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Theaster Gates: The Rise of an Unconventional Art Star

Theaster Gates believes that good art can rescue bad neighborhoods. Here’s how he has convinced the international art world to buy into his vision.

(page 1 of 6)

Theaster Gates in his Grand Crossing warehouse and studio
Theaster Gates in his Grand Crossing warehouse and studio Photography: Chris Strong

On a warm Sunday evening, Theaster Gates is weaving around a room he designed and stocked with history books, leather-bound volumes of Ebony and Jet magazines, and pottery he made. He moves with more of a hop than a walk, his well-worn cowboy boots scuffing the wood floor. He calls out mournfully, “I know I’m on this tedious journey. . . . Walk with me, O Lord, walk with me.”

His cries are echoed by a young female vocalist, a spoken-word poet, and five musicians—on cello, bass, percussion, and keyboards—who surround him. Together, their haunting, anachronistic sound evokes African American spirituals, the blues of B. B. King, even the experimental jazz of Sun Ra.

This is an April rehearsal for Gates’s first major solo exhibition in his native Chicago, which is to open in a few weeks at the Museum of Contemporary Art. (The show runs from May 18 to October 6.) The music provides a sharp contrast to the noises just outsidethe room’s open windows: the backfiring mufflers, blasting boom boxes, and chatting passersby that are shepherding his troubled South Side neighborhood of Grand Crossing into spring.

Without hesitation or explanation, Gates shifts gears, beginning to beat his leg to signal a faster tempo. “Will you take a drive, a drive with me?” he sings, and the band follows. “Take a drive with me in my Model T?”

The sounds grow more and more reckless until the keyboardist, Michael Drayton, who directs music every Sunday at St. Sabina, the influential South Side church, interrupts. “What exactly are we doing?” he asks.

Gates hikes his knee up onto a stool. “It’s a jumbled mess,” he says, with a face that’s half earnest, half shit-eating mischief. “I hope, at best, it’s complicated to understand what I’m trying to get across.”

Complicated? Absolutely. And it’s precisely his embrace of complications that has helped vault Gates, 39, from humble beginnings on the West Side to the center of the international art world. He held his first solo show, at the Hyde Park Art Center, just six years ago; last year ArtReview put him at No. 56 on its annual list of the 100 most powerful people in the business. (He’s below British star Damien Hirst and heavyweight gallerist Larry Gagosian but ahead of celebrated artists Jeff Koons and Steve McQueen, not to mention Miuccia Prada, the designer and arts patron.)

It’s even complicated to describe exactly what kind of artist Gates is. Trained as a potter and educated as an urban planner, he’s a craftsman with a well-honed visual aesthetic, a sensual performer whose harmonies can give you goose bumps, and a critical thinker who uses art to raise provocative questions about race. “He’s a sculptor, an installation artist, a performance artist,” explains his old friend Hamza Walker, an associate curator at the Renaissance Society. “He’s nine things at once.”

Above all, Gates is an enterprising, charismatic operator in a city teeming with operators—a guy who has figured out how to profit from the art world’s need to latch on to something with meaning. He’s also successfully spinning activist art into serious cash: Some of his pieces now command upwards of $100,000.

At the same time, Gates holds a respected post as an arts administrator at the University of Chicago and is bent on helping the school break out of its ivory tower and improve its relationship with its less affluent neighbors on the South and West Sides. [Editor’s note: Elly Fishman, who cowrote this story, worked for him part-time in 2010 and 2011.] And in his own neighborhood of Grand Crossing, he has an ambitious plan to convert a swath of dilapidated old buildings into creative playgrounds, with potentially major implications for the future of the most desperate neighborhoods in Chicago and beyond.

While Gates is not without his critics, his urban vision is why so many influential people appear to have fallen under his spell. “There are philanthropists who are art collectors who are his greatest fans,” says the Chicago gallerist Kavi Gupta, who represents Gates. “After people come down to Dorchester”—a group of Grand Crossing buildings that Gates bought, rehabbed, and transformed into artists’ spaces, archives, and a movie house devoted to screening African American films—“they line up and say, ‘What can we do for you?’ ”

On a block full of empty lots, foreclosed houses, and boarded-up windows, Gates has become the biggest property owner (see the map on page 3). That fact comes with its own set of artistic opportunities and social responsibilities. “The stakes are very high,” he acknowledges. “The stakes are very high.”

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