Theaster Gates Sells Fire Hoses to Rebuild Chicago Slums

Theaster Gates
Chicago artist Theaster Gates. Photographer: Kavi Gupta/Chicago | Berlin via Bloomberg

Amid weedy blocks on Chicago’s South Side, artist Theaster Gates is remodeling a derelict building.

Gates’s latest canvas is neighborhoods given up for dead. He’s a hot artist who produces sober tapestries made from fire hoses and installations that use artifacts of black culture, such as shoeshine stands and Ebony magazines.

At the building site, he clambers through the wooden studs of walls that will divide future studios at the Washington Park Arts Incubator. Workers are restoring the two-story commercial building’s colorful terracotta exterior. A storefront space will host events and musical celebrations and display art.

Gates is a youthful 39, with a shaved head and appraising brown eyes. He started the incubator as director of the Arts and Public Life Initiative at the University of Chicago, which reaches out to the poverty-wracked surrounding areas.

It isn’t enough for him to simply create gallery-friendly artworks that evoke neglected places. He wants to help artists from these tough blocks to work and address “the need for culture where it doesn’t exist.” He undertakes what he calls “development that thinks like an artist.”

Gates trained and worked as a city planner before he turned to art. “There was a moment I knew I was frustrated with planning,” he says. “It felt like a shell game, and it didn’t benefit poor people or people of color.”

ArtPlace Grant

The university committed $1.85 million to the project, which will open in early 2013 with the support of a $400,000 grant from the ArtPlace group of foundations.

It’s only one of his rapidly growing urban-development enterprises.

The next day Gates is in Grand Crossing, a once-genteel neighborhood pocked with empty lots where houses once stood. It’s the site of Dorchester Projects, where he has restored three of the four structures.

Gates has sheathed a two-story abandoned house in a tapestry of salvaged barn boards to which scraps of paint still cling. Coleus plants burst through gaps in the matching front fence.

He turns more salvaged wood into tables, benches, shelves and display niches for collections of pottery, lantern slides and books. The house works as an informal archive and setting for Gates’s “Soul Food Dinners” -- meals that mash up conviviality, art and neighborhood improvement.

Candy Store

Next door, a contractor is converting a one-story former candy store into a reading room. Across the street, Gates has restored a brick townhouse, calling it the “Black Cinema House.” Only the lovingly paired, appealingly mismatched doors evoke his art sensibility.

Dorchester Projects respects the building as a found object -- a theme of his art. Like the archive, each of the structures opens periodically to the public for gatherings.

“I decided I could actively participate in how the neighborhood is perceived,” Gates explained. “I call it mission-based living. I can paint, mow the lawn, but also make a public and visible effort that’s contagious.”

His Rebuild Foundation is working with Brinshore Development and architecture firm Landon Bone Baker to remodel a derelict public housing project.

It will become 32 units that will mix artists and other tenants who are either subsidized or paying market rent. There is a glass-fronted art exhibition space.

Terracotta Bank

He’s raising money to restore the 1923 Illinois State Bank building with architect Charles Vinz. The derelict terracotta block will become a restaurant, bar and exhibition space.

The foundation also works in Omaha, St. Louis, and Detroit, financed by grants, loans and proceeds from selling art. Gates has drawn foundations, developers and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel into his orbit.

Artist, developer, planner: how does Gates see himself? “I’m asking myself where I can make meaning,” he says. “I’m drawn to the trauma of a place, and I wonder what makes people passionate about a place -- like the black churches that draw suburbanites back to their old neighborhoods every Sunday.”

Right now it’s hard to tell if even a dynamo like Gates can unleash enough artistic energy in neglected neighborhoods to seed wider revitalization. He isn’t facing much competition.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Greg Evans on film, Amanda Gordon on galas.

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