One afternoon this past June, Raymond J. McGuire, decades-long Wall Street executive, prodigious art collector, and former New York City mayoral candidate, was sitting in the living room of his home in Bridgehampton, New York, facing a stunning Norman Lewis abstraction. Painted in transcendent shades of brilliant blue, Part Vision (1971) hangs over a white linen couch as the centerpiece of the home McGuire shares with his wife, filmmaker and author Crystal McCrary, dominating a space where it faces tough competition from top-notch works by the likes of Glenn Ligon, Sam Gilliam, and Romare Bearden. The room holds millions of dollars’ worth of art—and a lot of history.
As Miles Davis played on the speakers and a refreshing Hamptons breeze passed between the two sets of open patio doors (one leading to the tennis court, the other, to the pool), McGuire, matching the rhythm of the jazz, recited from memory Langston Hughes’s two-stanza poem “Dreams”:
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
We were discussing his lifelong love of literature; McGuire is also an avid collector of first-edition books by such writers as Shakespeare, Keats, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Baldwin, Du Bois, and Hughes. “I have to be as conversant in Faulkner or Shakespeare as I am in Hughes,” he said, before quoting William Wordsworth’s “Splendour in the Grass” and a passage from Macbeth. “They’re with me all the time. They’re all my friends—I refer to them familiarly because I am familiar with them.”
McGuire’s perfect recitation of “Dreams” could easily function as a metaphor for his journey from growing up in Dayton, Ohio, to becoming one of the longest-serving Black executives on Wall Street. Along the way, he has amassed a major collection of African American and African art, and become one of the most influential museum trustees in New York. Since 1994, he’s served on the Whitney’s board; he’s chaired the board of the Studio Museum in Harlem for two decades.
“The art world was never part of my upbringing,” he said. “We probably rode our bikes past the Dayton Art Institute every day, never mounting the steps, because I didn’t think there was anything in there for me, anything that resembled the world in which I grew up.” That’s something that he has sought to change through his own avid collecting and patronage.
Split between the Bridgehampton home and a duplex in the San Remo on Central Park West, McGuire’s collection, which he and McCrary built as a couple, starts with works from the late 19th century (Henry Ossawa Tanner) and moves on to the early and mid-20th century (Hale Woodruff, Jacob Lawrence, Charles Alston, Elizabeth Catlett, Alma Thomas, Loïs Mailou Jones, Charles White, Beauford Delaney, Bob Thompson, Bearden, Lewis, and early works by Gilliam).
“These all will stand the scrutiny of the canon at the highest levels,” McGuire said.
Work by some of today’s leading artists also distinguishes the collection: Ligon, David Hammons, Fred Eversley, Rashid Johnson, Julie Mehretu, Theaster Gates, Kehinde Wiley, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Tschabalala Self, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Derrick Adams, Sanford Biggers, Deborah Roberts, James Little, and the late Jack Whitten. “You have to stay current,” McGuire said. “I’m informed by the earliest generations, but I’m not constrained by them.”
“He’s interested in quality, and he has put together a very coherent and comprehensive exhibition of the masters,” said curator Ruth Fine, who organized a 2003 Bearden retrospective at the National Gallery of Art that included Of the Blues: At the Savoy (1974) from McGuire’s collection. “It’s filled with masterpieces. He’s chosen everything with immense care—drawings, paintings, sculpture, and photography—in order to tell the full picture.”
A significant portion of McGuire’s collection is photography, with iconic images by Roy DeCarava, Gordon Parks, James VanDerZee, Moneta John Sleet Jr., Malick Sidibé, Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, and Jamel Shabazz. Also represented are artists who have yet to be canonized—Harlem Renaissance artists Ellis Wilson and Aaron Douglas, abstractionist and dealer Merton Simpson, and Eldzier Cortor and Hughie Lee-Smith, realist painters who both worked for the WPA. Some may consider these figures art-historical deep cuts, but for McGuire, their works are no less significant than any other art he owns.
“At the core of Ray’s collecting philosophy is always the idea that his collecting could be a part of a larger art historical and curatorial project to bring about recognition,” McGuire’s longtime friend Studio Museum director and chief curator Thelma Golden said. “Collecting art is a critical part of Ray’s life. He sees it as central to who he is. Living with these works of art is an active relationship for him.”
There’s no denying that institutions like the Studio Museum in Harlem and collectors like McGuire, who has appeared in each edition of the ARTnews Top 200 Collectors list since 2014, have been instrumental in bringing mainstream attention to the vast contributions of African American, Black, African, and African diasporic artists across centuries.
“Just look at it today—just think about where collecting African American art was, when I was first identified on the Top 200 list,” McGuire said. “Nobody was talking about African American art then. Very rarely were we in the conversation.”
Golden added, “I think Ray greets this moment with enthusiasm because in many ways it’s a moment that he had a part in making happen.”
Growing up in Dayton, McGuire was raised by a single mother, Wiletha, and her parents, and showed signs early that he was academically gifted. His fifth-grade teacher recognized his talents and helped him secure a scholarship to Miami Valley School, a college prep in a wealthy enclave of Dayton, where McGuire was bused from sixth to eleventh grade.
Student body president and captain of the basketball team with an A average, McGuire received a challenge from one of his teachers: “If you’re as good as they say you are, why don’t you go test yourself against the big boys and girls out East.” He flew to Connecticut, took a Greyhound bus around New England, and toured some of the country’s most elite prep schools. For his senior year, he transferred to the prestigious Hotchkiss School, a boarding school in Connecticut founded in 1891 as a feeder school to Yale.
After Hotchkiss, McGuire had his pick of some of the country’s top colleges. He ultimately chose Harvard, where he studied English and American literature. McGuire took a gap year in 1979–80 before graduate school for a Rotary Fellowship in Nice, France. While there, the students went on strike, which “freed me up to see every museum from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam down to the Uffizi in Florence and the Prado in Madrid.” His favorite was the Jeu de Paume in Paris, which at the time held the national collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works.
While in his dual-degree M.B.A./J.D. program at Harvard, McGuire was invited to what he thought was a cocktail party hosted by First Boston (now Credit Suisse) at the Ritz Carlton, just off the Boston Commons. The room soon emptied, and he was left alone for a job interview with one of the firm’s senior leaders, Greg Malcolm, who said, “You’ve got five minutes, shoot your best shot.”
McGuire was taken aback. “I’m sitting here thinking, OK, I know nothing about this business called investment banking. I come from the neighborhood, and a guy is now up in my grill. I’m thinking I got nothing to lose here.” After some back and forth, McGuire told Malcolm, “Well, in the heat of battle, it’s better to have me on your side than to have me against you because I’ll figure out a way to win.” He ended up getting one of the two summer associate jobs at First Boston, starting in mergers and acquisitions.
After Harvard, McGuire moved to New York in 1984. He stayed with First Boston until 1988, when he left to join two of his mentors Joe Perella and Bruce Wasserstein in the founding of a new firm, Wasserstein Perella & Co. From there, he was recruited to start Merrill Lynch’s M&A division, then to Morgan Stanley, and then to Citigroup, where he spent 15 years, and eventually became vice chairman.
“It’s not complicated,” he said with a laugh, then took a more serious tone: “When I came into the business, there was maybe one other person in the world of corporate finance who looked like me. No, not in the history of Wall Street, did I, as a Black man, expect to get there. There’s never been a Hollywood script that’s remotely close to that. In the early days, ‘Ray McGuire,’ people were looking around the room for an Irish guy.”
He added, “The rule of engagement: in order to be equal, you have to be that much better. You have to work harder. There’s really no margin for error because of the level of scrutiny. None of it’s been easy. How I got there? Prayer, preparation, performance, and then you have to have a little bit of paranoia.”
In the mid-’80s, McGuire’s art education continued—this time at the contemporary end of things. Shortly after settling in New York, he met the respected M&A lawyer Paul T. Schnell, who began supporting the New Museum in 1983, after attending a talk by its founder, Marcia Tucker, at the New School. McGuire followed suit, becoming a trustee of the New Museum in 1987. But when McGuire looked around at the makeup of the board, he “didn’t see anybody who looked like me collecting art by artists who looked like me,” he said. “I decided that if I could ever afford a piece of art that I would begin to do that.”
Around that time, he was at a brunch hosted by Nancy Lane, a businesswoman, collector, and longtime Studio Museum trustee, when he met a young curator, Thelma Golden, who had just joined the Whitney, coming from the Studio Museum. “I remember asking Thelma if she wouldn’t give me a primer” on contemporary art, McGuire recalled.
McGuire thought their initial conversation would be a casual chat over drinks, but Golden ended up treating it more formally, bringing along a folder of information. She gave him a list of artists that she said everyone should know. With books like Cedric Dover’s American Negro Art (1960), as well as Six Black Masters of American Art (1972) and A History of African-American Artists (1993), both by Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson, as references, McGuire soon began researching intensely.
“Our friendship is founded around a shared love of, and commitment to, Black art and artists,” Golden said. “How he thinks about himself as a collector is someone who is stewarding our cultural history for generations to come. Ray collects from a position of not just acquisition, but of what it means to collect artworks—this evidence of our culture—and to hold them and care for them so that they can pass on to another generation, so that they have evidence of where we come from.”
Among those he learned about is Henry Ossawa Tanner, a painter who, during the late 19th century, became one of the first African American artists to receive international acclaim. Today, McGuire’s Tanner holdings number around two dozen; they are showcased in a dedicated gallery in the foyer of his San Remo apartment. “I built the collection around Tanner, always with an eye toward the historical context,” he said. “He’s the heart of it.”
Many of the Tanner paintings McGuire owns are biblical scenes, like one depicting Nicodemus visiting Jesus. They’re personal for McGuire, whose religious upbringing took place in the Pentecostal church. (His grandfather was a head deacon; his grandmother, a missionary; and his older brother is a minister.) “My entire journey has been what I call a walk of faith,” he said. “Just look around, there’s a deep connection that gives me hope, that gives me courage. In each of these pieces is something that is uplifting, that holds a bit of promise.”
Alongside the Tanner works and throughout the main floor of the San Remo apartment, McGuire also has a significant collection of historical African sculptures, including from Benin and the Baule, Dan, and Nok peoples. In the dining room hangs Alma Thomas’s Springtime in Washington (1971). Downstairs, two pieces by David Hammons, including a basketball drawing, face Theaster Gates’s In Event of Race Riot (2012), a wall-mounted sculpture made of coiled fire hoses. Gordon Parks’s iconic American Gothic photograph (1942) hangs nearby. Both homes are also filled with art books. On any given day, he’s just as likely to page through a first-edition copy of The Sweet Flypaper of Life, a 1955 collaboration between photographer Roy DeCarava and poet Langston Hughes, as he is to look for inspiration in art historian Deborah Willis’s 2009 book Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present.
McGuire and McCrary met in October 2003; she was arriving at a party in honor of scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., and McGuire was on his way out. “It was a thunderstruck moment for both of us,” McCrary said. The two had indirectly crossed paths a few years prior, when they were both trying to acquire a figurative Norman Lewis painting from Bill Hodges Gallery. (McCrary ended up losing out.) It took a year of dating before McCrary noticed the painting on the wall of McGuire’s study in the Bridgehampton home.
The two have collected together since their marriage in 2012, with a particular focus on the contemporary art. These works, McCrary said, are “our oxygen. Piece by piece they make up the tapestry of the richness of his—and our—life. As a family, we’re in conversation with the art.”
McGuire also collects Glenn Ligon’s work in depth, starting with a text painting that retold a Richard Pryor joke; Mudbone (Liar), 1993, appeared in Golden’s groundbreaking “Black Male” exhibition at the Whitney in 1994. “He wasn’t the kind of collector I thought he was, but that was the kind of collector he is,” Ligon said. “He was likely the first Black collector and the first collector whose focus was African American art to collect my work. He’s putting me, as well as Lorna Simpson, Julie Mehretu, and others, in the context of Tanner and Catlett so the throughline of Black artistic production is present in his collection in a way that’s unique.”
Rashid Johnson, who often spends time with McGuire and his family during the summers out East, sees the collection as virtually unmatched in quality. “What’s important about his collection is that it challenges canonical thinking,” Johnson said. “The artists he’s collected over the years really match with some people’s view of art history—and really interrupts others’ views.”
But were it not for the Studio Museum in Harlem, McGuire said, “many of these artists would have never been known, never had their rightful place in the canon.”
In 1997, McGuire, already a trustee of the Whitney and president of the International Center of Photography, was asked to join the Studio Museum’s board by then chairman, George Knox. Two years later, when the museum was looking for a new leader, McGuire was tasked with heading up the search committee. He immediately called Lowery Stokes Sims, who had been a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for almost three decades.
Sims initially said she felt that the position should go to someone from the next generation, so McGuire suggested that both she and Golden join the museum together. Sims told him, “If you get Thelma to do it, I would certainly consider it.” McGuire said, “OK,” put her on hold, and dialed Golden, who said, “Sure, if Lowery would do it.” He then merged the calls, and the rest was history. With their verbal agreements in place, McGuire then called Knox. “The phone went silent,” McGuire recalled. “What George later admitted to was picking himself up off the floor because he couldn’t believe it.” Sims joined as director and Golden as chief curator in 2000; Golden was promoted to director in 2006 after Sims’s departure.
In 2002, McGuire was elected chair of the Studio Museum board, and ever since, he’s worked to raise the institution’s profile. “We had a vision of where we want to be in the future. The more we exhibited of these great artists, the more attention it got,” McGuire said. “The Studio Museum—we’re at the forefront.”
He continued, “I’ve been in a position to support Thelma’s leadership, and partner with Thelma—whatever I can do to support that genius. Thelma does what Thelma does, and she does it better than anybody. Very little of significance in the art world happens without Thelma Golden. It’s a journey on which we have embarked together.”
“Ray and Thelma make an amazing team,” said Ann G. Tenenbaum, a longtime friend of McGuire whom he invited to join the Studio Museum board in 2002. “He is supportive of her in every way, and it’s certainly a model to watch in terms of a relationship between a director and a board chair. I’ve been on enough boards to know that directors need that kind of support.”
The legacy that McGuire and Golden plan to leave at the Studio Museum in Harlem includes a new home designed by David Adjaye that will mark the first time the museum is located in a structure custom-built for it. “Our building project is an amazing manifestation of what I think is at the heart of Ray’s leadership, that is, thinking about legacy,” Golden said. “What our building project has always been about was creating a physical space that matched the depth of importance that the Studio Museum had created over its five decades of life [by] creating a physical space with permanence on 125th Street.”
For McGuire, what he hopes and expects from the new building will be “even more of” what it has already achieved: “If you look across the country, many of the curators and museum directors started at the Studio Museum.” Among those alumni are Naomi Beckwith, now deputy director and chief curator of the Guggenheim Museum; Sandra Jackson-Dumont, now director and CEO of the forthcoming Lucas Museum of Narrative Art; and Lauren Haynes, recently named director of curatorial affairs and programs at the Queens Museum.
McGuire is also thinking about how he can help mentor the next generation of Black museum trustees, as he did while working on Wall Street with young Black executives. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder during the summer of 2020, with museum patrons like AC Hudgins and Pamela J. Joyner, he helped found the Black Trustee Alliance for Art Museums, of which is he currently cochair. “We were doing this long before the Black Trustee Alliance started formally,” he said. “It creates community and agency. The role of every great leader is to support emerging leaders. How you identify, attract, and retain talent comes down to how much of a leader you are. The best people always have options.”
Part of that mission is for long-standing museum trustees like McGuire to impart wisdom to the next generation, many of whom have served on their boards for fewer than five years. “I don’t want them to get sidetracked by some incremental thought process and miss the larger picture,” McGuire said. “I’m a trustee who happens to be Black, and in many eyes, I’m ‘the Black trustee.’ I was, for a long time, the only one. If I’m not in the room, who’s going to talk about it?”
He continued, “Rather than give lip service to it, this has to be with a commitment to nurturing the gifts that exist in a community—that have long existed—but have often not been acknowledged and, in some instances, actively ignored. If there’s ever a moment in time when we need to nurture and invest in, it is now.”
Rashid Johnson noted that McGuire helped inform his decision to join the Guggenheim Museum board. “The way that he’s informed collecting philosophies of cultural institutions, informed the senior leadership of these institutions, and developed a broader understanding of who matters in the space of art is something that you can’t quantify,” Johnson said.
Tenenbaum agreed. “A lot of people look to him for leadership, and he has delivered on it consistently for decades.”
Ligon believes that for McGuire “it’s not enough just to collect the art—he wants to be of service. That’s why he ran for mayor. It’s his sense of being of service to a place he believes in, be that a museum or the city of New York.”
In late 2020, McGuire entered New York City’s crowded mayoral race, which many at the time saw as being the most consequential one in a generation. Running as a Democrat, he positioned himself as a “jobs-focused candidate [and] a budget-minded realist,” according to the New York Times. He received the endorsement of his Wall Street colleagues and entertainers like Jay-Z, Diddy, and Mary J. Blige. In the end, he didn’t nab the nomination in the June 2021 primary, which went to Eric Adams, who now holds the office. All he wants to say, resolutely, on the matter is “been there, done that. I was in the arena. That’s a different world. I thought it was about public service.”
He’s still considering his next steps, though he’ll likely return to the world of high finance. “I’m not even close to retiring—Leo’s not allowing me to think about retirement,” he said, referring to his nine-year-old son. “That is a non-starter.”
Most important to him is “trying to make a difference in the cultural landscape,” and as always, he’ll continue to add to his collection, all with an eye toward “the preservation of excellence, an excellence that hasn’t always been centered in the canon,” McGuire said. He hasn’t necessarily made plans for where his collection will go, but as a faithful supporter of both the Studio Museum and the Whitney, they will “be in the conversation.” With his family, he plans to “find a rightful home for the collection to be shown. It needs to be shown. This is a bit of a public trust—others should be able to benefit from it.”
At some point, most collectors part ways with some of the art they own, often at auction, where these pieces sometimes sell for millions of dollars, especially in an era dominated by the art market. But McGuire is quick to note that he’s never sold a work of art. Pointing back to the blue Norman Lewis painting, he said, “Each of these pieces is a message. It’s a matter of appreciating and respecting the genius in these artists. Just look at this Norman Lewis. It brings you to a certain level—there’s an emotional response. There’s something in that that speaks to us, moves us. These works have a way of speaking to us, if we allow them.”
A version of this article appears in the 2022 edition of ARTnews’s Top 200 Collectors issue, under the title “The Preservation of Excellence.”