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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 6 of 6)

Gates being interviewed by ABC-7

Gates being interviewed by ABC-7

In Chicago and around the country, urban revitalization projects are a dime a dozen—usually undertaken by academics, philanthropists, metropolitan planning agencies, or politicians. What makes Gates’s experiment on South Dorchester an interesting case study isn’t that it is being run by a man with two degrees in urban planning. It’s that the man is using a successful art career to help foot the bills and to plant the flag of high culture in a place that usually sees everything but.

In 2010, Gates decided to start a not-for-profit group, Rebuild, through which he could run community arts projects. In 2012 he hired Sheryl Papier, a former executive with the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust, to oversee the finer aspects of the program. Papier and 10 part-time staffers now operate a spate of arts programming—artist-led classes, galleries, and artist residency efforts—in seven buildings across three cities: Chicago, Omaha, and St. Louis.

In Omaha, Rebuild partnered with the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts to renovate a bank that had historic ties to the city’s black residents and reopen it as an arts space. In Pagedale, right outside St. Louis, Rebuild started a weekly poetry workshop that has proved popular enough to be extended indefinitely. “The programming is driven by the residents of the community,” Papier explains.

In Chicago, Rebuild manages Black Cinema House, a screening room and film literacy center that hosts weekly public events on the first floor of 6901 South Dorchester Avenue. Two afternoons a week, its doors open to a group of middle schoolers from the South Shore Fine Arts Academy, a charter school, so they can study filmmaking (the goal of the program: to make a movie about their experiences). To the chagrin of everyone at Rebuild, the neighborhood school Fermi Elementary, which houses the Fine Arts Academy, is on Chicago Public Schools’s latest closing list.

But Rebuild’s most ambitious project is just around the corner, literally: the transformation of a sprawling, boarded-up, trash-strewn public housing complex along Dante Avenue and 70th Street into the city’s first art-centered residential community, the Dorchester Artist Housing Collaborative. “I brought [low-income housing developer] Brinshore to the table, we approached Chicago Housing Authority, and then Rebuild became part of it,” says Gates. “And all that feels like fun dealmaking.”

Construction on the $11 million joint venture between Rebuild and Brinshore is set to start in June. The blighted housing will be converted into a mix of 32 market-rate and affordable two- and three-bedroom apartments for artists and their families. Four buildings will be razed to make room for a new glass-walled arts center that will be the project’s crowning jewel. “This is one of the most exciting ideas: Grand Crossing as a cultural hub,” says Boone, the city’s cultural commissioner. “It’s accessible via public transportation, and the mayor is absolutely interested.”

An influx of artists is often the first step in a downtrodden neighborhood’s path to revitalization. (Witness Wicker Park or New York City’s SoHo.) “Bringing arts and culture into the community is one of the many models for redevelopment in cities that suffer from great vacancies,” says Phil Enquist, a partner with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

But Kathleen Cagney, a sociologist and the director of the Population Research Center at the U. of C., points out that it’s hard for a small-scale, somewhat haphazard project to change very much about its neighborhood. (One case in point: Pocket Town, which this magazine wrote about in February.) “It doesn’t mean it’s bad—it can be terrific—but what are the goals for the next decade?” she asks. “Will other people follow him [Gates]? What if he moves on? What happens to the vision?”

While some Grand Crossing inhabitants have never set foot in Gates’s library—and maybe never will—the area feels safer since Gates has anchored himself there. “I look out the window now where I didn’t used to,” says Vaneeta Rollins, 57, who lives a few doors down from the archives. “I have hope that something good will come out of it. If nothing else, he’s fixing up the houses.”

* * *

The sheer size of Gates’s real-estate holdings proves his commitment. While he is reluctant to discuss the subject (“I’m going to be abstract about that,” he told Chicago), Cook County records show that he currently owns 12 properties—some in Grand Crossing, some west of there—outright or through limited liability companies that he controls. In addition, his nonprofit (of which he’s the chairman) will soon own a portion of the Dorchester Artist Housing Collaborative complex (at presstime, the city still owned the property). Finally, he’s in the process of closing a deal to buy an old bank at 68th and Stony Island in Grand Crossing. He envisions it as the eventual home of the Ebony/Jet archives, an arts organization incubator, a culinary training program, and a restaurant. (The deal should be finalized in mid-May, he says.)

In all, Gates calculates that he has poured $20 million into the South Side over the past five years—a figure that includes his own spending on not just buildings but also a small army of architects, contractors, artisans, and administrators—plus grants, city and state redevelopment funds, and private donations. “It’s kind of an accumulation,” he says when describing his real-estate ventures. “I don’t think I have it all figured out yet. One day it was like, oh, what can I do with this stuff that is all around me? Maybe if I said yes to this set of books and this set of records, then I could build around it.

“You should always have a project that is just your life work,” he continues. “It should be the thing that carries you through the highs and lows. A kind of constant gardening.”

He leans against the glass of a large window that overlooks the northern stretch of Dorchester Avenue. “I do not want an officious life,” he says, surveying the two-flat he has just purchased across the street. “I do not love publicness. I am not going to stop saying ‘motherfucker.’ But you kind of got to choose. I’m going to just let it play out. Now we can leverage the work to do other things. Now there is no more proving.”


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