For mastering the art of urban renewal.
Theaster Gates, a Chicago-based potter turned conceptual artist with a background in urban planning, is using culture as a strategy to improve poor neighborhoods. He’s turned vacant homes into cultural spaces and transformed a former housing project into a mixed-income residential and arts hub. His efforts have been so successful that Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel has taken note, offering his approval and support. Gates is now working on a big art project for the Chicago Transit Authority, among other ventures.
Fast Company: What is the common thread in your work?
Gates: One thing that’s really important to me is thinking about the role artists play in public life. In addition to painting and drawing and sculpture, artists can imagine they have the right as creative people to transform the city and the world.
Your urban-redevelopment work started organically in 2006 because you needed a place to live and wanted to improve your neighborhood. Now you’re transforming a sprawling historic former bank building into a library that will house an archive of African-American history and a restaurant space.
I started with residential property because it’s what I could afford, what I understood. With the bank-building property, the South Side and the West Side of Chicago are bereft of great cultural institutions in the black space, and I really get tired of going to other neighborhoods to have a decent drink and a nice meal. It’s part of an evolving way of reimagining that culture should be central to the way our cities and neighborhoods work.
What does the Chicago Transit Authority project entail?
People kept saying they wanted art that would reflect the now and also pay homage to the great legacy of African-Americans on the South Side, and that kind of art can get didactic pretty quick. We asked if the Transit Authority could partner with public radio stations to create content that will resonate with the community. It might create a new kind of public space. I want us to reimagine what public art means and what can happen in the public sphere. That’s artistic leadership, not just artistic production.