Artist Theaster Gates turns Chicago’s empty spaces into incubators for culture

April 26, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
An internationally recognized artist, Theaster Gates is well versed on how to shape materials into meaningful forms. But Gates applies those principles to more than just art -- he’s also a renowned urban developer who shapes downtrodden neighborhoods into community gathering places and low-cost housing. Gates joins Jeffrey Brown to explore the intersection of art and activism.

HARI SREENIVASAN: From clay pots to entire cities, a most unusual and influential artist.

Jeffrey Brown has this profile from Chicago.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what is this?

THEASTER GATES, Artist: So, this is the ceramics studio.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you make a pot, the artist Theaster Gates told me recently in his studio, you think about the material and how to shape it.

THEASTER GATES: If it’s clay, then I have to learn a lot about the minerals that are in the earth. And what happens when two chemicals work together in relationship to heat? How does heat work in relationship to time?

JEFFREY BROWN: But, unlike most artists, Gates goes further, into a whole other realm. Just as we learn to reshape clay into pots, he says, we might learn to reshape buildings and neighborhoods into a revitalized urban life.

THEASTER GATES: If you were to apply that to a city, you would say, what’s the relationship between a commercial district and a residential area? And how might those things be a collision at first? But they need to slowly cool.

JEFFREY BROWN: Same processes, but different material?

THEASTER GATES: I think so, in that it implies that one has to also continue to get to know a thing by being directly engaged with the thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Gates is a successful commercial artist on the international gallery scene. But much of the focus of his work is here, on Chicago’s South Side, in neighborhoods filled with vacant lots, abandoned buildings, poor and dangerous streets.

Gates has bought buildings, like these on Dorchester Avenue, refurbished and turned them into community gathering places for music, films, talk. He’s also developed low-cost housing, including for artists, who contribute hours of community service in return.

WOMAN: There were two of them when the exhibiters opened.

JEFFREY BROWN: We happened on a weekly session in which residents talked about a local art exhibition and more. Gates likes to take things that are falling apart or abandoned, and give them new life, like these floorboards from a community youth gymnasium that was being torn down.

THEASTER GATES: Instead of demolishing it and just kind of…

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, instead of throwing it away.

THEASTER GATES: You pull it one board at a time, the installation, and then they sit. Like clay, it’s nothing, until it is something.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right. In this case, it’s something because you then put them back together into a kind of abstract work of art.


JEFFREY BROWN: And not only that, but a work of art with an embedded meaning.

THEASTER GATES: It’s a shame that the building is abandoned. Well, that’s only part of it. It’s a shame that young men and women aren’t learning what it means to work together as a team. It’s a shame that all of the skill that went into hand-painting of these floors is no longer done by very many people. There are all these shames embedded.

JEFFREY BROWN: But Gates, who has degrees in urban planning, also creates on a bigger canvas, as with his largest project to date,
the Stony Island Bank, a once-thriving institution in a beautiful neo-classical building that sat empty for more than 30 years and was scheduled to be torn down.

Gates bought it from the city for $1, raised several million to fix it up, and turned it into an arts bank, with exhibition and performance spaces, a gorgeous library, with books from the collection of the publisher of “Jet” and “Ebony” magazines, slides once used to teach art history, and vinyl albums from disc jockey Frankie Knuckles, the godfather of house music.

The art is in the idea, that black culture and black spaces should be preserved and cherished.

THEASTER GATES: I’m excited about collections because they start to demonstrate that black people have the capacity to care about black things, that we have the ability to make space for these incredible collections, and make room for people to enjoy them where normal people live. And I feel really fortunate that that kind of poetry can live on the South Side of Chicago.

Have you guys been doing this all day, by the way?

JEFFREY BROWN: His newest project, undertaken in his position as director of arts and publics life at the nearby University of Chicago, extends the idea to an entire city block, a burgeoning art block in the Washington Park neighborhood. It includes an arts incubator for cultural groups and classes in woodworking and more for young people.

THEASTER GATES: As you finish high school and go to college, come back for the summer, go back to college, come back after you graduate, that it’s really that relationship that will make these buildings work over time.

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s also a cafe and a bookstore where musicians regularly perform. On the drawing table, a large performance space for plays and concerts.

And what’s the idea behind it, an anchor or an engine to grow, or how do you see it?

THEASTER GATES: So, maybe words like engines and anchors are good words. But I think first it needed to just be a place where culture could happen, that before we had to think about it as an economic generator or a cultural anchor, it’s just like, can I have a place to rehearse my play?



THEASTER GATES: Yes, absolutely. Can we have a place to make our music? Can our kids learn art here?

JEFFREY BROWN: Gates’ work is now expanding beyond Chicago. His team at the university was recently awarded grants to tackle redevelopment projects in distressed areas of Gary, Indiana; Akron, Ohio; and Detroit, all of it grounded in his ideas of what art is.

THEASTER GATES: What I love about art is that the power of the symbolic work has so much potential to do more than the thing on the ground.

And so I think about ripples. I think about affect. I think about symbolism. But I don’t think that there are limits on what’s possible. Not only do poor people have a right to beautiful things, but people have the right not to be poor anymore. And I think that that feels like it’s work making art about and fighting for.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s art mixed with activism and urban development.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Jeffrey Brown in Chicago.