Next-Gen Gallerist Ian Gray: The Moment of Connection
It’s been three years since he bought it, but every time Ian Gray walks by the photograph hanging outside his bedroom, he gets chills. It’s a large, beautiful black-and-white photo of a woman with a mouse on her left shoulder by Chicago born, Los Angeles-based, photographer Matthew Austin. It’s one of the first art pieces Gray ever purchased.
“I saw it at an auction and just had that moment where I really connected with the piece,” Gray, 25, says. “And to this day, it still really speaks to me.”
That moment of connection is what collecting art is all about, he says. It’s not about filling empty wall space or amassing an exorbitant number of pieces. It’s about connecting so deeply with a piece that you want to see it — experience it — every day.
“Art enthusiasts want to find fulfillment and something meaningful in their collection,” Gray says. “They make a hobby out of connecting to something they really care about.”
Immersed in Art, All Art
As the grandson of the founder of Chicago’s Richard Gray Gallery, a 50-year-old mainstay in the city’s vibrant art scene, Gray is no stranger to the art world.
He grew up surrounded by art — not just visual art, which is what his family’s gallery specializes in, but theater, dance, creative writing, architecture and more.
“My parents were always taking me with them to museums, galleries, art fairs and performances of all kinds,” he says. “You can’t be deeply in love with one form of art at the exclusion of all the others.”"You can't be deeply in love with one form of art at the exclusion of all the others."
Aside from the exposure to the arts that his family provided from a young age, Gray also participated in Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre, which provides in-school and after-school programs for students to learn more about the performing arts. The lessons he learned at Lookingglass, for which he is now a junior board member and a fundraiser, were the most enduring both personally and professionally.
“It taught me how to think creatively. I learned that there’s no limit to how you work on a particular problem when you’re working in the arts. The solutions are as broad as your imagination,” he says. “But I also learned how to articulate complex themes and ideas, how to express myself, how to creatively communicate ideas, and how to speak publicly, something I do very often.”
The Winding Road to Gallerist
Despite his love of the arts, upon graduating from Brown University in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in the philosophy of mathematics and logic, and a second bachelor’s degree in public policy, Gray had no intention of joining the family business.
“I have great respect for my dad and my grandfather, but I just didn’t feel that working at the gallery was right for me,” he says.
So he started working in politics, where he logged long hours lobbying and fundraising. Eventually, the work and hours took a toll on him physically and emotionally, so he opted out. He started working at the gallery in the spring of 2014.
“I already was partaking in the arts from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. most days, so transitioning it to my 9-to-5 day just made sense,” he says. “There was never any pressure to join, but I’m really happy I did. It’s brought us closer as a family.”
Today he works on the operations side of the gallery — making sure the business moves efficiently, working directly with clients and reengaging past clients. Eventually, Gray hopes to take on a more creative role curating the gallery’s shows as well as taking on a larger role in developing the long-term strategy that accelerates the gallery’s growth, a task currently entrusted to the gallery’s principals, including his father.
Collecting Art Is About What Speaks to You
Like all art collectors, Gray knows what he likes: pieces that move from one intellectual ideology to another, and pieces that explore concepts that are foreign or taboo. In this style, his favorite artist is French post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne (1839-1906).
Given his math background, Gray also likes work that explores those concepts, so the work of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) speaks to him. Mondrian used geometric concepts of perimeter and area in his art."The more you immerse yourself in the community, the more art and artists you'll find, and the more you'll discover what speaks to you most."
These days he sees a growing number of contemporary artists enmeshed in the technology of art, creating work from a computer science point of view and even making tangible interpretations of algorithms. “That stuff really fascinates me,” he says.
What also captivates him is catching the moment on a collector’s face when he or she truly connects with a piece of art. “Seeing that happen never gets old,” he says.
For people who are interested in collecting art but are unsure where to start or feel intimidated by the process, Gray offers some advice: Go to as many galleries as you can, and ask a ton of questions.
“It’s never impolite to ask questions. Your gallerist should always be happy to answer any question you have, even when it comes to why a piece is priced the way it is,” he says. “And the more you immerse yourself in the community, the more art and artists you’ll find, and the more you’ll discover what speaks to you most.”