Long before businessman and art collector Jim Gray’s successful campaign to become Lexington’s mayor in 2011, he was known for holding salons at his historic Gratz Park home that brought together visiting and local contemporary artists.
“He would pick up the phone and call a dozen artists and say, ’I have an out-of-town artist at my house. Call up a few friends and let’s all get together Saturday night,’” Lexington artist Bob Morgan recalls. “And he’d be the only person out of 30 people that night who was not an artist.”
Gray likes hanging out with artists, he says, because he understands that they have much to teach him — not just about art, but about the real world.
“The fun part of acquiring art is that you get to know artists, and you get to know what they see in their work, how they translate their work into contemporary issues in society,” the 66-year-old former mayor said in a recent interview at his home. “They’re always thinking ahead. They’re always there before the rest of us are.”
Now Gray is hosting another art-themed gathering, connected as always with a contemporary social issue. His house on Market Street is one of four architecturally significant homes participating in the fifth season of Sunday Salons. The salons will be held in September to raise funds for Moveable Feast, a charitable organization that delivers free hot meals daily to low-income people with HIV/AIDS. Morgan is the group’s current vice president, and Gray is a former board member.
The salon at the Gray home, on Sept. 29, will include a talk by the Kenyan-born Lexington artist Kiptoo Tarus as well as a curated tour of Gray’s art collection by Stuart Horodner, director of the University of Kentucky Art Museum and former artistic director of the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.
There will be plenty to see. Gray’s two-story brick home, built in 1820 and painted blue with a distinctive front door of mahogany stained a rich red that recalls the patina of antique Chinese lacquered cabinets, is resolutely old-school. But the art collection it houses, featuring a number of pieces created within the past decade, is anything but.
The sparsely furnished living room, for example, highlights a language-based neon piece by the conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth, a pair of ironic deer-head trophies by sculptor Dennis Oppenheim, and a word painting by Mel Bochner.
The more amply furnished den and dining room display works by the African-American artist Kara Walker — including one of her signature silhouettes of black women, this one seemingly in conversation with what might be the severed head of a Civil War soldier — and Lexington artist Louis Zoellar Bickett II, who died in 2017.
“Louis and I could talk for hours,” Gray says. “Louis was probably my biggest influence in art. He was autodidactic — he acquired all of his knowledge of art on his own — and he taught me a lot.”
Gray’s friendship with Bickett was typical of his relationships with artists, Morgan says. “Most artists feel a little estranged from the business community, but Jim is different in that he likes art and he likes artists. It’s unusual that you have someone of prominence in that world who’s one-on-one friends and comrades with artists.”
The Moveable Feast salons, featuring food, drinks, music and special guest artists, begin Sept. 8 at Wyn Morris and Vickie Sword’s Victorian home (with modernist updates by Pohl Rosa Pohl Architects in Bell Court). They continue on Sept. 15 at Gayle Cerlan’s 1850 Breckinridge House on Second Street, and on Sept. 22 at Graham Pohl and Jane Fields’ home on Fincastle Drive which fuses Tudor Revival architecture with contemporary design. Tickets are $80 for each event.
When the series concludes at Gray’s place, attendees will have an up-close-and-personal encounter with the former mayor — who ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for the U.S. Senate in 2016 and for a U.S. House seat from the Sixth Congressional District the following year — and his art collection.
They will learn, among other things, that his lifelong passion for art was also influenced by his mother, Lois Howard Gray, a watercolor artist who often took her children to museums. On one trip to St. Louis, he recalls, she took him to see an exhibit of works by the abstract expressionists Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, whose famous drip paintings and Jackson Pollock, whose famous drip paintings the young Gray found distinctly underwhelming.
“Anybody could do that,” he told her. “I could do that, Mother.”
“But you didn’t,” she said.
Moveable Feast Sunday Salons
Where: Four private homes in Lexington
When: 2:30-5 p.m. Sept. 8, 15, 22, 28
Info: (859) 252-2867