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Meet the Staff: Mary Gray

Meet the Staff: Mary Gray

The Ohio Arts Council's Riffe Gallery opened its doors in 1989, displaying diverse and engaging Ohio-centered exhibitions, from contemporary furniture design, to Amish life and culture. A true collaborator, facilitator, and behind-the-scenes maverick, Mary Gray has organized 90 exhibitions and 25 lobby exhibitions as gallery director. If you're an artist, arts administrator, or art enthusiast in Ohio, you've probably encountered the unstoppable Mary Gray. A dynamite actress, the ultimate Ohio art collector, a *cough* Wolverine *cough*--meet the OAC's Riffe Gallery Director, Mary Gray:

 Q: You have a particular fondness for the color blue. What was it like growing up in MICHIGAN, and what brought you to the Buckeye State?

Yes, I am a Wolverine, especially on one particular day of the year.

I came to Ohio in 1983 as the first female group sales rep for Travelers Insurance Company. They pulled a trick and relocated the Wolverine (me) to Columbus, and a Buckeye to Detroit. I was even given a scarlet and gray company car. I eventually found the insurance world wasn’t the right fit for me, but it was because of my job at Travelers Insurance that led me to arts administration. An insurance agent from Bexley encouraged me to contact Players Theatre Columbus (PTC). I was cast in a couple of productions then landed a job as PTC's youth booking manager and eventually became the group sales manager.

Q: You joined the OAC in 1993 in the grants office. How did you find you way to the Ohio Arts Council’s Riffe Gallery? 
Before my time at the OAC, while on staff at PTC, I vividly recall attending a PTC fundraiser on the 3rd floor lobby of the Vern Riffe Center. While enjoying the upbeat zydeco band playing at the fundraiser, a gentleman by the name of Wayne Lawson, the OAC executive director at the time, asked me to dance. I ended up working at the Ohio Arts Council a couple of years later, and those who really know me, can vouch for the fact that it wasn't because of my dancing skills! It is one invitation I am surely glad I didn't pass up. 

A friend who was moving into another position at the OAC, directed me to the opening within the grants office, and I was hired. 

Fortunately, Wayne didn’t just remember my dancing skills. About eight or nine months into my time in the grants office, Beth Fischer, a former OAC public information director, forwarded me the posting for the first full time position in the gallery. They took a leap of faith and hired me.

I had a learning curve working within the visual arts, but I guess they saw something in me.

Q: You’re passionate about the arts--particularly theatre. How did your passion for the arts come to life? 
I grew up one of seven. Some of my earliest memories were putting on little shows for my family. During dinner, I would sometimes disappear (it was fairly easy not to be missed among nine at the table), put on costumes, sing, and perform skits for my family. I also put on little puppet shows for neighbor kids using an opened piano bench for the stage. 

In junior high, we didn’t have any formal theatre, but I really enjoyed reciting during English classes. My first production was Showboat as a freshman at Divine Child in Dearborn, Michigan—that’s when the theatre bug bit me. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the first of four high schools I would attend. Getting involved in drama club and plays became a great way to meet other students. By the time I graduated, I had several shows under my belt, and my school extracurricular became a full blown passion. Much to my father’s chagrin, though he only shared it with my mother, I decided to pursue theatre and performance at the University of Michigan. 

The theatre has been very good to me--the top reason being I met my husband Dan through PTC where he was the resident theatre designer. Now he’s the resident scenic designer at The Ohio State University. Yes, we are a house divided. We just celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary with a trip to Italy.          

Q: What first drew you to the visual arts?
Growing up in a very large family, it was expensive to entertain a brood of nine. We used to go to auctions, my dad collected antique and my mom had a great eye for furniture and decorative arts, so my appreciation was born fairly early. I remember two places my parents loved to take us, maybe in part because they were free.The first was the Eastern Market where we would buy large quantities of fresh produce, and on occasion a live rabbit or chick, and after, my mom and dad would take us to the Detroit Institute of Art. I have terrific memories walking through the DIA seeing the Diego Rivera murals and a charming brass donkey sculpture we were even allowed to touch. My husband Dan and I became members of the DIA this year as a sort of thank you for kicking off my love of the visual arts. 

Q: You’ve seen through 90 of the total 109 Riffe Gallery exhibitions. Can you give us a glimpse into the process of producing an exhibition?

As one might guess, there are many, many moving parts to producing an exhibition. From curators to artists to advertising to preparators—there are a myriad of pieces that need to be put together to open an exhibition.

To give you a general idea of our process, first, an exhibition idea is born; perhaps it’s generated from the Riffe Gallery or another organization. My colleague Ken Emerick is very helpful in this area. Then we identify a curator who would fit the idea or theme. Every exhibition we produce is curated by a different Ohioan who is an expert within their respective field. From there, we collaborate with the curator throughout the process, and the curator ultimately creates a checklist of artists. At this point, we begin to market the exhibition, create print materials, organize artwork shipping logistics, coordinate with artists (with as many as 60 per show), and much, much more. Once a show is open, we respond to visitors’ needs and provide information about the exhibition and artists. I also oversee the operation of the facility on a daily basis.

We schedule exhibitions about two years in advance, and there’s always work being done on many exhibitions in various stages—it’s a real juggling act!

In addition to the exhibitions, we organize events including a curator’s tour, family activity, and writing or poetry workshop. We’re also in the process of developing other opportunities such as an open figure drawing class during our next exhibition Go Figure.

Q: You and your husband Dan are avid art collectors. What advice can you give someone seeking to begin a collection?

If you can afford to buy a Starbucks coffee every day, you can afford to start a collection.

You can find terrific work for as little as $10, if you keep your eyes open. When Dan and I first started out, we bought what we could afford, it wasn't all great, but it was fun! Since we never had children, it was/is like bringing new family members home. We focus primarily on Ohio artists, a number from the central Ohio community because it’s enjoyable to know the artists or gallery owners from whom we are buying art. I also suggest to people, buy what you like. We don’t buy art with the intention of ever reselling. We hope our nieces and nephews will appreciate what we have to offer when we’re gone.

Q: What can we expect next in the Riffe Gallery? Any teasers? Our next exhibition is called Go Figure and is curated by Ohio University Dean Emeritus Charles McWeeny. He assembled 13 Ohio artists who all work with the human figure.

Something I’m personally excited about is the free open figure drawing offered every Wednesday in conjunction with Go Figure. This is the first time we’ve done something like this, and we hope it draws the experienced and inexperienced alike.

You’ll have to come to gallery to find out if the figure models are wearing clothes…

Finish these:
One of my proudest moments…Facing a lifelong fear of open heights by zip lining in the Hocking Hills. 
I can't live without…My family, including my four children, and friends. Basically, people.
Most people don’t know…I’m an introvert. 
My silliest moment…There are too many to recount, and quite frankly, I hope they don't stop until I am dead. 
The best advice I have ever received…Don't give (fill in the blank) free rent in your head. 
To me, the arts in Ohio are…a lifeline. 

Comments for Mary (other than her love for that place up north)? Email her at  

The Ohio Arts Council is a state agency that funds and supports quality arts experiences to strengthen Ohio communities culturally, educationally, and economically. Connect with the OAC on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or visit our website at


Article by Molly Rutledge, PIO Intern

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