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Despite his success with museum exhibitions, Gates has an uneasy history with museums—specifically with their need for objects. “It was really through the naiveté and the myopic vision of museums that I came to need to make a thing,” he says. “Even after the Whitney Biennial, [curators] were like, ‘We always enjoy talking to you, Theaster, but what are you going to show? You don’t have a lot of things.’
“I was like, ‘That’s not true. I have this house thing. I have this dinner thing. I have this singing thing. I have things.’
“But they said, ‘What is going to live in our space?’ ”
He calls such conversations “reasonable fucked-up requests.”
Gupta tells a story about how, before the 2009 NADA Art Fair in Miami, he convinced Gates to make more objects. Gupta suggested that the throne-like shoeshine stands used as props during Temple Exercises at the MCA could sell. When the day came to load the shipment that was going from Chicago to Miami, the shoeshine stands weren’t ready. So two nights before the fair was to start, the gallerist rented a truck, hired two art students who were willing to drive all night, and sent the crew to Gates’s studio to pick up the stands. The last-minute hustle cost Gupta $12,000, but every piece sold. “It was crazy,” he recalls.
Things—now that Gates has come around to the idea of making them—are fetching tidy prices. Gupta says that a Gates work now sells for between $20,000 and $150,000. Last September, at the debut of the art fair Expo Chicago at Navy Pier, a large tapestry that recalls a battered American flag was snapped up on day one for $125,000.
Like Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, Gates does not personally make every work that is credited to him: A group of other artists and craftsmen does it for him. “There is a pretty big team that Theaster runs mostly from afar,” says John Preus, Gates’s former head builder.
Having a big assembly line is part of the Gates business model. Given that he still has a day job, how else can he keep up with demand? Some pieces from An Epitaph for Civil Rights and Other Domesticated Structures, his solo exhibition at Gupta’s gallery in 2011, sold before the show even opened (for $20,000 to $50,000 each). Half of the 20 civil rights–themed throw rugs crafted for the 2012 Armory Show were claimed by the end of the VIP preview party.
In discussing Gates’s appeal, Christian Viveros-Faune, art critic for the Village Voice, says that he provides a much-needed morality check for the art world. “He’s highly talented,” Viveros-Faune says. “But what strikes me about his art is that he doesn’t turn his back on money. What Theaster understands is that the best kind of art is business art—that is a defining triumph—because he can put it back into the community.”
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