With about 8,000 square feet of gallery space and a choice location in the historic Oella Mill, Mill River Gallery is being transformed into a professional venue that its directors hope will draw high-caliber artists from across the region.
By all accounts, the gallery did well as a space for emerging artists and local art cooperative members.
But the new venture, which debuts Friday, will provide a much-needed place for professional visual artists to show and sell their work, gallery directors say.
Several local visual artists have complained about the lack of professional gallery space in the area. Though Oella Mill is in Baltimore County, it's just across the Patapsco River from Ellicott City.
"There are a lot of amazing artists in Howard County who are forced to go into Baltimore City to show," said new gallery director Jennifer Scott. "That's a problem."
But she hopes the gallery will also appeal to professional artists from Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Carroll counties, as well as Baltimore City. That type of exchange could help Howard County overcome the misperception that fine arts do not thrive in the suburbs, said Scott, who was raised in Howard County.
"I think a lot of Baltimore City artists think of Howard County as being out in the boondocks," said Scott, a professional oil painter. "Howard County is great for supporting the arts. I don't feel that it's true at all that we're out in the boondocks."
Artists who want to become members of the Mill River Gallery cooperative must submit slides and have their work judged, rather than be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis, Scott said.
"The bottom line is quality -- commitment to making art," said Mary Cate Carroll, who will be assistant director of the gallery cooperative. "It's not going to be [the artist's] hobby. It's going to be their life."
xTC Carroll and Scott believe the ample space at Mill River Gallery, with its tall, white walls and airy rooms, will lure artists at first sight.
"You can't find a space like this," said Carroll, who used to have a studio in Baltimore. "If they had this space in Baltimore City or D.C., they'd be inviting New York City artists to come in."
Oella Mill owner Peter Ruff said the gallery had a modest start about six years ago, "with one artist looking for a space." The mill is now home to 50 studios for artists of all kinds, including Bill Knapp of Oella, who makes sculpture from objects such as old roller skates, surfboards and a dental tool sterilization machine.
"If it can be done, you can get it done in this building," Ruff said.
Previously, Mill River Gallery was run by the Howard County Art Guild, a nonprofit group that helps promote the arts.
Former gallery director Gina Somerlock said the transition has been amicable, boiling down to a difference in ideology. Somerlock believes the gallery will become more commercial.
During the 13 months that the 100-member guild operated the gallery, attendance rose from a handful of visitors to as many as 100 on a recent Saturday, Somerlock said. Carroll credited Somerlock for helping to raise the gallery's profile with the public and the media.
"We had a wonderful year," said Somerlock, founder and president of the art guild. "We learned a lot. We wish Jennifer and Mary the best. It's going to be a totally different scene, but that's OK."
Somerlock will continue to preside over one portion of the gallery until May, and members of the Howard County Art Guild are looking for a new home for their cooperative.
"We're sad," Somerlock said. "This Sunday when we pull out, we're going to go out to the Trolley Stop and have a beer or a glass of wine to celebrate."
Scott hopes the revamped gallery will give the arts community another reason to celebrate.
"It's an incredible space. I can imagine so many amazing shows here," Scott said. "As long as we can find the artists to come out here, I know they're going to want to stay."
Mill River Gallery will hold its first show Friday at Oella Mill, 840 Oella Ave. The opening reception for "From Observation to Creation: Eight Artists Explore the Transition" will take place from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Participating artists are to include sculptor Bill Knapp, oil painter Edward Brown and watercolor artist Joan Bevelaqua. The reception is free. Information: 410-247-1214.
Pub Date: 3/16/98