Allan Gray has spent much of his life volunteering to promote the arts, music and dance.
He was founding President of Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey.
Less well known, the Lee’s Summit council member paints watercolors. His mother also paints and his father was a classical pianist.
“I grew up with the arts in my home,” Gray said of his youth in Kansas City, where he also took art lessons at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. “I grew up surrounded with the best art.”
His daughter teaches art history at a university in New York and his son plays guitar.
“It’s an incredible life experience for me, and I want everyone to know what it’s like, especially young people,” Gray said.
His passion for the arts is being recognized this week by the Kansas City Young Artists organization, giving him the 2013 Trudy Award, joining luminaries such as Adele Hall, Shirley Helzberg and Joan Isrealite who have gotten the honor.
Kansas City Young Audiences, founded in 1961, helps schools provide arts programs to students, serving 130,000 children a year, giving them experience with all arts, including music, dance, theater, creative writing and visual arts. It operates the Community School of the Arts to provide children opportunity to explore artistic and creative abilities beyond the school day.
The Trudy Award, a sculpture by Tom Corbin, was designed in honor of Gertrude “Trudy” Benjamin Ziegler who was a longtime member of the organization’s board and “worked tirelessly for the arts and for the education of children,” KCYA said, announcing Gray’s award.
The award was to be presented Oct. 17 at a patrons party, one of the events leading up to a Benefit Concert for Arts Education by five-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald.
Gray served as chair of Friends of Alvin Ailey for 10 years, has been chair emeritus for 19 years and is currently on the Kansas City Arts Council, and also on the boards of the Kansas City Art Institute and the Kansas City Ballet. He has served as chair of the Missouri Arts Council.
Gray also recently produced a play at the Gem Theater in Kansas City, which was written by and starred friend Saundra McClain. That play went on to be one of 15 accepted for the National Black Theater Festival in July at Wake Forest University, out of 145 entries.
Gray said he got started as a volunteer in 1982 when he was president of the Gentlemen of Distinction, an organization that held parties and special events to raise money for charities.
The Folly Theater approached his group about raising money to bring a performance of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to Kansas City. The group sold tickets, marketed the show, did public education. The shows were a success, all selling out.
Gray had the privilege of meeting Ailey, a renowned African-American dancer and choreographer, showing him around town. The two became friends and talked about Ailey’s dreams to make dance more accessible to everyone.
The idea was born to make Kansas City the second home for Ailey’s company. Gray, working with Mayor Dick Berkley and others, started Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey. Gray was the first president. In 1984 Ailey had his first full residency at the Folly Theater and he took dance programs to churches, schools.
“We really were pioneering new territory for diversity and inclusion with African Americans supporting the arts, in this case, dance,” Gray said.
Gray said the arts have practical benefits beyond beauty and pleasure.
Students involved in arts are more likely to have proficiency in math, improving test scores and are more likely to graduate high school and go to college. They learn critical thinking, which makes them valuable to employers.
He gives the example of AileyCamp held each year in Kansas City and others including New York and Los Angeles, which are held for at-risk middle-school children to help them develop self-discipline and self-esteem. One exercise at the camp illustrates how it ties together, Gray said.
Campers are asked if they’re good a math or good at science. They’re told to cross diagonally across the room, corner to corner. Next they’re told to come back, but only to use 15 steps, which they do by stretching their strides. They’re instructed to cross again only using 10 steps, which they’ll realize is impossible, then allowed to use 10 steps, adding three hops or spins in any combination.
Counselors explain to the students they’re doing critical thinking, applied physics, studying spatial relationships and math all hidden in making up a dance.
And they learn deeper lessons.
During the camp they experience that if they can control their bodies, they also can control their minds, if they control their minds they can study, and if they can study they’ll succeed in school, Gray said.
“It’s not to create dancers, but to help kids deal with real life issues,” Gray said. “It’s literally saving lives through dance and arts education. It’s humbling and wonderful to see.”