Scott Riley travels a new route as Stellers Gallery makes a move
Scott Riley’s art van travels a thousand miles a week, as he meets with clients up and down the Southeastern coastline, but his gallery home has been the same since 1992 … until now. The venerable Stellers Gallery has relocated from San Marco Square to a space almost triple the size on Philips Highway, adjacent to Hugo’s Interiors.
The proximity to Jacksonville’s largest interior and furniture design house makes sense: two Jacksonville-born family businesses operating in the arena of the aesthetic are now accessible together. And now that Stellers occupies this eleven-thousand square-foot gallery space, it is easily one of the largest art galleries in the Southeast.
Riley is a pioneer Jacksonville gallerist and art dealer who began selling art, specifically his brother C. Ford Riley’s work, in 1985. In fact, the gallery’s name stems from an early piece by the now-internationally renowned C. Ford, titled Stellers Blue Jay. After a sale of forty-five C. Ford pieces to O’Neal Douglas, chairman and CEO of American Heritage Life Insurance Co., followed by sales to Herb Peyton, who bought art for the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club, the River Club and the Epping Forest Yacht & Country Club, Riley began selling the work of more artists and moved into the former, some would argue iconic, space on San Marco Boulevard.
Stellers currently represents over twenty artists, and the gallery houses some ten-thousand lithographs and two-thousand other pieces of art, about eighty percent of which Riley owns. He nurtured well-known regional artists including Jim Draper, Steve Williams, Henry von Genk, and Dennis Campay at the birth of their careers, and has donated hundreds of pieces to charitable causes in the Jacksonville community over the last twenty-five years.
Riley’s family has a history of artists. His late mother, Maureen Riley, was a painter who founded a group of prominent Jacksonville female artists called the Artist Five. His brother, Paul Riley, is a successful local folk artist who regularly exhibits at the Riverside Arts Market and prestigious art festivals.
While Stellers has become an iconic gallery in Jacksonville, many in the local art community aren’t familiar with Riley himself. Gallery Director Missy Hager says she knows exactly why: “He’s been selling art — that’s where he’s been. I’m so in awe. No wonder he’s been in business twenty-five years; he’s been in his van selling art.” That’s where the friendly moniker, “the man with the van” was born, and Riley says he regularly travels a thousand miles up and down the coast each week. He has a home in Wilmington, NC, that serves as the northernmost stop on his art runs, which include many stops in Charleston, Hilton Head, and Greenville, SC, where Riley has outfitted restaurants, resorts, private clubs and residences with artwork, and established relationships with interior designers through the years.
All this travel has had him away from the gallery so much that he has twice seriously considered closing Stellers (both times reported in Arbus) and becoming solely an art consultant. But the infusion of Hager’s energy in her role as gallery director, and a notice that the San Marco building had been sold and would need to be evacuated, were catalysts for a rebirth of the gallery, instead.
The new Stellers location opened in mid-April and Hager has big plans for the full-service art gallery. With a background in contemporary abstract art, Hager admits she felt distanced at first from a lot of the art that Riley had been collecting in the gallery … the more realistic, flora-and-fauna and landscape-focused art. But she says traveling with Riley has been eye-opening. “We’d be driving and I’d see a scene out the window and think, ‘there’s a [C.] Ford painting’ or ‘there’s a Mike [Perry] marsh,’” she says. “That’s been so awesome for me – discovering the South, really. Even though I’ve lived here my whole life, it’s different when you see it elsewhere, in different places.”
Ultimately Hager would like to see the gallery showcase an equal combination of realism and abstraction, including pieces representing the middle ground, like “looser landscapes” and what is now a trend with young collectors, being dubbed neo-traditional art. She sees Stellers as representing the contemporary South, “the hottest artists in the South,” she jokes, comprising a gallery that resonates as representative of this region.
Hager also wants the gallery to open back up to the community. She intends to start holding rotating exhibitions, host events and parties, and make available their conference room to Hugo’s clients. Hager is on the Wolfson Children’s Hospital Women’s Board and hopes to partner with their Young Collectors Guild, working closely with Jennie Crosby Hugo, a style guru already making a name for herself as the newest generation at the helm of Hugo’s and Crosby Designs.
The new Stellers also has a playroom for kids, the idea for which arose organically at the San Marco location, where Hager says many days there were kids strewn about on the gallery floor, drawing on leftover matte board from the framing room. Along with customers’ children, Riley now has eight grandchildren who often visit the gallery, and being family-friendly is the heritage of Stellers. “Scott’s kids grew up in the gallery, and there are stories about how he would put candy out for all the neighborhood kids to come in and grab,” says Hager. “They’d yell to each other what kind of candy he had each day,” she laughs. The playroom at the new location will feature chalkboard walls, art tables and materials, and floormats.
Hager says this move has prompted questions like, “Will we paint any of the walls our trademark Stellers green?” (a vibrant, light, yellow-green that was throughout the San Marco location) and whether to change the style in which they hang the art now that there’s more space and variety to the pieces. Such are the questions of growth, and ultimately, Hager and Riley want to keep the focus of the gallery on a very simple mission – just as it has for twenty-five years: “We want people to feel comfortable, to come in and appreciate art that they will enjoy in their home.” So take the kids and visit Stellers’ new crown jewel, now open on Philips Highway. Riley will be in his van, selling art.
Stellers Gallery, 3139 Philips Hwy., 396-9492. Watch for plans for a grand opening reception in the fall.
Written by Meredith T. Matthews • Photos by laird