tiles she finds at antique and flea markets.

Her loves also include travel and cooking. "Travel gives you another perspective - it becomes part of you and melds into everything you do." She enjoys visits to national parks, galleries, and museums on her travels, calling them "spiritual experiences that open you to the bigger picture in life." Her love of cooking started during her time as an administrator, when her professional work didn't allow for much hands-on creativity. "Coming from an Italian family, I already had cooking in my blood, and during that time of my life, it gave me a creative outlet that I missed from when I was teaching and painting," she says. She is now a gourmet cook who invents her own recipes and uses her aesthetic sense to create artful presentation of the cuisine.

Now retired from her administrative duties for the county, Dr. Culotta is glad to be teaching classes at Samford, where she was first inspired to be an educator. "Samford stands apart because the teachers really care. A spirit of service prevails here that made me want to give back as well through teaching," she says.

View more photos of Dr. Culotta and her art on Flickr.


  1. As a former colleague, friend, and Samford alum, I am really happy to see Dr. Culotta get the recognition she deserves. What a great champion of the arts and strong supported of art educators.

  2. Of course I meant "supporter" of "arts" educators!

  3. Does anyone have contact information for Dr. Culotta? I would like to invite her to a reunion. Thanks.