With no formal background in art, Mary Portera of the River Gallery managed to turn her once-humble shop and gallery into a hub of growth for the arts in Chattanooga. She's hosted an exhibit every month the gallery has been open, which is swiftly approaching 25 years in August.
Portera plans on celebrating, too. She's planning a special exhibition for August featuring her daughter Mary Lynn, a clay artist who now teaches at Baylor School, and painters Ed Cook and Victoria Pearmain. The trio were the first three artists to have their work displayed in the gallery back in 1992.
It wasn't easy getting to 25 years, though. Portera credits much of her early success to Celia Marks, the original owner of local crafts gallery Plum Nelly. When Portera opened her own gallery — the first fixture in the Bluff View Art District — she mimicked some of Marks' aesthetic and style for hosting shows. She mimicked pricing, too, she said, trying to offer everything from entry-level sculptures to high-end pieces worth hundreds of dollars.
"One of Celia's goals was that a young child or new family could walk in with pocket change and walk out with something of quality. She was my mentor," Portera said. "I didn't have experience in this, and getting her stamp of approval was huge."
Marks moved away from the Chattanooga area for a decade, and when she returned, Portera said one of the first things Marks did was stop by River Gallery. She was astounded by the gallery's growth, and told Portera she had done more than Marks could have ever wanted to do.
"You can't get a better compliment than that from someone you admire," Portera said.
Portera believes the biggest part of River Gallery's success has been the diversity of its showings — clay, sculpture, crafts or paintings, you name it. Some of Portera's most notable exhibitions include a showing of preeminent 20th century artist Leonard Baskin's woodcuts and sculptures, and Frank Stella, who came and spoke for a sculpting symposium.
Portera said River Gallery placed an emphasis on sculpture for several years, before many public art installations in Chattanooga had been created.
"I would like to think we played a role in the jump in local appreciation for sculpture as a medium," she said. "It's the most approachable public art form; no one tells you how to interpret or sensitize it."
Portera's degree was in business. It was her family who encouraged her to open the gallery. They had purchased the property in 1991 without concrete plans for it, but initially, she pushed back against the idea.
"I didn't feel like I had enough knowledge initially to run a gallery," Portera said. "My background was in retail."
However, the more she considered it, the more appealing it became. When her family would travel for her husband's business, Portera said she'd frequently take her children to see the museums and art galleries in whatever city they were visiting. She and her family hoped their own gallery would help start a cultural hub like they had found in other cities.
It turned out to be a wise decision. The family opened the Bluffview Inn in 1993, followed by the River Gallery Sculpture Garden not long after, and 25 years after the gallery's opening, it's surrounded by what is known as the Bluff View Art District.
For more information about River Gallery, call 265-5033 or visit river-gallery.com.