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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 3 of 6)

Gates at the March opening of the University of Chicago Arts Incubator

Gates at the March opening of the University of Chicago Arts Incubator

The same year that he was hired at the U. of C., Gates stepped through the doors of a boxy former candy shop that a friend was renovating in nearby Grand Crossing. It wasn’t an area where most university staffers would choose to live: For one thing, the violent crime rate there was three times that of the city as a whole. But it was close to campus and more affordable than Hyde Park—and the building featured a spacious front room where Gates could set up a studio. At $130,000, “it was not a comfortable building purchase,” he recalls. “I had to take out an ARM [adjustable rate mortgage] at 17 percent.”

Two years later, in 2008, the adjacent two-flat went up for sale. “I wanted to control the building next to me,” Gates says when describing his interest in buying it. “It had been condemned, and I could hear water running in the basement.” When he saw a realtor coming out of the building, he asked how much it cost. The answer was $16,000. He bit.

That purchase marked the unintentional start of Gates’s career as a developer. While he says that he didn’t have a specific purpose for the building in mind, he now had a space all his own where he could entertain potential investors such as Eric Whitaker, Anita Blanchard and Marty Nesbitt, and Deone Jackman, a Hyde Park art collector and an early enthusiast. “I was just incredibly impressed with what he was doing in poverty-ridden neighborhoods,” Jackman says.

That spring, Jackman gave Gates $10,000 to help rehabilitate the two-flat. Soon he was talking about hosting Japanese soul food dinners there and building up enough “cultural capital” to spur conversation about how to change troubled blocks.

Small Theaster Gates map
Theaster Inc.: 1. An old bank that will be converted to an arts space and restaurant; 2. A black movie house that hosts community events; 3. An archive full of history and architecture books; 4. The future home of a mixed-income artists’ colony. Click the image to view the full map.

He relied on many people to help figure that out, including Dan Peterman, an installation artist and founder of Experimental Station, a community arts space in Woodlawn. Peterman was a few steps ahead of Gates in both experience and prestige, but he recognized the younger artist’s potential. “I encouraged local engagement and rootedness,” says Peterman. “In the end, it can be difficult to sustain the nomadic life of an artist. It’s important to not totally give yourself over to the art world.”

Today that two-flat, at 6916 South Dorchester Avenue, is a kind of cabinet of curiosities: a massive archive that houses 14,000 architecture books rescued when the Prairie Avenue Bookshop closed, 60,000 glass slides from the U. of C.’s art history department, and floor-to-ceiling shelves full of African American history titles such as The Slave Trade and A Mob Intent on Death.

Gates lives nearby, in the upper floor of the third building he purchased and renovated. Unmarried and childless, he has created an aesthete’s man cave: Volumes of art and history books serve as room dividers, a dual turntable pumps out Roberta Flack, a shower has been rehabbed to look like a sauna, and a pair of well-worn cowboy boots peek out from under the bed. It looks like what might happen if an urbane interior designer got locked in a Midwest barn for a week.

But Theaster Gates’s Mississippi-meets-black Chicago-meets-Apartment Therapy brand was still being sorted out in June 2009, when another influencer came calling: the internationally known curator Francesco Bonami (who for a time was a curator at large for the MCA). Bonami was organizing the 2010 Whitney Biennial—the most prestigious group contemporary arts show in the country—and wanted to check out Gates’s studio.

The artist gathered a crew and spent the next 48 hours cleaning the cobwebs and dust piles from the corners of the two-flat. He showed a video of Temple Exercises and projected an image of a Sung Dynasty porcelain vase on the wall. Like Warhol’s Factory, the house buzzed with excitement, an energy that permeates Gates’s work to this day. “It was when Francesco came [to Dorchester] that I thought, I can do things like talk about the conditions of a neighborhood by emblematically presenting this building,” Gates recalls.

Bonami wound up tapping Gates for the Biennial but didn’t give him a plum spot in the main exhibition hall. Gates was placed below it, in a courtyard next to the museum’s restaurant. Here an artist could be overlooked—or could seize the opportunity to transform a nontraditional space and capture the attention of a hungry audience lining up for $15 pork belly sandwiches while he was at it. Gates did the latter, reprising parts of Temple Exercises and staging several Black Monks of Mississippi performances under a light box that read “SHINE.”

Now the art world was starting to pay attention. “What is important about Theaster is that he is leveraging the attention that he is getting for really remarkable, and ambitious, projects,” says Peter Taub, the MCA’s director of performance programs. “With that comes opportunities to make change.”

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