In Memoriam: Dennis O’Malley, former Bannister Gallery director

Dennis O’Malley, who directed Bannister Gallery at Rhode Island College from 1982 to 2004, died peacefully at home on Feb. 2. He was 61. He had two sons, Evan and Way.

Dennis O'Malley
Throughout his life O’Malley made many fortuitous connections, but they were not merely the product of chance. They resulted from the inquiries of a restless mind, combined with a set of wide-ranging skills to match, as sculptor, painter, photographer, writer, curator and even builder.

O’Malley earned a BFA in painting from the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and an MFA in sculpture from the Rinehart School of Sculpture, Maryland Institute College of Art.

Before directing Bannister Gallery, he worked six years in architectural design and construction, acquiring skills that enabled him to play a large role in building the house he lived and died in – a rustic post-and-beam affair filled with art work, both his own and things he collected. He also constructed a circular wooden monitor’s desk used in Bannister Gallery.

During his 23 years at the college, O’Malley oversaw approximately 200 exhibitions of contemporary art. His tenure covered more than 70 percent of its history.

Largely the exhibitions were initiated by Department of Art faculty, and O’Malley took care of the behind-the-scenes details, like mounting, insurance, publicity and other essential aspects that would never cross the minds of gallery goers who came to enjoy the art.

Dennis O'Malley. 'Burnt Out,' 
carbon, bondo, wood, laminate,

7 ft. x 3 ft. x 8 in.
Bill Martin, RIC art professor and department chair, who worked with him on a number of shows, said of O’Malley, “He was an ingenious and interesting guy. We had a nice friendship.”

Martin added that O’Malley was a "good writer. I was always happy with his insights into the work of artists I brought in.”

In addition, O’Malley was something of a Web pioneer at the college. During the 1990s, when Rhode Island College was developing its Internet presence, he initiated and designed a website for Bannister Gallery and maintained it himself until his retirement. He also wrote a history of the gallery, which is still accessible at

For a number of the shows O’Malley coordinated, he did have more direct involvement. There were three exhibitions of contemporary avant-garde Danish artists for which he was primarily responsible.

One, in 1996, involved early large-scale digital photo imagery by Balder Olrik. O’Malley wrote a curator’s essay for the Bannister show, which was later published in a catalog for a Copenhagen exhibition of Olrik’s work. When the artist exhibited in New York, Times critic Barry Schwabsky reviewed the show and quoted O’Malley’s essay.

The quote is worth repeating for it reflects O’Malley’s imaginative reach into artistic innovation. Schwabsky wrote, “As Dennis O'Malley writes in an essay accompanying the work of the Danish artist Balder Olrik, ‘today's digital image file is a whisper of ones and zeros, next to which even a drawing is a massive sculptural form.’”

Painting exhibitions by Danish artists Jesper Christiansen, in 1997, and by Michael Kvium, in 1998, followed. O’Malley wrote an extensive catalog essay on Christiansen that was published by the DCA Gallery in New York, with support from Galerie Mikael Anderson, Copenhagen.

In the case of Kvium, O’Malley was asked to write an essay on that artist for a later exhibition at the Aarhus Kunstmuseum in Denmark.

O’Malley also had two solo shows of his own work at Bannister Gallery: one of his paintings and one comprising digital photographs that he had taken in Iceland, where he found an entirely different kind of challenge.

He made several trips there – including one alone and one with his son Evan – to hike some particularly arduous terrain. In an interview conducted by Gita Brown for a staff newsletter in 2001, O’Malley described some of the dangers involved.

He recalled, “So here I am wandering around alone and I’m climbing higher and higher and getting up into these snowfields and ice, and the sun’s going down, and I still haven’t seen my destination. I just barely made it to this hut before night fell. The next morning I continued the hike, but the rainstorms had flooded the rivers; they were impassable. Normally, you walk across the rivers with your pants rolled up. But the rivers are very, very strong and very, very cold and they can sweep you away.”

Dennis O'Malley. 'Mirror Frame,' 
cast aluminum, ball bearings, mirror, 
16 in.
x 14 in. x 3.5 in.
Dante Del Giudice, interim director of continuing education and summer sessions at RIC and a neighbor of O’Malley’s in Wyoming, R.I., remembered the Iceland photographs.

“What I loved about his artwork from Iceland,” Del Giudice said, “is that however desolate the whole view of the place was he always seemed to capture some small suggestion of growth or struggling green grass or strange tundra flora. It had this core that was very positive and affirming.”

Del Giudice would regularly visit his neighbor and spend time discussing art, politics and current intellectual trends. He found O’Malley to be a “good sparring partner” to test his understanding of current readings.

O’Malley, Del Giudice noted, liked to stay current with the latest aesthetic trends or the philosophical flavor of the week or recent events in the blog world. For a number years, O’Malley maintained his own blog through which he would share a broad scope of discoveries and observations.

In his final days, O’Malley remained an avid user of the Internet, posting his last blog entry on Jan. 19, 2011 – just two weeks before he passed away.

Del Giudice commented, “Toward the end of his life, especially during his illness, his work on the Web was important to him, and he remained for me so creative in exploring and exploiting – outside of the social networking kinds of things that most people use – and in establishing an existence out there for himself.

Dennis O'Malley. Photograph of Landmannalaugar (Iceland) 7/99.
“Even when he was really unable to stand or walk, and just sat in a lounge chair or wheelchair, he had his wireless keyboard and wireless mouse and continued to do the work.”

O’Malley’s maintained some of his longtime interests over the Internet; for instance, Iceland.

When in 2010 volcanic eruptions in Iceland sent clouds of ash over northern and western Europe, O’Malley kept abreast of the situation with steady video feeds on his computer.

He even discovered a particularly interesting item about an Icelandic artist whom he brought to RIC as a speaker, Birgitta Jónsdóttir. She had become a member of parliament in her native country and played a role in the recent Wiki leaks affair. It is the kind of connection that O’Malley took pride in, Del Giudice noted.

Everyone leaves memories when they pass. Dennis O’Malley leaves a bit more: his artwork, his writings and a legacy at Bannister Gallery.