Artist. Entrepreneur. Potter. Bureaucrat. Singer. Arts Administrator. Host. Urban Planner. Collector. The list could go on and on, but the take away from all these labels might be that Theaster Gates is hard to pinpoint or define. Because his practice combines so many disparate disciplines and mediums, it's counter productive to try and categorize the work he does, and the work he makes. Up until now, that hasn’t been too much of an issue—he’s fit comfortably in the trending, self-reflexive debates within the field of art regarding “Social Practice” or “Socially Engaged Art” (one of the debates is over the name of the practice itself). This is mostly predicated on his ReBuild Foundation, the not-for-profit he founded and oversees, and which executes his urban renewal projects. In addition, he also acts as director of University of Chicago’s Arts & Public Life initiative, that has undertaken a similar build out and programming of the Washington Park Arts Incubator space, and he also finds time to maintain a busy and highly sought after studio art practice managed by Theaster Gates Studio.
In his recent address as keynote speaker at the Illinois Arts Council’s annual “One State, Together in the Arts” conference, he talked a lot about place. He was humble and casual when describing the evolution of the Dorchester Projects, an ambiguous moniker for a sprawling series of building acquisitions and remodeling projects which began with the transformation of his home and studio into an archive house containing 8,000 records saved from the now defunct Dr. Wax; titles salvaged from the now defunct Prairie Avenue Bookstore; a temporary home for the Johnson collection—a donation from Johnson Publishing Corporation; and glass lantern slides salvaged from U of C’s art history department. It also includes a building across the street that has been transformed into the Black Cinema House, a screening venue, and a nearby home that has been converted into artist residency accommodations. His concern for objects extends beyond a sculptor’s interest in their physicality or materiality, and focuses more on their psychosocial power and charms. It’s almost as if he uses an object, such as a 2x4 deconstructed from Dorchester and re-installed in the Huguenot House as part of dOCUMENTA 13 (elements of which are currently on view at the MCA in 13th Ballad), as a talisman, hoping its aura will transfer itself to his built environments and import them with a similar sense of community spirit or “heat” generating buzz (his term).
Theaster Gates, Double Cross, 2013; Courtesy of the artist, White Cube, and Kavi Gupta. Installation view, Theaster Gates: 13th Ballad, MCA Chicago, 2013. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.
When describing the feeling of receiving his first check from his gallery at the One State conference, Gates said he thought, “What happens when I have the opportunity to live somewhere else? … This was about 2007, [and] it’s when place started to really matter for me. That there was this moment when I realized that other people had gotten that check, or had gotten that job, and they would make the decision to move.” In nearby Englewood, Def Jam records has recently been signing young rap talent representing the “Chiraq, Drillinois” sound, and a quote from Lil Durk on his recent success throws Gates’s sentiment into even starker contrast: “That’s what people do when they make it,” he says, “Jay Z, Kanye West. Everybody had a chance to leave, they left.”
In an area of the city where it seems almost compulsory to strive to escape your surroundings, Gates has chosen to put down roots, and this is no small feat. Using the best kind of artistic double vision, he appreciates both what his neighborhood has to offer, and what it is lacking, and that he may be able to provide. Often times these things are tangible—they are resources like a gathering space, a screening room, or an informal library. Other times they are more esoteric—like value-added labor, social capital, or staying power.
Gates has his critics, who note what a master of strategy he is at “…lur[ing] money with money.” He also has out and out detractors, who have remarked that the Dorchester Projects specifically is far less accessible and engaged with the community than some of the rhetoric surrounding it might suggest. Both the theory and practice of his projects may soon be put to a very grand, very public test, since it was recently announced that he is the recipient of a $1.3 million dollar contract from the Chicago Transit Authority for an artwork commission made in conjunction with the renovation of the Red Line’s 95th street station.
Theaster Gates, May 17, 2013; Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.
Gates’s former position (in the early 2000’s) as Arts Manager for the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) makes him well suited to this task. And to be clear, although the commission is unprecedented in scale and scope, the break down of funds reveals a generous, but not quite seven figure slice of it going to the artist himself—Gates’s artist fee is $250,000, with $1 million going to design, fabrication and installation of the artworks and $50,000 earmarked for community engagement initiatives. His proposal includes two artworks: an architectural feature “integrated” into the transportation hubs façade, and a stand-alone piece inside the structure to be placed in one of its walkways. According to their press release, it is one of the CTA’s busiest terminals, with over 20,000 riders passing through it each day. That is one big audience to be communicating with, and it will be interesting to see how, or if, Gates’s work can make an impact on rush hour commuters who will be rail station regulars. We’ll have to wait until 2016, the projected completion date, to see.
For someone whose work is extremely hard to qualify, and whose several large initiatives are new or ongoing and therefore hard to correlate, the CTA commission may be an interesting litmus test. A self-proclaimed “space doctor,” Gates is a master of the messy, organically evolving project, and that way of working runs counter to what I can only imagine is a very official, very bureaucratic system in place at the CTA, replete with proposals, line item budgets and metrics for evaluation. All of these rules and regulations will not only hold him very, very accountable, they may also infringe on his hitherto generous oversight on projects ranging from buildings on his own block to the grand atrium of the MCA.
Although place is tantamount to much of what he does, creative “space” making (instead of the social practice field’s term “creative place making”) may actually be his strongest suit. Gates makes room for objects, individuals, and even buildings to have their moment; he platforms things, including ideas, ideals and individuals. And in a funny twist of life imitating art, his newest space will actually be a platform, the 95th street el platform to be exact.
—Thea Liberty Nichols
(Image on top: Theaster Gates, Proposed Red Line Station; Courtesy of the Chicago Transit Authority.)