Miller Gallery, in the middle of the block on Erie Avenue

When old friends meet after a hiatus, there is little preamble before lapsing into friendly chat. This was the case a few weeks ago between AEQAI editor Daniel Brown, and Miller Gallery’s Laura Miller Gleason and husband, Gary Gleason. The two now run the 50-year-old gallery in Hyde Park Square. Laura’s parents are both deceased. Norman Miller died in 2000, and his wife and founder of the gallery, Barbara Miller, died in 2009. They left an approximately 2000 square foot space where friendly accessibility to visual art by local, national and international artists working in all mediums is the byword.

Gary Gleason, Laura Miller Gleason and Dexter

In an ÆQAI article in June of 2010 (, Daniel Brown wrote: “I grew up in Paddock Hills, a neighborhood hidden on a hill midway between North Avondale and Bond Hill. Leafy cul-de-sac streets made the neighborhood ideal for young families; mine lived in two different houses there. On the first street, Perth Lane, Norman Miller’s parents had sold their house to their newlywed son, Norman, and his Kansas City-born, CCM graduate wife, Barbara Milgram. Their house was three doors from ours; I really knew them my entire life. Their two children Alan and Laura were born there.” Brown turns to Laura, “You were on our Halloween route.”

Laura smiles, “From the very beginning, my mother went out into the community and found both two-dimensional artists and craftspeople who at that point were not included in the gallery world and mixed them together in our basement, and in 1960 we had ‘The Cellar Door’. Then some neighbors complained, because there was quite a bit of traffic, and so she was given, rent-free, the basement of a furniture store, Frederick Coffman Interiors, and that’s where we showed different artists. At that time it was a mixture of local/regional work including artists from the Clovernook School for the Blind, as well as craft artists such as Dominick Labino (glass); Alice Balterman (decoupage); and Hannah Rauh (enamels). Mom and Dad would travel to Toledo, Columbus and Indianapolis and would invite regional artists to the gallery. We also spent three to four weeks in Truro near Provincetown on Cape Cod; my parents met and developed lifelong friendships with artists there. Wherever they travelled, they would find artists. The business grew.”

Barbara Milgrim, having lost both her parents in Kansas City, at age 16½ moved to Cincinnati to live with her aunt and uncle (Marilyn and Sam Glueck). She was accepted to the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and became an accomplished pianist, teaching off and on throughout her life. The Gluecks later moved to Chicago, where Sam Glueck was successful in the advertising world. Norman Miller was from the Miller Dairy family. Both had a love of art.

“Mom started The Cellar Door when I started nursery school at Arlitt at UC in 1960,” says Laura “We opened in Hyde Park when I was nine, in the mid sixties.”

“When my father sold the dairy,” she continues, “he sold real estate for a year and didn’t enjoy it. I remember their opening the gallery on Hyde Park Square (on Edwards Road next to Decker’s Drug Store) on a Thanksgiving, because we had Thanksgiving dinner at White Castle; we had been typing cards on the dining room table. We went in, and our next-door neighbors were there, and they came over afterwards and helped us. We opened the gallery the next day, in 1966.” The first four years Barbara Miller ran the gallery with Norman Miller helping behind the scenes. “We also opened Miller Framing in the basement of that space, and Mom acquired another framing company downtown, Oren Framing across from Arnolds, and framing became a big part of Miller’s business. At the same time we were having art classes in the basement, and people were coming and doing life models. Artists were invited to teach drawing and painting.”

Reflecting on both the Carl Solway Gallery and the Miller Gallery turning 50 recently, Brown says, “It occurs to me how different these galleries are, and of course this city is big enough to enjoy different kinds of art.” Gary observes that for the size of Cincinnati, there is a huge amount of art. Brown thinks it is because we have so many art schools or university departments of art.

“Part of what drew people into that gallery was the Miller’s warmth,” notes Brown. “Today people spend huge sums on ‘branding’. You all were the original thing, and that’s part of the continuity from your parents to the two of you, the same welcoming atmosphere. He asks when the Millers started getting involved with the community, and Laura responds, “I can’t remember when they weren’t. My mother worked with Clovernook and did speech and hearing; Dad read for the blind; then people would come to us and make requests, so there has been a history of benefit work.”

“In my teens I used to go to Columbus, Chicago and New York in the station wagon and pick up artwork,” laughs Laura. She remembers moving to Hyde Park in the fall of 1968 when she started school at Miss Doherty’s. The Millers had not been in that house for a year, when Laura’s brother died of Leukemia.

Brown asks if Laura saw her mother as a pioneer. “Oh, absolutely,” she answers. “It was unusual for women to be taking on this kind of business role in the 50s and 60s.” The 60s brought along the Women’s Liberation movement, but in 1960, the roles for women outside the home were still pretty limited. Brown says he remembers walking into the gallery and having Barbara Miller say that in the end she thought she was nothing but another Jewish princess. Brown’s response was “Nothing could be further from the truth. You have been a pioneer and a truly great lady.” Laura Miller laughs, “She was very humble.” When Brown suggests that perhaps Barbara Miller didn’t like being in the limelight, Laura, responds, “She did and she didn’t.”

Gary adds that this is an excellent point. “Barbara’s life revolved around the gallery. Outside the gallery, she was often uncomfortable. But if she was doing gallery business, going to the museum, going to the symphony, she felt like she was still working.” Adds Laura, “She love to cook and read. At night, she refused to go back to the gallery. Sometimes, Dad would go back. She was the businesswoman. My father was the eyeballs and the creative one. He had the vision; she got it done. He could not listen to an insurance person talk for more than four minutes without passing out. He was known to leave the side of a CEO of a major corporation, because a dog walked by outside, and he wanted to make sure it had a collar on it. He was all over the place.”

Gary says, “Once I walked into the gallery, and Norman was talking to a client, and all of a sudden there was a dog, and Norman just got down on his hands and knees and played with the dog.” For months after Norman died, Laura says she got letters that said things like, “I’d be skating on the square after school, and he would stop and talk to me.” Or, “I came in once, and I was nervous, and your parents asked me what I liked and walked around with me and explained the art.”

“There were so many letters from strangers who took the time to write about their childhood experience coming into the gallery and being given cookies and playing with the dog.” With her mother fielding the business side of the gallery, Laura says her father was very visually talented. “He was particular about the way the gallery looked, and if a painting was out on approval, he might rehang an entire wall.

“Of all things,” she says, “that’s what we’ve tried to continue – that unpretentious pure enjoyment of what we do. We want people to catch that. We go into galleries in other towns, and you can hear a pin drop. There’s a super-model filing her nails and on the telephone, and we look at our gallery, and stuff is everywhere, but stuff is happening. It’s busy.”

Brown talks about a story he wrote for Cincinnati Magazine back in the 70s or 80s. Laura Pulfer, then Editor, wanted him to find out what experiences people had in different art galleries. He asked seven people of differing looks and backgrounds to go to seven galleries, including Miller, with the question: “I have a hundred dollars to spend, a gift for a friend. I know this person likes art, and I know I can’t get a lot for the money. Can you help me?” In subsequent ranking, Brown says to the Gleasons, “You came in first by far, which isn’t surprising.”

Brown mentions that when West Fourth Street was developing, the Millers called him for advice about the idea of clustering the galleries. He said, “Don’t do it. Don’t go. What do you have to gain? I felt very strongly about it.” Affirming that, Laura says, “The thing that always kept them from moving downtown and us from changing, was simply because we were successful. It’s reinforced for us that we don’t have to change who we are. Of course the gallery has changed now from what it was ten years ago. Gary’s and my visions have slowly changed it, but there are certain things that stay the same, and we’re proud of that.”

Brown goes on to cite a time when the Fourth Street Galleries and the Contemporary Arts Center were being defined as “contemporary art” and The Miller Gallery was not. The sense of the divide concerns him as an art person – curator, writer, dealer. “Contemporary art was defined as a certain edgy thing,” he says. Laura adds that that perception was countrywide and still persists. “I’m confused,” she says, “because we had a respected and well-attended contemporary realism show in the fall. Why are those people not included in the perception of contemporary art?” Gary says, “It goes back to what a few galleries in New York sell, and that filters down.”

Gary continues, “The hard part is that we are a very difficult gallery to pinpoint; it’s eclectic. Norm was like that; and we’re like that. We have an impressionist show; then we have a couple of young artists coming up; we have Dan Greene; and then we have a photographer in October who’s off the wall named Tyler Shields. He’s from LA and has a show going on right now in London. He’s a director, doing a movie this summer in Canada. He’s like Annie Liebovitz on crack. He does young college people.” He mentions that Annie Liebovitz wanted to do a show with them when they asked, but for the next two years she’s not doing any gallery sale shows in the United States due to legal problems. “We also tried very hard to get Mapplethorpe,” says Gary. They both add that his work encompasses so much more than what caused the dismissed obscenity lawsuit against the Contemporary Arts Center and Dennis Barrie in 1990. “Beautiful florals, beautiful figurative work,” says Gary.

“Most people who buy art, seem to buy from Miller Gallery,” says Brown. “I think that we are reality,” answers Laura. “We have a wide range of artists with whom we work closely and have personal relationships. Neither Gary nor I know how to sell; we’re very bad at it. We love the art world; we love representing the artists; but when people come in and ask us what we think is the best thing to buy, we just tell them, ‘It’s in here. There are 25,000 artists who aren’t here, but the fact that it’s in here means we already approve it.’ It’s then up to them. We get over a thousand artist submissions a year.” The Gleasons do not like to sell art as an investment, nor do they advise clients on that basis. Gary says that unless the client has a boatload of money, there is no way he or she should be looking at what they buy as an investment. “You can’t say it will be worth this or that amount in ten years. Furthermore when I hear the word ‘giclée’, I get hot – this whole mass print business is insane. A giclée for $1,000?” He laughs. [Giclée is a neologism originally used for prints made on IRIS printers – the term has come to mean any high quality ink-jet print.]

“All we can say” Gary adds, “is that we are eclectic. We very systematically release a few artists from the gallery each year, and we take on more.” All of the artists they represent know this is a process Miller Gallery goes through. The market gets saturated. “If the public doesn’t see new things,” says Laura, “then what are you doing? We want people who are emerging as great artists and people who have been supporting themselves from art all their lives.” Gary adds, “If Barbara Miller had a downside, it was that she was too nice. Things back then had a tendency to stay around a little too long. I realized we want to have a variety, want to have people as they start out, young artists, as well as established ones.” To be found today at Miller Gallery today is a diversity of mediums, styles, and genres.

For years, Gary ran his own family’s business, Nurre’s, the old Henry Nurre Framing Company. When the Millers decided to get out of the framing business, it switched its own framing needs to Nurre’s, and that is when Laura and Gary met. “In the beginning, before I was retired,” he says, “I would come in to Miller just to help out, but when Norm got ill and they got older, I could see there were problems, so I started coming in more and more. Laura muses, “Funny to think we, the Millers, competed with Nurre’s for a while.”

“The more I got engaged,” says Gary, “the more this business charmed me. It is the most bizarre business in the world, truly different. Then I became involved with the artists and was meeting some incredibly talented people, and one thing led to another. Initially Laura was reticent about the family business, but as we’ve progressed she’s gotten more and more involved, and it’s gotten to be a way better gallery as a result.” Laura concentrates on how the gallery “looks”, from the web site to the marketing and advertising. They plan shows together, and Gary says, “We can’t forget the incredible crew of people who help us. Rosemary Seidner, who has been there for nearly 10 years, is amazing. She’s a wonderful writer, is obsessed with art in all its forms, and is very verbal.” Laura adds that Rosemary is the soul of tact when it comes to the hundreds of artist submissions they get every year. Gary continues, “And then there is Jonathan Queen, [who does the painstaking paintings of the toys that he makes], who works with us, as does Rob Jefferson [another artist carried by Miller].” Brown wants to know how Miller gets the word out about exceptionally talented local artists. “We have lists of people we call.” Referring to Jonathan Queen, Laura says, “Artists from around the country respect him.” She takes painting lessons from him once a week and says, “I would pay just to sit and listen to him for hours.” Gary notes that Queen’s success is that he sells everything he does. However, since each piece involves meticulous work, he doesn’t have a large output.” Adds Laura, “He will spend months setting up a still life; making the dolls; making the clothes; and then staying up nights figuring the piece out.”

Brown asks if people from the museums come into the gallery. No, is the answer. “We’d love for them to, but I take a light view of that,” says Gary. “I’d like to go to museums more, but when you put on nine shows a year, work as hard as we do dealing with art 24 hours a day, it’s hard. I’m sure when museum people are not working, they too like to have a little time off.”

Brown is concerned that there appears to be little engagement between the institutions and the galleries. “You know, when a new director comes into town, there is always the obligatory interview in which he or she says how much they look forward to working with the wonderful local talent, but then they never seem to have time to do it.” Gary replies that he views his job as selling the artists that Miller represents, many of whom are well known on a national level.” He adds with a smile “However, if I were running the world, knowing how busy they are at the museums, I would suggest they should have the galleries come to them and present. That way they would get a feel for what is going on with all the galleries that are curating large amounts of art and where some very fine artists are represented.” Brown notes that this is a wonderful idea, “Recognition from a museum matters for an artist.”

Brown goes on to suggest that another possible way museums could collaborate with the local arts community is to invite guest curators to the museum to make shows out of the museum’s permanent collection. “One of the things museums don’t allow is the print person to use paintings or sculpture in a show, and vice versa. So why not use local resources to do that? It’s all free.”

Brown’s effort towards this goal is to publish an article each month in ÆQAI where an artist writes about one work in a museum’s permanent collection. “This is one way I do it, but I’m looking for bigger ways for the institutions and the art community to interact,” he says.

Brown remarks that many buyers who come into Miller are likely to do a whole house or office. “Do you know how unusual that is?” Laura says they do a lot out of town. “A Cincinnati family will build a house in Florida or Michigan, and they were comfortable with us, so we help them pick out six or seven things for their new place, then word spreads to others in many areas of the country. People also come in from out of town and seem amazed at the quality of the art and the reasonable pricing. We have a lot of different genres, but we try to keep the quality high; some of the choices are subjective, but some are not.” The Gleasons’ most recent trip: to Florida with a large cargo of artwork, in their van.

Thus continues a 50-year family tradition, conserving the illusion of being welcomed into someone’s living room while maintaining the attention to quality started by Barbara and Norman Miller.

–Cynthia Osborne Hoskin

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