Riley brings new voice to AAW symposium

Some of his glass colleagues think Tom Riley has gone to the opaque side of force. .
By Dave Long

His Thomas R. Riley gallery in suburban Cleveland, Ohio has long been regarded as one of the world's best art glass spaces.

Considered one of the most knowledgeable individuals in the studio art glass field, the 76-year old Riley was educated in the medium through friendships with Harvey Littleton and Dominick Labino who founded the movement at the Toledo Museum of Art in 1962.

The last few years, however, Riley has committed heresy to some his purist friends who worship glass by slowing adding more wood art to gallery.

"No need for them to worry," said Riley with a wry smile. "I'm not abandoning the glass world. Our primary focus will always be glass.

"But as a gallery owner you need to be aware of change. Right now there is a real sense of creativity in wood. As an art medium, wood is expanding rapidly and we want to be part of that expansion. We've had the opportunity the last couple of years to selectively add great wood artists from all over the world."

Riley now represents 32 wood artists in his 4,000 square venue. He'll be showing work from approximately 20 of those artists in a gallery-like setting for the second straight year at the 27th American Association of Woodturners international symposium June 27-30 in Tampa, Florida.

He will also have a high profile individually at the symposium, being part of two panel discussions and one of three individuals offering constructive criticism at the very popular Instant Gallery critique.

"Tampa is very important for me to establish personal credibility," said Riley. "You can't fool woodturners at this level. You have to know what you're talking about or at least show you're learning to earn their respect.

"Respect and trust are not something given in life. You have to earn it. I know a lot of artists are kind of skittish about working with galleries after what has happened the last couple of years.

"But I think we've earned respect and trust representing some of the best glass artists from all over the world in the four galleries we've had in almost 40 years in the business."

Riley's remark to artists being "skittish" is in reference to the closing of Los Angeles-based delmano gallery in January of 2012 following the death of co-owner Jan Peters in December, 2011.

delmano, under owners Ray Leier and Peters, had become the greatest wood art gallery in the world, at one time representing nearly 200 makers. They helped build the careers of most of the top names in wood art field.

But the collapse of the economy and questionable business practices left delmano oweing vast amounts of money to show promoters and artists (who had not been paid for years) before it closed.

Only Riley and the William Zimmer Gallery in California have stepped into the void left by delmano representing numerous name wood artists.

"All of us in the gallery business were sadden by Jan's passing and very sorry to see delmano close," said Riley "We all know it could just have easily been us the way the economy is.

"Ray and Jan were always very good to me as owner and very sharing with their knowledge. They virtually built the wood art field.

"But their absence isn't a death blow to wood art. In fact, wood artists will probably be better served by more galleries dealing in wood. You won't see anyone being an emporium like delmano was. As good as they were, I always felt they gave up too much quality for quantity.

"As for us, we'll represent artists who compliment and blend well with glass. Individuals who have depth and focus on content in their work. One of the problems I see in wood today is just too many people focusing solely on form."

Riley is allowing artists whose work he has carried for several years to help be his guides. "When Binh Pho began to put some his spectacular wood pieces into glass, he asked me to represent him and it's been a good partnership," said Riley. "In turn, Binh has introduced me to some other wood artists. So it something we're building slowly."

Before becoming a full-time gallery owner, Riley was a physician for 30 years specializing in internal medicine. A graduate of The Ohio State University medical school, he was associated with both City Hospital in Akron, Ohio and the Cleveland Clinic. He was the chief of staff at City Hospital for 10 years.

"I took some art classes for electives as an undergraduate and fell in love with ceramics ," he said. "Ohio has such a rich history in that area with Rookwood and Weller Pottery.

"So my wife and I started collecting antique pottery in the 1960s when it was pretty cheap and built up what has turned out to be a pretty extensive collection."

While on his travels to find pottery, Riley came across some early works of Littleton and other pioneers in the art glass field.

"I became mesmerized by what Harvey and Dom were doing and we became good friends," said Riley. "They educated me in the world of art glass and helped me develop an eye for artists who has potential of being really good. It is a talent that has served me well."

Riley's growth as a collector matured with American craft movement through the 1970s and 80s. When time permitted, he and his wife traveled to craft shows and galleries across the country. He was aware there was a movement parallel to glass going in the wood field.

"I got to know lot of wood artists and watched what they were doing," he said. "Some were exceptional. But it was the glass which just fascinated me."

He found success with a small glass shop in Akron in the mid-70s. In 1986 he opened Thomas R. Riley Gallery in the developing Short North arts area of Columbus, Ohio.

In 1987 he opened a second Thomas R. Riley Gallery in the southeastern Cleveland suburbs. He retired from the medical field in the mid 90s and moved to the glass mecca of Seattle to open a third Thomas R.Riley Gallery.

He closed the Seattle location after five years and the space in Columbus in 2005.

"I'm excited about participating in the symposium in Tampa and making new friends," said Riley. "I hope we can add a different dimension to the discussions we're in and give people some food for thought."