May 17, 2018

Richard Gray, a longstanding supporter of the Smart Museum of Art and founding benefactor of the Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry at the University of Chicago, died yesterday in Chicago. He was 89 years old.

Gray was a visionary and influential supporter of the arts—renowned as a collector, gallerist, and architectural landmark preservationist—at the University of Chicago, across the city, and nationwide. He made an indelible contribution to the life of the University, most particularly at the Smart Museum, where he served as chair of the Museum’s Board of Governors from 1992 to 2007 and emeritus chair thereafter, and as the founding benefactor of the Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry.

Gray was a renowned dealer of modern and contemporary art with galleries in Chicago and New York but he also shared a profound love of art with his wife, Mary (AM 1978). Their collection is a study in connoisseurship, featuring exceptional works by impressionist, modern, and contemporary masters, as well as a significant corpus of Old Master drawings. When they received the Smart Museum’s Joseph R. Shapiro Award in 2008, he remarked “I tend to respond intuitively and instinctively to works of art. I don’t know that I want to possess a work of art that I don’t know.”

“Richard Gray was a monumental presence in the city of Chicago, providing the energy and expertise that has helped the city’s art scene to thrive,” said Bill Brown, Senior Adviser to the Provost for Arts and Karla Scherer Distinguished Service Professor in American Culture. “At the University of Chicago, he not only played a leading role in sustaining the vitality of the Smart Museum. He also added a whole new dimension to the university by supporting—intellectually and financially—an extraordinary experiment, the Gray Center, giving scholars and artists the unique opportunity to pursue creative collaborations within and beyond the classroom. Richard has made a permanent impact on our city and on our university.”    

Gray once remarked that art was “such a valuable thing for one’s humanity, to get access to and get nourished by.” He regularly sought out that nourishment at exhibitions, performances, and lectures and discussions at the University.

“Long before I arrived in Chicago a year ago, I knew from afar the great impact Richard Gray had on the arts and culture of this city,” said Alison Gass, Dana Feitler Director of the Smart Museum. “I feel so fortunate to have had the chance to spend time with him in the past year and to benefit from his wisdom and perspective. He was deeply devoted to the Smart Museum and I am grateful to helm an institution he was so pivotal in building.”

“Richard avidly advocated that the Gray Center be a truly open space for artists and scholars to do the kinds of thinking and working that is not supported anyplace else,” said Jacqueline Stewart, Director of the Gray Center and Professor in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies. “He wanted this work to be widely known, to inspire the kinds of experimentation that can push the boundaries of academic and artistic disciplines and methods.”

“Richard Gray was not simply a champion of the arts, although he was certainly that. But much more, he was wonderfully impatient with platitudes or received wisdom, and determined to rethink what we know, or what we think we know, about art—how it impacts, shapes, and fundamentally alters us,” said David Levin, founding Director of the Gray Center and Addie Clark Harding Professor of Germanic Studies, Cinema & Media Studies, and Chair of the Committee on Theater & Performance Studies. “We would know that the Gray Center was doing its job well, Richard argued, if people were initially puzzled and regularly surprised by the projects we supported. Thus, rather than supporting predictable collaborations, he wanted us to take risks and seek out connections where none were known to exist. I will miss his sense of adventure, his sense of humor, his penetrating mind, and his commitment to nurturing the delicate ecology where art and inquiry support and sustain one another.”

In his lifetime, Richard and Mary donated works to the Smart’s collection by Anthony Caro, Lovis Corinth, Ellen Lanyon, László Moholy-Nagy, and others. He regularly lent other works for exhibitions, enhancing projects with paintings by Bob Thompson and Édouard Vuillard, a selection of Old Master drawings, bronze sculptures by Rodin and Baccio Bandinelli, and more. The Museum’s central gallery is named after the couple and has hosted countless special exhibitions, often shaped through interdisciplinary collaborations with University scholars.   

Gray was involved with numerous civic and cultural institutions throughout Chicago, from the Art Institute and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to WTTW/WFMT. He played a notable role in securing two Chicago icons—one ancient and one modern. He bid on behalf of the Field Museum in the 1997 auction that brought Sue the T. Rex to the city. Then again in 2003, he led the dramatic bidding for the preservationist groups that purchased the Farnsworth House in Plano, IL designed by Mies van der Rohe and enabled it to be turned into a public museum.

Donations can be made in his honor to any of the civic, cultural and charitable organizations supported by the Gray family. A memorial service will be announced at a later date.

C.J. Lind
Associate Director of Communications
Smart Museum of Art
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