Fourth in a series"
The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture is not yet among Charlotte's best-known museums, but businessman Herb Gray is intent on seeing that change within the next decade.
As one of the city's rising African-American philanthropists, he has committed to expanding the center's collection of African-American art to a level that would garner national attention.
And that means raising money, lots of it, which is something Gray and his wife, Felicia, have gotten good at in recent years.
When not running Life Enhancement Services, the mental health agency where he serves as CEO, Gray leads fundraisers such as The Gray Classic Golf Tournament and the Grays' Holiday Party, which drew 600 attendees this month and raised $30,000.
The golf tournament, which is in its fifth year, has raised about $150,000.
The causes he supports include the Gantt Center and 100 Black Men of Charlotte, a mentoring group for college-bound students.
All have one thing in common: trying to elevate the city's African-American culture and history and cultivate future leaders.
Look for more from him in 2013, he says, but bigger and better.
God has given me this talent to mobilize people, and you can do a lot of good by mobilizing, raising awareness and raising 8resources for those who are most in need, says Gray, who serves on the Gantt Center's board of directors.
Our Grays' Holiday Party was held at the Gantt Center, and it was shocking to me that some had never been (to the Gantt Center) before. I believe the bigger the Gantt Center becomes, the more exposure we'll get for other museums nearby.
He's referring to the South Tryon Street block that contains the Gantt Center, the Bechtler Museum, the Mint Museum and the Knight Theater.
Gantt Center CEO David Taylor says a key goal for the center is to build one of the nation's premier African-American art collections. It currently has about 500 works, including The John and Vivian Hewitt Collection and The Harold Pride Collection.
To have a premier collection takes having funds, and one of the things Herb and Felicia have done is expand the center's capability to get those funds, Taylor said.
It's a talent Gray honed when launching Life Enhancement Services, a nationally accredited provider of case management services for people with mental and behavioral disorders.
Gray says the launch in 2005 took two years of planning and struggle, so much so that his mom, Grace Curtis, a retired schoolteacher, worked for nine months without pay.
I could not afford employees, he says.
It was from her that he got his work ethic, he says, noting she was a single mother who taught by day and earned a master's degree by night.
Like the rest of the country, the business took a hit during the recession, forcing Gray to lay off some staff members two years ago, just before Christmas.
It was a gut-wrenching move, and I had to witness people crying in front of me, he recalls. There was a time that I wondered whether we were going to make it, but we realigned and refocused.
No one is more surprised by the couple's successful philanthropic work than Felicia, an IT consultant with Bank of America. She credits him with the ideas, and she says she cheers him on and helps with execution.
The two met at a friend's barbecue more than a decade ago, and Herb Gray admits he was so taken with her upbeat personality that he began showing up at aerobics classes that she led at a local gym.
I was trying to see if she'd go out with me, he recalls. It was obvious that I was there for something other than aerobics. The class would go left and I'd go right. They'd move forward and I'd move back.
His wife agrees. He really stuck out like a sore thumb.
They married 5.1/2 years ago, and Herb Gray says he hopes they'll start a family in 2013.
Meanwhile, he says his fundraising efforts will continue to recruit more community support for the Gantt Center and other causes that help ambitious young people.
The way I see it, we can all be philanthropists at some time, if we just give a little bit to a cause, he says.
The worst advice I got when starting my business was, You'll probably not succeed.' I say it was good, because it let me know a lot of work needs to be done for something to succeed. That's how I approach things.