Gallery owner ousts director

Public feuding led up to her departure

June 27, 1999|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

The controversial director of the Mill River Gallery in historic Oella Mill is making a fiery exit under pressure from the gallery's owner and under criticism from area artists.

Gallery director Mary Cate-Carroll has drawn derision with her claims that the gallery was hers to do with as she pleases. On Friday, months after learning of her ouster, she held a "going out of business" art sale -- even though she doesn't own the gallery.

Oella Mill and Mill River Gallery owner Peter Ruff says the 8,000-square-foot gallery space will remain open -- without Mary Cate-Carroll.

"The gallery was never her business and she doesn't own the gallery; I do," says Ruff, who opened the gallery with partner Daniel Stone in 1994. "She has been told and told and told that she does not own or lease this gallery. She rents a studio in the mill and she directs the gallery in exchange for paying half the rent on her studio.

"This woman is not for this building," Ruff says.

Cate-Carroll remains unrepentant.

"The gallery is my business and it's closing," she says. "I've not been informed of a gallery to exist after me. Whether he [Ruff] rents it to someone else is his business. I don't know what his plans are."

Both parties agree that it was time for Cate-Carroll to leave the gallery, though they attribute her exit to different reasons.

When Ruff didn't renew Cate-Carroll's lease on her studio in March, "the decision was made for me," Cate-Carroll says. "I'm very happy to leave. I was there five days a week. I was putting in 72 hours a week. It was sort of fun, but I'm relieved to be gone."

Ruff is hesitant to pinpoint a reason for asking Cate-Carroll to leave the gallery, but he acknowledges "differences in personality" and says an ugly public argument in March over the gallery's intended use and function "was the last straw."

Ruff allowed Cate-Carroll to stay in her studio through Friday,the end of the show "Reality Check," which featured the works of 30 regional artists.

Cate-Carroll says she mailed 50 "going out of business sale" fliers to former customers because "it's a free country. It's my business and I'm allowed to run my business as I see fit."

Key time for gallery

The controversy over Cate-Carroll comes at a critical time for the Mill River Gallery.

When Ruff and Stone opened it five years ago, they envisioned that the huge, lofty gallery would bring in regional artists and art patrons.

Shortly thereafter, Mill River Gallery began to attract professional artists who could show and sell their work without paying the usual up-front fees and hefty commissions charged by commercial galleries in Washington and Baltimore.

But the mill's location -- nestled in the woods in Baltimore County across the Patapsco River from historic Ellicott City -- has made it difficult to attract the kind of foot traffic that allows urban galleries to thrive.

Cate-Carroll's one-year tenure as the gallery's director proved to be as controversial as her artistic reputation.

In 1983, Cate-Carroll gained national attention when her alma mater, Mary Washington College in Virginia, asked her to remove from an exhibition a painting that held a compartment containing an aborted human fetus.

Cate-Carroll's history with the gallery has been just as volatile, say other artists who have exhibited works under her direction.

The mill houses about 50 studios for professional and weekend artists of all kinds.

Ruff says the gallery runs as a sort of nonprofit art space. The gallery's overhead expenses are paid with rents collected from the artists, who each pay between $200 and $300 a month for their studio space.

Cate-Carroll paid half that amount for her small studio in return for her unpaid work as director.

Her duties as director included organizing art exhibits and seeing to day-to-day administrative duties, as well as curating exhibitions.

`A lot of friction'

Problems arose soon after Cate-Carroll took over, Ruff says.

"There was a lot of friction between her and other artists who had studios at the mill," Ruff says. "It was always her way and no other way. She claims to be the expert.

"If she were not leaving, I know of at least six artists who'd be leaving" instead, Ruff added. "It was just not working."

"The way she treats artists is bad," says Annapolis-based landscape artist Hai-ou, who participated in a group show this year. "I have been represented by several galleries and they are very polite. I mean, your art is their business. So she is a big shock for me. She makes you feel like she's the owner and she's a god."

Other artists with studios in the mill learned to steer clear of Cate-Carroll, Ruff says.

"I've had artists come to me in tears after Mary criticized their work very harshly," he says. "These are people who may work during the day and paint whenever they have free time. It's just something you don't do."

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