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One Year On, Is Theaster Gates Reimagining the Modern Museum at the Stony Island Arts Bank?
by Lindsey Anderson

I first visited the Stony Island Arts Bank about six months ago, on an unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon in April. As I approached the building, I was struck first by the sunlight slanting through its massive stone columns, second by how much it stood out from its surroundings. It looked as if the Field Museum had a child—a rebellious teenager—who snuck away from Chicago’s Museum Campus in the middle of the night to start a new life on a sleepy South Side street. And, in a sense, that’s kind of what happened.

The Arts Bank is billed by its creator, artist-activist Theaster Gates, as “an institution of and for the South Side.” Part exhibition hall, part community center, it’s not really a museum in the strictest sense of the word, but it looks and feels a lot like one. I tend to think of it as a counterpoint to the more centrally located, tourist-friendly museums snuggled between skyscrapers and public parks along Michigan Avenue, an alternative to cultural spaces like the Art Institute of Chicago.

And what, exactly, makes the Arts Bank so unlike the AIC? Well, for one thing, the AIC occupies an expensive piece of real estate in Millennium Park that’s convenient for out-of-towners staying in nearby hotels or wealthy urbanites who can afford to live in the area, but isn’t particularly accessible to people living in lower-income neighborhoods further from the Loop. For another thing, most of the one and a half million visitors it admits each year live outside city limits and are less interested in up-and-coming local creatives than in established artists based elsewhere in the United States and the world at large. Accordingly, the AIC devotes the bulk of its more than seventy-million-dollar annual operating budget to exhibitions and programming featuring internationally acclaimed art with broad appeal, rather than work being created in Chicago by people invested in enriching the culture of their city and the lives of the people living in it.[1] The Institute is in no way unusual in this regard. In fact, most of the larger museums and cultural institutions operating today occupy similar locations and have adopted similar funding strategies.

“...the Arts Bank invites us to reimagine what a twenty-
first century museum can and should be, asks us to
rethink whose interests a cultural space ought to serve.”


The Stony Island Arts Bank is not that kind of organization, though. It’s located about eight miles south of the Loop, in Grand Crossing, and conceives of itself as “a space for neighborhood residents to preserve, access, reimagine and share their heritage… a destination for artists, scholars, curators, and collectors to research and engage with South Side history.” Administrators often invite artists from other cities, states, and countries to present works in its galleries, but its exhibitions and events are nevertheless driven by the needs of the community it serves, intended to appeal to the interests of the people—mostly working class people of color—living nearby.

In this regard, the Arts Bank invites us to reimagine what a twenty-first century museum can and should be, asks us to rethink whose interests a cultural space ought to serve. And though it sometimes struggles to reach the local residents that are so central to its mission (more on that later), it is unquestionably committed to serving its community.

Carlos Bunga's installation at Stony Island Arts Bank. Photo: Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing. Courtesy of Rebuild Foundation


This sense of commitment was evident in the Bank’s first exhibition, staged with the space’s launch this time last year, when Portuguese artist Carlos Bunga, who often addresses immigration and identity in his site-specific installations, made an architectural intervention of cardboard columns, perfectly matched to the aesthetics of building’s partial renovation. And it continues to remain evident in its most recent loan: the gazebo where twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by Cleveland police officers in 2012, which will serve as a monument for quiet contemplation and collective mourning. Since its inception the Bank has sought out work that fosters a sense of community amongst its audiences. And Gates wants to ensure that it continues to do exactly that for many years to come.

Born in 1973, in one of Chicago’s most impoverished, segregated West Side neighborhoods, Gates tested into a selective enrollment school in an affluent North Side neighborhood and spent much of his childhood navigating the city’s socioeconomic disparities, literally and figuratively. Near his school, he noted, roads were better paved, garbage trucks trundled past more frequently, and civic spaces received more money. He never forgot this obvious inequity, and when he enrolled at Iowa State University, in 1992, he decided to study urban planning (though he couldn’t resist adding a ceramics major as well). After graduating, Gates ultimately returned to Chicago and began working for the Transit Authority, acquiring public artworks for underfunded bus and train stations throughout the city. Eventually, he accepted a position as an arts planner at the University of Chicago and relocated to a South Side neighborhood near campus: Grand Crossing.

The year he moved, 2006, the unemployment rate in the neighborhood was far higher than the national average. Many people lost their homes and businesses, and, in an effort to prevent squatters from settling in the abandoned buildings or disgruntled residents from defacing them, city officials initiated a scorched earth policy of sorts. They tore down what they didn’t have the resources or the inclination to repair, until entire blocks came to resemble blighted landscapes, solitary buildings standing out against the distant city skyline, each one surrounded by rubble and vacant lot after vacant lot.

This was the scene Gates encountered when he moved to Grand Crossing, but it wasn’t one he was content to leave unchanged. In a statement he penned for a 2012 project, he wrote that “someone somewhere decided these streets were ruins, and I wondered whether I had the power to restore them... I couldn’t believe that there were blocks of beautiful homes that had been abandoned. I refused to accept that so many men and women were out of work.”[2] And so he began to do something remarkable—he began to use the money he raised selling his ceramics and sculptural works to buy up unoccupied homes and businesses in the area, hiring local workers to help him transform them into vibrant community centers that could tangibly improve the lives of the people who lived near them.

Stony Island Arts Bank. Photo: Tom Harris © Hedrich Blessing. Courtesy of Rebuild Foundation


He purchased the first building, a dilapidated storefront on Dorchester Avenue, in late 2006 and renovated it with salvaged materials found throughout the city. He then bought two more buildings on the same block, eventually establishing three distinct programming spaces: Listening House, Archive House, and Black Cinema House. All three are now open to the public throughout the year, free of charge.

The Dorchester Projects became an almost overnight success, garnering Gates exhibition invitations, major media interviews, and a cadre of new investors eager to bankroll his next big project. He leveraged all the positive publicity and influence to embark on even more ambitious undertakings: In 2010 he founded the Rebuild Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to renovating and repurposing properties throughout the greater Grand Crossing area, and in 2012 he set his sights on the abandoned Stony Island Saving and Loan building. The 17,000-square-foot behemoth of a building had been one of the most recognizable buildings in the neighborhood when it was built in 1923. But it fell into disrepair in the 1980s, and by 2012 it was so dilapidated that the city government agreed to sell it to Gates for a single dollar when he expressed an interest in it.

“This building has been a monument, an anchor in the community.”

Gates knew that securing the deed to the building was only the first step in a lengthy renovation process, but he remained undaunted, unfazed by the fact that seventeen developers before him had tried—and failed—to rehabilitate the property. “Projects like this require belief more than they require funding,” he insisted during an interview with writer Diana Budds. “If there's not a kind of belief, motivation, and critical aggregation of people who believe with you in a project like this, it cannot happen.” And his unwavering commitment to the project eventually paid off. Today, the Arts Bank is once again one of the most recognizable, respected buildings in Grand Crossing. It houses thousands upon thousands of books, periodicals, slides, and records. It also hosts rotating exhibitions and near-daily events, luring many of the city’s arts professionals and cultural glitterati far south of the institutions they typically frequent.

Stony Island Arts Bank. Photo: Tom Harris © Hedrich Blessing. Courtesy of Rebuild Foundation


During my most recent visit, I met a young AIC employee who told me that she’s been a fan of Gates’ work since she saw his 2012 dOCUMENTA project.[3] Many of my colleagues at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago are equally absorbed by his work, probably because—as someone who blurs the boundaries between grassroots activism and fine art—he is something of an anomaly to museum professionals. As critic Murray Whyte wrote in an essay on the subject: “Gates comes billed as social entrepreneur, champion of the marginalized and crusader for the urban poor as much as artist, and his matter-of-fact way of not separating any of the things he does makes 21st-century museums eager to embrace his can-do, grassroots-and-bootstraps approach to culture wholeheartedly.”

Put another way, I think that Gates’ community-based practice appeals to me, and so many of my colleagues, because we are painfully aware that American museums, specifically art museums, need to change the way they relate to their audiences, and soon. According to the 2016 National Art Index, the total percentage of the US population visiting art museums annually shrank from 15.5 to 12.9 percent between 2003 and 2013. Over the same ten-year period, art museum attendance in metropolitan areas declined from 33 to 31.4 million annual visitors. And, perhaps most disturbingly, research indicates that those who are continuing to attend art museums are increasingly less representative of the US population as a whole—that is, they are significantly more likely to be wealthy and white than the average citizen. The American Association of Museums recently released a report explaining in no uncertain terms that their audiences are becoming less and less diverse and that museums are therefore meeting the needs of a smaller and smaller segment of society.”

“...those who are continuing to attend art museums are increasingly less representative of the US population as a whole.”

That’s why so many of us find Gates appealing. He seems to be suggesting, through his work with the Arts Bank and his other Rebuild projects, that he has found a way to construct a new kind of art institution—one built by and for the people living in the community it serves, one capable of reaching audiences that other organizations have failed to attract. I think that Gates has been mostly successful in this endeavor, but the Arts Bank is still too new to be widely known outside of arts circles, and I sometimes wonder if it’s more popular amongst the city’s jet set—who meet Gates at fundraisers or galas—than to local residents less enmeshed in the city’s highfalutin contemporary art scene.

This worry was on my mind when I reached out to Kate Hadley Toftness, who manages archival collections and residencies for Rebuild, to ask her how many of the organization’s visitors came from the local community. She told me that staff members can’t easily track who comes to their exhibitions or events because admission is free, and because they don’t ask their visitors to provide them with their zip codes upon entry, the way a larger institution might. But she also assured me that, in her own experience, she’s found that most of the visitors who attend the Arts Bank on weekdays live nearby. And even on weekends, when you’re as likely to see someone from the Gold Coast as someone from Grand Crossing, the Bank still seems to be outperforming many arts organizations in its ability to attract underserved audiences.

And, perhaps equally importantly, the mere fact that the Bank is once again open and operating is a boon to community members. “This building has been a monument,” Toftness explained, “an anchor in the community.” It’s worth remembering that the Bank had been left vacant for more than thirty years, allowed to deteriorate little by little, until it became an unwelcome eyesore to its neighbors. Gates changed all that when he bought the property. “It's not so much that the buildings on Chicago's South and West Sides are vacant,” he explained in a 2015 Tribune article, “but that they started to lose value for the black community… I'm interested in showing there is still so much latent power in these buildings, and by simply making these spaces available again, and open again, great things can happen.”

Gates is aware, of course, that when the “value” of a particular neighborhood begins to rise, gentrification is rarely far behind. But, by making his projects so particular to the interests of the current residents of Grand Crossing—for instance, by conceiving of Black Cinema House as a space that exclusively screens films by black artists and prioritizes works by South Side natives invested in issues of community activism—he may have found a way to spur on development in the neighborhood while staving off, or at least slowing down, the onset of gentrification in the area. In this regard, he differentiates his particular brand of “space-creation, of space-retention, of active growth” from gentrification as we commonly conceive of it. 

Stony Island Arts Bank. Photo: Tom Harris © Hedrich Blessing. Courtesy of Rebuild Foundation


Ultimately, Gates’ goal is a lofty one. He is attempting—literally and figuratively—to tear down and rebuild the twenty-first century art institution, transforming it into a more inclusive, accessible space that serves the interests of the people living near it.

When I stride past the Arts Bank’s larger-than-life columns or stare at the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in its library, I can believe that he has already done a great deal to reshape our understanding of what a museum can be. When I think of the kids I watched ogle the ceiling tiles of its soaring atrium, or the teenaged boy whose eyes lit up when he learned that the Bank houses the vinyl collection of local music legend Frankie Knuckles, it isn’t hard for me to believe that, even though the Arts Bank is not yet known throughout the South Side, it is already providing greater access to art, to culture, and will only continue to attract larger crowds in the years to come.[4] And when I remember the older woman I spoke to there, who has lived in Grand Crossing all her life and says that the Arts Bank is one of the best things to happen in the neighborhood in a long time, I’m inclined to agree. 


—Lindsey Anderson


Lindsey Anderson is an arts editor who lives and works in Chicago. She has strong feelings about serial commas and the best bar patios in her city.

[1] The organization GuideStar releases yearly reports on US museums and other nonprofits in an effort to help visitors assess whether the organizations are spending their money wisely. You can download GuideStar’s latest report on the Art Institute here.

[2] You can read this statement, along with many insightful essays about Gates and his work, in 12 Ballads For Huguenot House (2012), an artist’s book published by Köln: Veranstalungs to commemorate the project Gates conceived for dOCUMENTA 13.

[3] To complete the project, which he titled 12 Ballads for Huguenot House, Gates salvaged pieces of an abandoned building in Grand Crossing. He then shipped the materials to Kassel, Germany, and used them to renovate an abandoned residence there.

[4] Gates was recently awarded $10.25 million dollars to revitalize South Side and West Side buildings throughout Chicago, and he intends to invest a significant portion of the funds into additional programming at the Arts Bank. The full story is available here.


(Image at top: Stony Island Arts Bank. Photo: Tom Harris © Hedrich Blessing. Courtesy of Rebuild Foundation)

Posted by Lindsey Anderson on 9/22 | tags: museums theaster gates Stony island Arts Bank chicago

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