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RALPH MURPHY: AN ART GALLERY BECOMES A COMMUNITY BEACON

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RFP Spotlight June 2013
It all started with one photography class. Ralph Murphy, a city of Chicago building inspector and tax accountant in the Sears corporate headquarters building in Chicago, had always wanted to learn how to take high­quality photos, so one day he decided to hire local camera shop pro Bill Hill to give classes.

A few friends joined in, and within a short while they decided to show their work. That was the beginning of the Murphy/Hill Gallery (now called Art Forms 22), which soon made a name for itself in the
Lawndale community of Chicago—an environment where emerging artists, young and old, were encouraged to express their individuality and create new and exciting art forms.

Just a few months after the gallery opened, Ralph ran into Viridian Senior Director Eric Strickland, who had an office in the same building. Eric explained how Viridian could help Ralph further his mission of bringing a greater appreciation of art and culture to Lawndale. “I’m an entrepreneur, so Viridian was right up my alley,” Ralph recalled. “It’s a truly great organization with a lot of great people. I realized that Viridian could play a key role not only in my gallery, but for me personally, because I was taking money out of my own pocket to keep the gallery going.”

And keeping it going was no small task. The 42,000­square­foot space (vacant and “rented” by Ralph for a nominal fee) hosted new shows every four weeks, sometimes presenting the work of 25 to 30 artists at a time. More than 7,000 people came through the gallery in its heyday, but perhaps the ones Ralph remembers most fondly were a special group of kids: With grant money from the director of Mount Sinai Hospital, and paints, canvasses, used easels and assorted art supplies found on Craigslist, Ralph hosted summer Saturday art classes for children with cancer.
“I was so inspired by those kids, how even with the illnesses they had, the process of creating art took all that away from them,” Ralph mused. “The talent of some of them amazed me. They’d come with their parents and most would go straight back to the hospital afterwards, but while they were with us they got to be regular kids and it was just a lot of fun.”

The program continued for two summers, after which Ralph received devastating news: His beloved Sears building was being closed down. But resolving to bloom where he was planted, Ralph was able to find a small temporary gallery and a vacant lot donated by the city of Chicago, where he can have a sculpture garden and a “sustainability garden” of vegetables, herbs and spices. “This gallery is where my heart is,” Ralph said. “It’s given me something to look forward to, get my family involved in and make a difference for the community. My hope is that with residual income from Viridian we’ll be able to move forward, re­establish ourselves and grow.”