FOR HIS FIRST EXHIBITION in Milan, Theaster Gates presented “True Value” (July 7-Sept. 25, 2016) which centered around the inventory of a shuttered Chicago hardware store. Installed in an art context, he reimagined the abandoned tools and supplies as a monumental visual display.

An artist who trained as a potter, Gates has become more widely recognized as an urban planner. He is a professor at the University of Chicago, where he directs the Arts + Public Life program. Meanwhile, he transforms forgotten buildings into lively, engaging cultural spaces. He is also a major collector.

“I have this keen interest in not just autonomous, singular objects, but whole collections of things. Part of the reason I think I’m attracted to collections is because thye constitute one person’s or one institution’s way of seeing the world and its like this little time capsule of things that were important to someone,” Gates says in “Collecting,” a new ART21 film. “And so I spend a lot of time looking for the personality of people within their collections and then maybe trying to tease out in a collection why those things are important.”

“The reason I think I’m attracted to collections is because thye constitute one person’s or one institution’s way of seeing the world and its like this little time capsule of things that were important to someone.”
— Theaster Gates

Theaster Gates is archiving the contents of a shuttered Chicago hardware store. Last year, he presented a portion of the inventory in “True Value,” an exhibition at the Foundation Prada in Milan. | Photo by Delfino Sisto Legnani Studio via


IN THE FILM, Gates says he is archiving the contents of the local hardware store and asking how the cache of everyday objects represents a changing neighborhood. How does it tell the story of the store’s owner and the mostly black customers who patronized his business for three decades?

Released today, “Collecting” is the second film in series of artist profiles ART21 is releasing in the coming weeks. “Summer of Shorts” (June 2-Aug. 9) features 10 films in 10 weeks. A new film every Friday from two ART21 series: New York Close Up and Extended Play. The first focuses on New York-based artists, the latter is a refreshed version of longest-running digital series produced by ART21. Extended Play “uncovers the provocative ideas and biographical anecdotes that inspire an artist’s work from conceptualization, to creation, to presentation.”

Following the Extended Play film about Gates, next Friday’s New York Up Close release is about Jordan Casteel (June 16). An emerging portrait painter and recent Studio Museum in Harlem artist-in-residence, Casteel’s solo exhibition “Harlem Notes” is on view at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture in Charlotte, N.C., through July 8. ART21’s “Summer of Shorts” also features Canadian artist Stan Douglas (July 7).


Thousands of vinyl albums acquired from Dr. Wax, a Hyde Park record store that went out of business are housed at Stony Island Arts Bank. | | Still From “Collecting,” Courtesy Art21


STONY ISLAND ARTS BANK is housed in a former bank building on the South Side of Chicago. Once a thriving community savings and loan, the bank ceased operation in the 1980s, and the grand, columned structure remained abandoned and deteriorating for more than three decades.

Gates and his Rebuild Foundation have restored the building, creating a vibrant multi-purpose space. It’s a hybrid art gallery, library, archive, and community hub. Today, the bank’s holdings are cultural rather than financial, housing both purchased and donated collections of records, 4,000 items of black memorabilia, art slides, and books and periodicals.

A major acquisition, countless volumes that composed the research library of Johnson Publishing Company (publisher of Ebony and Jet magazine) fill the shelves of a glass-enclosed, double-height room on the second floor of the bank. It is both an art installation and a functioning library accessible to the public.

In “Collecting,” Gates says the first collection he received was from Prairie Avenue Bookstore, an architectural history bookstore in downtown Chicago. Then he purchased 6,000 to 8,000 records, the entire inventory from Dr. Wax, an old record store that went out of business in Hyde Park on the South Side of Chicago.

The third collection he acquired was the University of Chicago’s Glass Lantern Slides, 60,000 examples of art and architectural history from the Paleolithic to Modern eras. Gates says he uses the slides to teach art history and also incorporates them into works of art. The contents of other collections “have become the art themselves.”


Theaster Gates has transformed bound volumes of Jet and Ebony magazines into color-blocked “paintings.” | | Still From “Collecting,” Courtesy Art21


THE ARTIST HAS PRESERVED about 12,000 individual issues of Jet and Ebony magazine in bound volumes color-coded by decade and used the resulting books to create monochrome and color-blocked “paintings.” When they were published long ago, the periodicals chronicled the present, life in Black America as it happened.

“My hope is that the history and content loaded inside the books will waiting for people to unearth it,” Gates says. “I feel really fortunate to be able to bind these things and make them present in the world again.”

“Collecting” capture Gates in the midst of archiving Halsted True Value Hardware. He bought the entire store when the owner retired after 30 years. As with all of his collections, he is considering how to respect and document a legacy and give it a new life.

“How do you catalog the everyday especially as the phenomena of the everyday is changing and is this another way of tracking black space? Black, not necessarily just about black people, but about forgotten people. It’s a space where things have stopped growing and them maybe it’s also like the void. Resources go in and you are not sure where they go. Black space. Like galactic space. These are the things that I am working with.” CT


Theaster Gates is currently on view in group exhibitions around the world. He is also presenting a solo show, “In the Tower: Theaster Gates, The Minor Arts,” at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., through Sept. 4.


“Theaster Gates” is the first monograph documenting the practice of the Chicago-based artist whose work “includes space development, object making, performance and critical engagement with many publics.”



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