Darla Miller, the owner of Gary’s Gallery — a feature of downtown Bismarck for nearly 40 years — is planning to retire at the end of the year.
Her husband Gary, who died 10 years ago Monday, was the artist the gallery was named for. She worked the business side, starting the gallery and cultivating customers.
Darla Miller decided to start the gallery in 1974, after it became too hard to entertain customers at their in-home studio in Mandan while raising five young children.
At the time, Gary Miller was working at the refinery in Mandan, now owned by Tesoro.
In order to start up her gallery idea, Darla Miller needed money. So she went to the bank and asked for $75,000.
The bank was skeptical, she said, but once their two cars and new organ — their kids took lessons — were offered up as collateral, the bank acquiesced.
Gary Miller wasn’t quite as optimistic as his wife was that the gallery would take off.
“He said, ‘Well, we won’t be driving and the kids won’t be playing the organ,’” Darla Miller said of her husband’s reaction. “We were both terrified.”
By 1975, they were making enough money for Gary Miller to quit his job to become a full-time artist.
They opened a second gallery in Scottsdale, Ariz., in 1984, which they operated until 1997.
Gary Miller worked mainly by commission, his wife said. One of his early works, from 1973, of the Grassy Butte post office, hangs in the Capitol building in Bismarck. Seeing that work led some people to seek out the Millers at their Mandan home.
As an artist, Gary Miller is best known for his paintings of rural America, capturing rural living in all its scenic, and sometimes broken-down, glory.
As he became more and more successful, he inspired other artists. Barb Nechiporenko, a local artist and former board member of the Bismarck Arts and Galleries Association, said he showed her the North Dakota prairie was worth painting.
“He was the only artist I knew in North Dakota who was actually making a living,” she said. “So that was inspiring.”
Darla and Gary Miller met as classmates at Bismarck High School — the rare success story of high school sweethearts who marry after graduation.
He was her brother’s best friend and her brother was less than pleased when they first started dating.
He was talented even then, Darla Miller said. Although, someone would never know it by talking to him.
“Gary was a very humble person and never said he was good. But he always amazed me,” she said.
Gary’s Gallery is located on Broadway Avenue between Third and Fourth streets — prime downtown real estate.
Now that she’s decided to retire, Darla Miller has to figure out what to do with the gallery.
Ideally, she said, she’d pass it along to someone who’s interested in keeping it open in some capacity. Whether that will happen remains to be seen.
Her kids have their own lives, she said, and, with the exception of one, live out of town.
The one who lives around here, Keenan, is too busy as a contractor, but does what he can to help out with the gallery.
He wants what is best for his mother, but is disappointed by the possibility the gallery might close.
“I always figured, by far, (Gary Miller) was kind of North Dakota’s greatest artist,” he said.
No matter what, Keenan Miller plans to keep his father’s legacy alive.
Gary Miller has remained consistently popular since he became a full-time artist, Darla Miller said. Prints of his work are sold in many places across the state and she’s continued running the gallery full-time since his death.
At 77, she feels it’s time to move on.
“I have a lot of other things I want to do with my life,” she said.
Even though she doesn’t know what will happen with the gallery quite yet, she knows his art will remain popular. It speaks to people, she said.
“There was a reason for everything he painted,” she said.