News swept fast through the University of Montana and Missoula arts community about the sudden death of James Kriley. The former dean of UM’s School of Fine Arts and a pillar of the local theater community was found dead Monday evening after a boating accident on Flathead Lake. He is best remembered for his development of the Media Arts program, which he helped create in 1995; co-founding UM’s summer master’s program, The Creative Pulse; and for leading the Montana Repertory Theatre in the mid-1970s.
“He wanted to make it a professional company,” says Greg Johnson, the Rep’s current artistic director and Kriley’s colleague at UM. “He would bring in professional actors from the coast—from New York—and professional directors and they would work with the students. It was a very revolutionary idea and now it’s being emulated all over the country. But he was one of the first to do it, to really integrate curriculum with a professional company.”
Kriley served as Dean Emeritus of the School of Fine Arts and Professor Emeritus of Drama at the time of his death. After 31 years at the university, he was working on a “post-retirement basis” with one semester left before fully retiring.
“He had…the fortitude and the strength…to make projects and schools and departments happen,” says Media Arts professor Michael Murphy. “Jim had a really great long-range view of things—‘Be patient, keep focused…you’ll get there.’ To him, it was all a story that you needed to stick with and make sure it came out with the ending you wanted.”
Mark Dean, now chair of the Drama/Dance Department, first met Kriley as a freshman undergraduate student at UM.
“He’s been a tremendous friend, a tremendous mentor to all of us,” Dean says. “I was talking to another faculty member who said that Jim is the patriarch of the modern Drama/Dance program. And he is.”
Johnson says it was Kriley’s dedication to his profession that made him a visionary.
“I think he was always a little ahead of the curve. I always admired that about him,” Johnson says. “It’s a huge loss. He was absolutely an amazing character and a gentleman of the theater.”