Five questions for a gallery director: an interview with Mary Gray

Mary Gray is the Director of the Ohio Arts Council’s Riffe Gallery. The gallery was established in 1989, and Mary became director just four years later. The gallery is a beautiful venue in the heart of downtown Columbus, and showcases the work of Ohio’s artists and the collections of the state’s museums and galleries. Mary started her career in the performing arts with Players Theatre Columbus before joining the Ohio Arts Council. She is also an art collector, and often recruited to serve as a competitive show juror. Thank you Mary, for sharing your rich experience as my interviewee!

What do you enjoy most about your work as a gallerist?  There is a lot of give and take between an artist/curator, and someone in my position, and it always works best when both parties gain from the process. I am a richer person because of the scores of talented, generous people I have had, and continue to have, the pleasure of working with over the many years. It is gratifying to provide what I hope are professional, and enjoyable experiences working with the OAC’s Riffe Gallery.

Your experience makes you uniquely qualified to offer advice. What is the most critical “do” and “don’t” for an emerging artist?  My first recommendation to an emerging artist is connect, connect, connect. Attend openings, join the Ohio Art League, scout out exhibition opportunities which may include non-traditional venues such as restaurants, businesses, or coffee shops, enter juried exhibitions, introduce yourself, and your work to galleries (make an appointment, please!). I can’t over emphasize the importance of connecting with other artists, arts organizations, curators, etc. If we don’t know you and your work, we won’t know you and your work. As for don’ts, well, a big one for me is meeting deadlines, and providing what is requested. Examples, submit a loan agreement when it is due, provide images that are the needed size, if an artist statement is requested, take it seriously, and have someone else read it before you turn it in, or ask for assistance writing one. Finally, you don’t want to be remembered as a pain in the butt artist, as poor behavior could influence future opportunities. Enough said about that.

Who is your favorite artist (alive or dead)?  Hmmm, favorite artist… Honestly, I cannot say because there are entirely too many artists that I admire. I enjoy most art forms, theatre, dance, music, and of course the visual arts, and within each form, there are many artists I hold in high esteem. Right now I am listening to Arvo Part, a composer that puts me in the most peaceful, relaxed mood, I adore him! Ok, at the end of the day, my husband is my favorite artist. Dan is an incredibly talented scenic designer, and not only does he make “pretty pictures” on stage, he is a terrific problem solver, wonderfully creative, and very analytical at the same time.

As a collector, you shared with me that you often do studio visits. Would you tell us a little about what you learn from them, and how an artist can prepare for one?  My husband and I enjoy collecting work mostly created by Ohio artists, and in most cases, by artists whom we have gotten know through gallery visits, or studio visits though I have done more studio visits related to my gallery work. I really enjoy having the opportunity to see an artist in his or her work environment, and sometimes the space is surprising given the type of work the artist makes. I will always treasure the memories of seeing Aminah Robinson’s home studio. Many of her pieces were enormous yet she worked in very confined quarters, almost unimaginable how she was able to complete some of her Rag-a-non masterpieces that were several feet long. Another studio that I will never tire of visiting is that of textile artist/quilter Nancy Crow. The physical space is a knock- out – extraordinarily stimulating. What I have learned is that a serious artist can set up shop just about anywhere from the most humble space to the most grand, and produce the same high quality work.

Ohio Arts Council's Riffe Gallery, Columbus, Ohio
Riffe Gallery, Columbus, Ohio

You have the most beautiful voice. What is your favorite role to perform in musical theater?  I suppose most of us have some gift or talent, and I have always enjoyed vocal work, spoken word and singing. When I was a senior at Edsel Ford High School in Dearborn, Michigan, I played the lead role in the musical “Mame.” As I “mature,” I have often thought how much I would enjoy having the opportunity to perform the role as an age appropriate actress. It’s always fun to daydream!

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