Richard Gray, dean of Chicago art gallery owners, has died at 89

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Richard Gray. | University of Chicago Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry

Richard Gray never graduated from college, but he became the dean of Chicago art dealers and a collector and benefactor whose wide-ranging intellect, taste and support helped many of the city’s most celebrated cultural institutions.

He also prevailed in the bidding wars that brought Sue, the famed T. rex, to the Field Museum. And he helped preserve the Farnsworth House, the architectural jewel in Plano designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Mr. Gray, 89, died in his sleepWednesdayat his Gold Coast home, according to his son Paul Gray.

The rent was just $85 a month in 1963 when he opened the Richard Gray Gallery, specializing in contemporary art, at 155 E. Ontario St.

Mr. Gray dealt in works by Magdalena Abakanowicz, Willem de Kooning, David Hockney, Roy Lichtenstein, Louise Nevelson, Picasso, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Today, the gallery operates from 875 N. Michigan and Manhattan, has a warehouse on West Carroll Avenue in Chicago and also deals in Old Masters.

He and his wife, the former Mary Kay Lackritz, were supporters of the Chicago Humanities Festival, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Arts Club of Chicago, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Goodman Theatre, WFMT, WTTW and the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, among other institutions.

He was born at Woodlawn Hospital, the middle of seven kids of Pearl and Edward Gray. His father, a native of Siedliszcze, Poland, came to America alone at 13 or 14 and helped start a business in Providence, Rhode Island, cleaning buildings in that then-sooty city, eventually coming to Chicago.

Mr. Gray studied architecture at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

His first business ventures were with his father, manufacturing phonographs and exercise machines said to massage away fat. But he had an eye for design, according to Paul Gray, who will continue to operate the gallery.

Mr. Gray credited his interest in art to Hyde Park High School’s music and art requirements, according to a Smithsonian Institution interview.

He met his future wife — a daughter and granddaughter of famed Chicago jewelers Harry and Paul Lackritz — on a blind date. Picking her up, he was captivated by the artwork at the Lackritzes’ home, which included a Miro, a Pollock and a Kandinsky.

“And,” Mr. Gray said in an interview with the University of Chicago, “she wasn’t bad-looking, either.”

They were married in 1953.

Richard Gray and a Franz Kline painting. | Sun-Times files

Richard Gray and a Franz Kline painting. | Sun-Times files

He opened his gallery after using $25,000 for a buying trip to New York City. His first acquisitions included a Leger and a de Kooning collage.

In 1997, with a war chest amassed with the help of McDonald’s and Disney, Mr. Gray was enlisted to go to New York to handle the Field Museum’s bid for Sue. When Sotheby’s announced bidding had hit $7.5 million, “Dick immediately covered it at $7.6 million,” said John W. McCarter Jr., president emeritus of the museum, who recalled how Mr. Gray announced the win from the auction floor: “Sue will have her next birthday on the shores of Lake Michigan at the Field Museum.”

“The place went wild,” McCarter said.

Richard Gray admires a sculpture in a scene from WBBM-TV’s “I see Chicago: Eye on Art.”

Richard Gray admires a sculpture in a scene from WBBM-TV’s “I see Chicago: Eye on Art.”

In 2003, when bidding to save the Farnsworth House topped the $6.5 million Mr. Gray and others budgeted, he continued anyway, “bidding with his own money,” said fellow preservationist John Bryan, former Sara Lee CEO.

“He was such a great son of Chicago,” said James Cuno, president and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust in Los Angeles, who formerly headed the Art Institute.

As president of the Art Dealers Association of America, he “was a pioneer in setting the standards of practice and an important code of ethics in the art industry . . . in the 1960s and 1970s,” according to Andrew L. Schoelkopf, the group’s president.

Mr. Gray “was an integral part of the city,” said Lester Crown, chairman of Henry Crown & Company. And, Crown said, “He was fun to be with.”

“Pixieish,” Cuno called him. “He had a twinkle in his eye and a great sense of humor.”

Richard Gray. | Sun-Times files

Richard Gray. | Sun-Times files

Mr. Gray advised a number of wealthy collectors. “I think he absolutely was the go-to guy,” Crown said, “because he was so respected and trusted.”

The Grays’ home was filled with art. “You couldn’t take a step without running into a drawing that would attract your attention,” Cuno said.

Riccardo Muti, the CSO’s music director, called Mr. Gray “a superlative human being and a dear friend.”

“His interest extended to all the art forms, not just the visual arts,” said Joan W. Harris, founder of the Harris Theater.

Besides his wife and son, Mr. Gray is survived by daughter Jennifer and son Harry, brothers Robert and Melvin, five grandchildren and a great-grandchild. A service is planned Friday for family and close friends, with a larger memorial being planned.

Mary and Richard Gray in 2007. | Scott Stewart / Sun-Times files

Mary and Richard Gray in 2007. | Scott Stewart / Sun-Times files

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