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Arts / Museums

The Artist Who is Remaking Chicago

Theaster Gates’ True Mission Can Be Found in the City He Loves Most

BY // 03.27.18
photography Nan Coulter

To think about Theaster Gates is not just to think about sculpture; it is to think about symbolism. It is to think about working with what you have and making the best of it. It is about filling voids. Gates’ practice is not just about making art — it’s about a movement.

It’s about community, addressing the complexities of black American culture, and working with a city and materials to create impact far beyond the walled confines of an art institution. His work is as much about process as it is about product.

But it all begs the question: Is Theaster Gates actually interested in making art? Is he, as so many assume, actually interested in activism? Or, is Gates simply identifying challenges and complexities in his own backyard and trying to solve them — the result being art?

Chicago is the only place where you can grasp the multifaceted projects created by this year’s Nasher Prize Laureate. With an education in urban planning, one of Gates’ goals is to reimagine urbanization. A city like Chicago, his hometown, is a natural canvas for the creation of work that addresses racial and economic disparity and the poverty, violence, and socioeconomic difficulties of the city’s notorious South Side.

“Chicago has given me a home and a platform where I can create the most ambitious work that I could,” said Gates at a Nasher Prize reception held in Chicago this winter. “There were problems and challenges that I could dig my hands and heart into — that I could try to solve. At no point did I have to ask myself if I was an artist or a sculptor. I could just spend my time doing whatever the fuck I wanted to do.”

Here, Gates fuses traditional art creation with community development, urban planning, and civic duty. While he began his practice as a potter and has created paintings, sculpture, and installation work, he has turned a Chicago neighborhood into sculpturally moldable material.

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This ambitious endeavor unfolds in the primarily black Greater Grand Crossing area, where he first purchased property in 2008, in the wake of the housing-bubble crisis.

His initial intention of converting a defunct building into a multifunctional space for locals to engage in arts and culture has expanded in spades. Today, multiple buildings and city blocks in Grand Crossing are revitalized and operate under Gates’ nonprofit Rebuild Foundation. Its mission is simple; the solutions, more complicated: “Demonstrate the impact of innovative, ambitious and entrepreneurial arts and cultural initiatives. Our work is informed by three core values: black people matter, black spaces matter, and black objects matter.”

Still, Gates has achieved multilayered results, building an activated, revived community. A former candy store is now the Listening House and holds thousands of LPs from Chicago’s Dr. Wax Records, a seminal archive of soul, jazz, and hip hop.

In the same complex, the Archive House, refurbished with materials sourced from Gates’ other renovation projects, includes a micro library of books. Adjacent to the Archive and Listening houses is Kenwood Gardens, a $4.4 million project that includes the development of a community garden and tiny-housestyle artist residencies. Nearby, 32 renovated townhomes — the Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative — serve as affordable housing for artists and families dedicated to artistic immersion.

Gates’ residence and studio are also in the neighborhood, the latter a former Anheuser-Busch distribution facility that now houses a woodshop, pottery studio, offices, and library. Across the street, he acquired the St. Laurence Catholic School, which closed in 2002 and is set to reopen as a space for education and job training in design and fabrication.

Gates’ balanced interest in materials, architecture, art, and community makes him ripe for an award such as the Nasher Prize, which celebrates living artists who elevate the understanding of sculpture.

“Robert Rauschenberg spoke of making work that operated in the space between art and life,” says Nasher Sculpture Center director Jeremy Strick. “Theaster Gates is making art intended to have a direct impact upon life in a specific community, even while reflecting upon its status as art.”

Also of note in Chicago is the Stony Island Arts Bank building, circa 1923, which in the 1960s and ’70s was one of the few black-owned financial institutions in town.

Vacant for decades and scheduled for demolition, Gates bought the building from the city for $1, with the stipulation that he would restore and open it to the public; in 2015, he did. Now, the bank houses diverse collections, acquired by Gates over the years.

There is the Johnson Publishing Company archive, which includes the full collection of black lifestyle magazines Ebony and Jet; 60,000 art and architecture glass slides, originally discarded by the University of Chicago’s art-history department; hundreds of vinyl records from Frankie Knuckles Records, whose namesake is the so-called Godfather of House Music; and the Edward J. Williams Collection, which includes 4,000 “negrobilia” objects — items and artifacts depicting stereotypical images of black people.

Also at the Stony Island Arts Bank is the Black Cinema House, which screens films by and about people of the African Diaspora and aims to engage young people in filmmaking.

The Stony Island Arts Bank is a testament to Gates’ commitment to fostering a deep understanding of black America.

“There was something about the challenges inside my studio and outside my studio that gave me resilience and maybe even, not just a solution but an aesthetic sensibility,” Gates said. “It’s hard to focus on art when there’s so much craziness in this city — and so I had to be thankful for the craziness because it made my art problem bigger, which made the work need to do more.”

Gates’ Vision

Indeed, there is an abstract aesthetic to Gates’ body of work — but also a sense of calculated intent, when you view his community projects, art, and self as one microcosm. The art making feeds his vision to change communities: Gates publicly states that he reinvests profits made from the sale of his art into his community work. His role, then, becomes limitless, driven by the people and experiences that shaped his past and that inform his present.

During the reception in Chicago, Gates pondered the symbolism of the Nasher Prize. “If blackness has something to do with the absence of light,” he said, “then I’ve been telling younger artists to do things in the absence of light. Be black about it; do things in the absence of light, so that when the light comes you can be strong enough to say yes.”

This singular statement seems to define the unfolding legacy of Gates — more than any scholarly examination ever could.

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