WHETHER DESCRIBED AS AN ARTIST, urban planner or creative entrepreneur, Theaster Gates‘s innovative approach to improving his Chicago neighborhood has garnered wide attention over the past five years or so. His use of cultural capital to transform blighted buildings on his Dorchester block into gathering places for film screenings, musical performances, dinner parties, conferences with fellow African American artists and a repository for materials from the Johnson Publishing archives, has been incredibly successful, both in practical terms, as well as from a promotional standpoint.

Gates has great ideas and he also has an ability to get others excited about them. He regularly give talks and participates in discussions, raising his profile and that of his efforts. He was in conversation with composer and pianist Jason Moran at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. on March 19, discussing a project they collaborated on for the Chicago Symphony. On March 23, he hosted United States Artists (USA) fellows who had come to Chicago for the annual USA Artists Assembly, giving them a tour of Dorchester Projects.

Also this month, he gave a TED Talk in Vancouver, Canada, titled “How to Revive a Neighborhood with Imagination, Beauty and Art.” The talk offered a unique format in which to present his work, its basic concepts and theories, succinctly in less than 17 minutes.

Gates begins by describing himself as a potter, the artistic discipline in which he was formally educated. “I’m a potter. Which seems like a fairly humble vocation. I know a lot about pots. I spent about 15 years making them,” he says “One of the things that really excites me in my artistic practice and being trained as a potter is that you very quickly learned how to make great things out of nothing… As a potter you also start to learn how to shape the world.”

“One of the things that really excites me in my artistic practice and being trained as a potter is that you very quickly learned how to make great things out of nothing… As a potter you also start to learn how to shape the world.” — Theaster Gates, TED Talk

Eventually his “capacity to shape things” made him think about what was happening outside of his studio and the abandoned buildings in his blighted neighborhood.

 

Gates - TED Graphic
Theaster is engaging other creatives including architects, engineers and real estate finance people to help him bring his ideas to scale. | Screen shot from TED video

 

“Is there a way that i could start to think about these buildings as an extension or an expansion of my artistic practice. I was thinking along with other creatives— architects, engineers, real estate finance people—that us together might be able to think in more complicated ways about the reshaping of cities.”

“I was thinking along with other creatives— architects, engineers, real estate finance people—that us together might be able to think in more complicated ways about the reshaping of cities.”
— Theaster Gates, TED Talk

He says his first building was purchased for $18,000. After “activating” a few more residential buildings and other neighborhood projects, with more financial resources available, he eventually renovated a historic bank building into a space for exhibitions, performances and more archives, including black memorabilia donated by local residents.

Over time, he has learned a lot about zoning laws, scale, capacity and sustainability. He emphasizes that successful development requires curation, and attention to programming and the needs and interests of the surrounding community. His efforts now include more than 60 Chicago buildings.

Gates recognizes other cities need a similar cultural and economic boost and has spearheaded efforts in Detroit, Gary, Ind., and Akron, Ohio.

“We’re starting to give advice around the country on how to start with what you’ve got. How to start with the things that are in front of you. How to make something out of nothing. How to reshape your world at a wheel or at your block or at the scale of the city,” he says.

 

Gates - Dorchester Projects
After converting a former storefront into his home, Theaster Gates purchased Archive House for $18,000 (from left, shown in 2009 and 2013). He says his efforts now include more than 60 Chicago buildings. | Screen shot from TED video

 

At the conclusion of his talk, a moderator comes on stage and poses a few quick questions to Gates.

She asks how can he make sure that the projects draw and benefit people in need and those who really live in the neglected area as opposed to the indie crowd. He makes a compelling case for beauty and the importance of the arts, she says. However, there are those who would argue that funds would be better spent on basic services. How do you combat that view? she asks.

His response is pitch perfect: “I believe that beauty is a basic service,” Gates says.

“Often what I’ve found is that when there are resources that have not been made available to certain unnder-resourced cities, or neighborhoods or communities that sometimes culture is the thing that helps to ignite. I can’t do everything. But I think there is a way in which if you can start with culture and get people reinvested in their place, other kinds of adjacent amenities start to grow.”

At that point Gates says, people in the community are better positioned to make the kind of political demands necessary to “wake up our cities.” CT

 

Gates - Black Cinema House
Black Cinema House was developed to screen the kinds of films that are important to people who live in the neighborhood—movies like “Car Wash” and films by Melvin Van Peebles. | Screen shot from TED video

 

Gates - Arts Bank
Theaster Gates renovated a dilapidated Chicago bank building with about six feet of standing water into a culture hub known as the Arts Bank. | Screen shot from TED video

 

Gates - Listening House
The Listening House serves as a repository for 8,000 LPs from Dr. Wax Records, a local store that went out of business. The building also has a reading room (shown above) where volumes from the Johnson archives and books from a shuttered bookstore line the shelves. | Screen shot from TED video

 

SUPPORT CULTURE TYPE
Do you enjoy and value Culture Type? Please consider supporting its ongoing production by making a donation. Culture Type is an editorially independent solo project that requires countless hours and expense to research, report, write, and produce. To help sustain it, make a one-time donation or sign up for a recurring monthly contribution. It only takes a minute. Many Thanks for your support.