(This article originally published in our February 2017 issue of our quarterly newsletter, The Arch.)
Landmarks Illinois President & CEO Bonnie McDonald recently sat down with Richard and Mary Gray at the Richard Gray Gallery in Chicago for a conversation about their mutual interests in historic preservation, art and architecture. Richard, a 2007 LI Legendary Landmark, is an internationally distinguished art dealer and collector. Mary is the author of two books on Chicago’s public art: A Guide to Chicago’s Public Sculpture (1983) and A Guide to Chicago’s Murals (2001).
The Grays are also passionate preservationists and have been instrumental in the preservation of important cultural assets such as Chicago Public School murals and Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House. Longtime Landmarks Illinois supporters, the Grays recently made a significant contribution to our Chicagoland Advocacy Program. When asked what about LI’s mission inspires them, Richard said, “You stand for values that I measure very highly on my list of interests.”
Richard grew up one of seven children in a middle class household in Chicago. While his family was in the construction business, natural artistic instincts took Richard in a different direction. He pursued his interest in design at the University of Illinois’ School of Architecture. “That’s where I got the first formal exposure to the world of visual arts, including architecture,” Richard said.
During this time, he came into contact with Buckminster Fuller, Frank Lloyd Wright and “all of the architecture stars of the era.” But a calling to join the military interrupted his architectural studies and changed the direction of his future toward a career in the arts. In 1952, upon returning from service, Richard and Mary were introduced in Chicago. The first time he entered her family’s North Side Chicago home, he came face-to-face with a Jackson Pollock painting as well as other impressive works of art. There were two big Steinway pianos in the living room, a cello and books lining the walls, Richard described. This cultural collision was a new and welcomed experience for Richard, and it helped spark a relationship between him and Mary that has lasted six decades and counting.
“I wasn’t sure if it was the art or me he was attracted to,” Mary said, laughing.
“It was two things,” Richard responded, “The cultural attributes all over the place. The other was she was cute. She’s still cute.”
Following a brief engagement, Richard and Mary married and moved to Hyde Park where Mary pursued a Master’s degree in Ancient Art at the University of Chicago.
“Being a Northsider, I thought Hyde Park and the University were the ultimate [in architecture],” Mary said.
The Gray’s interest in sculpture and painting led to Mary’s important publications and the creation of the Richard Gray Gallery, now an internationally-known art house representing famed artists Jim Dine, Alex Katz and Jaume Plensa. Throughout their more than 60 years together, Richard and Mary’s distinguished personal art collection has continued to develop and mature along with their interest in architecture. “I’m not out looking for things,” Richard said of his philosophy on collecting. “I am attracted by things that find me.”
2017 marks 10 years since Richard was named a Legendary Landmark – an occasion he said sparked some personal reflection about his place among other luminaries. “I was moved,” Richard said. “I was very touched.”