By Sarah Galer

A mutual love of the arts drew Richard and Mary Gray together when they met almost 60 years ago and has been a driving passion in their lives ever since.

The Grays’ desire to encourage that passion in others inspired them to donate $5 million to the University of Chicago to help create the Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry.

“The search for knowledge about and experience with the arts are critical to the development of humanistic values,” says Richard Gray, a lifelong Chicagoan, internationally distinguished art dealer, noted private collector, and architectural landmark preservationist. The Richard Gray Gallery of Chicago and New York specializes in painting, sculpture, and drawings by 20th-century American and European artists. Mary Gray, AM’78, is a published author who has written two books on Chicago’s public sculpture and murals.

“No one represents the arts better in this city than Richard and Mary Gray,” says Larry Norman, Deputy Provost for the Arts.

A life infused with art

The centrality of art in the Grays’ private and public lives is clear from the moment one enters their home in a vintage landmark building overlooking Lake Michigan. From the paintings on the wall to the oriental carpets on the floor, from the furniture to the Steinway grand piano, everything has a story and a rich provenance. Even their guestbook is filled with good wishes from prominent artists who have visited over the years.

The Grays’ apartment is filled with seven centuries of art, spanning the 15th century to the modern era. One looks around their living room and recognizes works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Lucian Freud as well as a Claes Oldenburg sculpture and a couple of Alexander Calder’s iconic mobiles.

According to James Cuno, president of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Grays hold one of the greatest old master drawing collections in the nation, which the Art Institute featured in a major exhibition in 2010.

The guestbook entries are sketches by modern and contemporary artists, reflecting interests and friendships that extend well past the visual arts. There are treasured drawings and notes from painter Roy Lichtenstein, sculptor Louise Nevelson, cartoonist Saul Steinberg, and literary legends John Updike and Susan Sontag, AB’51.

UChicago connection

The Grays married after what Mary calls a “North Side-South Side” romance. Mary moved to Hyde Park to live with Richard, where they stayed for 20 years, raising their three children, who went to the Laboratory Schools. They moved to the Gold Coast in 1980 but have maintained strong ties to the University.

“We adopted the University of Chicago,” says Richard. “It is our community; it is our city; it is our University.”

“It gave us so much, I have to say,” says Mary. “We have an enthusiasm for every aspect that we’ve been fortunate enough to encounter.”

The Grays have been avid supporters of the arts in the city, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Goodman Theatre, the Joffrey Ballet, and the Chicago Humanities Festival. They have been involved with many aspects of the University and have been particularly active with the Smart Museum, the Oriental Institute, the Humanities Division, Court Theatre, and the Library.

“I think of Richard and Mary Gray as quintessential Chicago philanthropists,” says Cuno, under whose leadership the Art Institute established the Richard and Mary L. Gray Wing. “There is a coherence to their philanthropy, focused on making a difference in the lives of citizens through the kind of arts that have meant so much in their own lives.”

The Gray Center is their next generous step in helping arts flourish in Chicago. “The Gray Center will be important for the public face of the University and for our engagement with the community and the city. We will have fellows from all over the region and the world involved in activities that engage audiences and cultural institutions throughout the city,” says Norman.

“I would hope that this center will make it possible for so many more people, from students to community members, to be more interested and involved, and to come to have the love and experience the nourishment that has been so vital in our lives and remains so,” says Richard.

Originally published on June 6, 2011.