GRAFTON - The artists of the Grafton Art Gallery recently gathered for a conversation about the gallery’s mission to share art and honor veterans.

On May 23, 2024, artists and veterans mingled at the Grafton Art Gallery, located at 301 E. Main Street in Grafton. They spoke about their artwork, and several veterans shared stories about their experiences in the military. Gene Smith, owner of the gallery and a veteran himself, noted that the goal of the gallery is to showcase art in the community while honoring those who have served.

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“And next time, I’m not going to wait until my 80s to start a business,” he joked.

Gene explained that he had the luxury of going to college after serving in the U.S. Marine Corps. He majored in art history and minored in painting and photography. He quickly realized there were a lot of students who couldn’t afford supplies, and he began dreaming of a place where students could show their work with a low commission percentage, and the public could see this work for free.

“One thing led to another, and being a veteran and knowing some of the veterans in Grafton and local artists, one thing led to another and ballooned into helping each other,” Gene said. “And the building became available, and we decided we wanted to do something with it for art, for the people.”

Gene and his wife Donna Smith, an alderwoman in Grafton, purchased the building and began the process of curating the gallery. They have brought in artwork from artists around the world, with a focus on veterans. An Honor Wall in the middle of the gallery showcases work by veterans alone.

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As a town, Grafton has the highest percentage of veterans per capita in the state of Illinois, at 17 percent. To honor this, Gene explained that there is one permanent part of the gallery. There is a giant dog tag on the Honor Wall, where veterans are encouraged to hang replicas of their dog tags so they will forever be a part of the gallery.

Mayor Mike Morrow, a veteran with artwork displayed on the Honor Wall, expressed his appreciation for the gallery. He noted that it is a big move for Grafton, and he hopes to watch it grow.

“Grafton is excited about what’s going on here with the art,” Morrow said. “I’ve watched it from the beginning to where we are tonight. It’s a transformation. It’s just going to continue to grow as [Gene] continues to get things in, as Donna, his wonderful wife, continues to help him do that, we change art out and so forth. It’s an exciting time and it’s an exciting place for Grafton. And so Gene, we’re very, very grateful to you, very grateful that you continue to follow your dream. This is wonderful.”

Donna echoed this and added that she hopes to see more art galleries or art-focused businesses in Grafton. She said Grafton is “a magnificent town” and her goal is to watch it expand.

“I love this town. I love it a lot,” she said. “I hope that this is the beginning of a new area, a new place for people to gather in Grafton.”

For more information about the Grafton Art Gallery and its grand opening on Saturday, May 25, 2024, read this article on

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