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Artistic Gateway: Mark Miller '90
This article originally appeared in the Bentley Magazine.
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As owner of Mark Miller Gallery, located in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the alumnus is always on the hunt for emerging artists. These are promising talents who, with some exposure, could be on the way to greater fame.
“I really love to help the underdog, to give people an opportunity,” he says. “Emerging artists tend to be younger, and one of the goals of the gallery is to find the next great talent and help them along to the next stage.”
The focus of his search might be entirely different, if not for a shipping delay.
Igniting a Spark
A Finance major at Bentley, Miller left a banking career in the late 1990s and traveled abroad, intent on starting an import/export business once back in the States. In Ecuador, he met a cigar manufacturer and developed an opportunity to sell the goods, both retail and wholesale, in New York City.
When the first shipment of cigars took longer than expected to arrive, Miller cast around for other ways to use the storefront he had constructed. An artist friend suggested a display of artwork, most by artists whom Miller knew. Media coverage helped bring in customers and led to a big sale.
“I fell in love with art,” he recalls. “That first purchase caused a spark and I ended up having regular shows.”
Those early days of the gallery were in 1998. For the next decade, showing and selling art was primarily a weekend pursuit, as Miller concentrated on running his family’s real estate business, which grew to include Miller Manhattan Property Group. In 2009, his twin passions for art and community inspired Miller to turn the gallery into a more full-time venture – despite an ailing U.S. economy.
“I decided to gut, renovate and expand during this time when everything is going to hell in a sense,’” says Miller, who was a year into his tenure as president of the nonprofit Lower East Side Business Improvement District. He continues to lead the organization, which promotes economic activity and quality of life in the area.
Innovation on Display
The works in Mark Miller Gallery reflect the owner’s personal taste or what he judges to be sellable.
“Most galleries specialize in glass or oil paintings or photography,” he explains. “I actually don’t like to have a focus. I like showing whatever I feel is cool or hip or interesting.”
Often, what interests Miller is work by “creative entrepreneurs,” that is, businesses and others pursuing some kind of groundbreaking innovation. For example, an exhibition in fall 2012 showcased Plant-in City, whose interactive terrariums allow people to water, feed and otherwise care for their plants through a system of embedded sensors and wireless technology. The piece on display at Mark Miller Gallery had a sculptural colony of 65 stackable boxes, housing plants that visitors could water using their smartphone.
Over time, Miller hopes that the gallery’s unique shows will draw more weekday foot traffic to the neighborhood, where his family has had a business presence for four generations. The gallery also provides a venue for events to benefit local causes, including homeless shelters and animal rescue operations.
“I’m looking to help cause change,” he says, “either in people’s thinking or behavior, or in boosting the reputation of the neighborhood.”
The neighborhood and the gallery are kindred spirits in a fundamental way.
“The Lower East Side was once the gateway of America, where immigrants got their first opportunities,” Miller says. “I like to think I’m following in those footsteps by creating a gateway gallery, where artists can get their first shot at being noticed.”