Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates appeared in the Architectural League of New York’s Current Work series on November 21, which was co-sponsored by the Parsons School of Constructed Environments, Parsons School of Design and The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture of The Cooper Union. A star in the art world, Gates crosses many boundaries and disciplines, holding two degrees in urban planning, as well as ones in religion and ceramics. Billie Tsien of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architect introduced him by saying that his life resembled a fairy tale—he’s a reverse Snow White as the only boy of 8 children, mixed with a bit of Princess and the Pea. I would venture there’s also elements of Jack and the Beanstalk, along with shape-shifter qualities.
Gates has been transforming the South Side of Chicago, his home town. But it’s taken him a while to get there. After studying at Iowa State University, then living in South Africa and Japan, he returned to Chicago in 1999. After trying to get his ceramics noticed by the art establishment while doing a day job at the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) commissioning public art, then working as an arts programmer at the University of Chicago (both of which he found frustrating and ineffective), he rebranded himself as a conceptual artist and began to find his voice. He started to make installations from demolition-site debris such as shoe shine stands and sell the resulting “objects.”
While in school, he became aware of Samuel Mockbee’s Rural Studio at Auburn University. He was also impacted by what could be called its city version, Rick Lowe’s Project Row House in Houston, which cast urban renewal as an art installation. Gates looked at his Chicago neighborhood, which was suffering from unemployment, violence, abandoned buildings, and more, and began acquiring run-down buildings (at first with sub-prime loans) and turning them into cultural centers, rather than housing. Music, yoga, discussions, gospel singing, film screenings, cooking, and more, take place in these spaces.
Gates has learned to turn obstacles into advantages and reframe an argument, and he now has the track record to forward his ideas and projects. He talks about “preconditions,” the ground rules required to make transformations for fusing art and architecture with activism. Success is measured by the impact on the local community.
At the same time, Chicago is an architecturally aware city with shining examples from various periods. Gates has talked about viewing Frank Lloyd Wright buildings on his way to high school. On Monday night, he mused, “It’s hard not to think about Crown Hall,” the Mies van der Rohe architecture building at Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), when you’re located in Chicago. When Gates showed a project he did at the OMA-designed Prada Foundation in Milan, he discussed working with this form of modernism, using the term almost as “orthodoxy.” Looking at the buildings that Gates has transformed, a modernist craft aesthetic is evident.
His signature structures, under the rubric of his Rebuild Foundation, a not-for-profit engine intended to “rebuild the cultural foundation of underinvested neighborhoods,” are the Dorchester Projects—the Listening House, Black Cinema House, Archive House, and now Stony Island Arts Bank. These buildings are just blocks away from the upcoming Obama Presidential Library in Jackson Park, to be designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, giving an extra frisson to the evening. Close proximity has given new import and financial value to Gates’s structures, and though it makes him look like a clairvoyant developer (Jackson Park won out of a rival site), the trick may have been that Gates has stayed. With his notoriety and financial security, Gates could live anywhere in the city, but he is firmly installed in the Dorchester complex where he both lives and works.
Gates has exported Chicago as well. At Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany, he made a splash with the Huguenot House, an abandoned building transformed with detritus from the Dorchester buildings. The house was a continual work-in-progress over the course of the art fair by Gates and his 13 colleagues from Chicago, who lived in the house, constructed installations, performed, and conversed. Afterward, Gates combined elements from the building into objects that were sold for up to $120,000 each. Similarly, when Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel sold the 1923 Stony Island Avenue State Bank, an abandoned neoclassical structure slated for demolition, to Rebuild for $1.00 with the condition that he could raise money to renovate it, Gates took blocks of marble from the bathrooms and trim, embellished them with an acid-etched motto (“in ART we trust”), and his signature, and sold these art “bonds” at Art Basel for five thousand dollars each, raising half a million dollars.
Gates now has a seat at the table. When he met with Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson of Gary, Indiana, only 20 miles from his South Side neighborhood, about a potential art project, he asked what she needed. She replied funds. Within six months, he raised $1.6 million from the Bloomberg and Knight foundations. This month, ArtHouse: A Social Kitchen, an arts and culinary incubator, with an art gallery and pop-up cafe that will also host business workshops to support local entrepreneurs, was launched. It exemplified Gates’s ability to connect and convene. And it highlights his recasting of what it means to be an entrepreneur, which he says is the only word we have for broaching the meeting of an unemployed person and an abandoned building. Which brings us back to his consideration of “preconditions” and the ability to transform.
Billie Tsien also talked about opening up a fortune cookie for lunch that day, and reading “If you can’t decide to go up or down, go from side to side.” Theaster Gates exemplifies just that.