About half a mile up Oella Avenue from Ellicott City is a former textile mill building, a great hulk of a structure that grew by fits and starts earlier this century into 200,000 square feet of floor space on four rambling floors.
If Peter Ruff has his way, the building will become Maryland's newest -- and surely one of it's biggest -- artists' spaces, with three major galleries and 40 or more artists' studios.
Two galleries have already been opened at the complex -- called the Mill River Gallery -- and 27 artists are currently showing their works. Eight studios are also rented.
It's a start.
Mr. Ruff, 53, has no experience as an artist or an art gallery owner. He is part owner of a screen printing business, Alpha Graphics, that mainly prints T-shirts and sweat shirts. Several years ago he and his two partners, Brenda Stone and Lynn Deering, who were then neighbors in nearby Dickeyville, bought the former W. J. Dickey mill building.
The partners hoped to sell the building, which had been built in several stages from 1919 to 1951, to a developer for conversion to condos. "But with the recession nothing came of it," he says, "and with the real estate economy falling apart we wanted to lease it enough to get our costs covered."
The mill building is on the National Register of Historic Places, along with the rest of the community of Oella.
An interest in art led Mr. Ruff, who currently lives in Roland Park, to the idea of converting the empty third floor into a gallery and studio space. Advertisements in Art Calendar magazine brought artists eager for studio space and submissions from throughout the country for the inaugural show, which opened earlier this month.
"I selected artists from the mid-Atlantic area [for the show], with work of a quality that I wanted, and they were all thrilled," says Mr. Ruff. "We planned the opening for the day before Ellicott City's 13th annual arts festival and we had about 400 people."
In time, Mr. Ruff hopes to open another gallery on the second floor and put more studios around it, for a total of as many as 40 studios on the second and third floors.
If that works out, more of the building could be turned into artists' spaces, and the partners may add a restaurant overlooking the Patapsco River, which runs behind the building.
For now, the galleries are open to the public on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, and by appointment at other times.
"And artists can have their studios open if they wish when the gallery is open," says Mr. Ruff.
Visitors may have the opportunity to see artists at work, especially when more studios are rented. "We want to get to a critical mass," Mr. Ruff says.
The artists already there like their studio spaces, which feature many windows and high ceilings. "It's a little bit of a hike, but
well worth it," says painter Jerome Atherholt, who lives in northeast Baltimore. "The ceilings are great, and also the availability of the cool north light. And it's a nice area. I've always liked Ellicott City."
Says Susanne Carmack, a printmaker and mixed media on paper artist from the Olney area: "I had been looking for a studio space for two years. I knew this was it the minute I saw it. I love the floor-to-ceiling windows, the high ceilings and all the wall space for work. And it's getting me into the Baltimore area in terms of showing work."
As for the gallery space, she says, "It's fabulous. I'd love to see installation artists in there."
Mr. Ruff says the artists will have a say in what art is shown. "There will be a resident artists' show at least once a year. But we also had [art consultant] Cindy Kelly out to find out what we should be doing, and she told us to make contact with as many people as possible. The Charcoal Club wants to have a show here, and Sculptors Inc. also."
Mr. Ruff hopes to have about eight shows a year.
The gallery takes less than the usual 50 percent commission for selling artists' work.
"We'll take a 15 percent commission initially, for advertising," says Mr. Ruff. "The idea is to try to get the money to the artists."
Also, to get artists -- and others -- to the Mill River Gallery. "Someone who came to the opening said this was the best-kept secret in the Baltimore-Washington area," Mr. Ruff says. Obviously, he hopes that will change.
SPACE FOR ART
What: The Mill River Gallery and Studios
Where: 840 Oella Ave., Ellicott City
When: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, and by appointment
Call: (410) 461-1577