Daydream believer: Theaster Gates


Theaster Gates, artist and activist, has demonstrated that grass-roots architecture and culture can be a powerful force for activating human capital in the city. Artists often like to dream the impossible — but few go out and make it happen


BLueprint

Theaster Gates is an artist, musician, activist and a dreamer. But dreamers are not usually doers. And Gates has a talent for not just imagining the world as if it were different, but also bringing that vision to fruition in the physical fabric of the city.

His talent for creating cultural and community buildings in parts of the city where the inhabitants don't usually get asked what they want, or feel that they have the right to demand it, has been a thing of wonder. In the past five years, he has shown that dreaming can be a viable - even vital - form of urban planning. In the current, purely profit-led, frenzy of development, that makes him a revolutionary.

He started his revolutionary acts around 2009, by purchasing for next to nothing first one then three semi-derelict buildings in the struggling South Side neighbourhood of Chicago where he grew up (50 per cent of residents live below the poverty line and 98 per cent are black). He rebuilt them using salvaged and repurposed materials whose humble origins are joyfully expressed through a crafted but patchwork aesthetic.

Sanctum was built and operated for 24 days on the site of the city’s 14th-century Temple Church, left derelict and largely out-of-bounds after being badly damaged during bombing in the Second World War. Photo Credit: Max McClure
Sanctum was built and operated for 24 days on the site of the city's 14th-century Temple Church, left derelict and largely out-of-bounds after being badly damaged during bombing in the Second World War. Photo Credit: Max McClure

More to the point, he created a programme for these buildings around music, food and interesting objects that needed a home; donated collections of film, records, art slides, and books became the Archive House, the Listening Room, the Black Cinema House.

The rich material with which he works is the stuff, the people and the places that have been discarded or devalued. But the additional alchemical ingredients that turn these places to gold is their celebratory spirit and the participatory process, so that everyone shares in the benefits.

Built from repurposed materials, outside it looks as though the roof is partly collapsed, and from the inside ‘just bonkers from a structural engineering point of view’ says its architect. Photo Credit: Max McClure
Built from repurposed materials, outside it looks as though the roof is partly collapsed, and from the inside 'just bonkers from a structural engineering point of view' says its architect. Photo Credit: Max McClure

The original three cultural and community centres in Chicago have now spawned a neighbourhood named Dorchester Projects, after Gates' HQ on Dorchester Avenue (where he employs 60 people). They have also brought him to the attention of the wider world, leading to exhibitions at the likes of dOCUMENTA (2012); Art Basel (2013); London's White Cube gallery (Freedom of Assembly, 2015). He is snowed under with invitations to speak, and to sprinkle his revitalising magic over tough city districts all over the world. In January 2015, he was awarded the Artes Mundi prize in Cardiff, which recognises the work of the 'artist in society'; he shared the £40,000 prize money with his fellow nominees.

Built from repurposed materials, outside it looks as though the roof is partly collapsed, and from the inside ‘just bonkers from a structural engineering point of view’ says its architect. Photo Credit: Jim Stephenson
Built from repurposed materials, outside it looks as though the roof is partly collapsed, and from the inside 'just bonkers from a structural engineering point of view' says its architect. Photo Credit: Jim Stephenson

Gates is now a distinguished 40-something, so he has certainly spent his years in the wilderness, feeling baffled and frustrated by the world around him. The youngest of nine children born to a working-class family, he has made music all his life (he's a gifted gospel singer and still has his own band, the Black Monks of Mississippi). But his interest in cities and culture were plain from the start: he studied urban planning, ceramics and religion at Iowa State University and the University of Cape Town. Though he tried working as a planner in City Hall for a year, he gave up when he saw that the system was designed to fail those in greatest need and reward the already affluent - primarily the developers.

The performance space Sanctum was commissioned by public art agency Situations and concluded Bristol’s year as European Green Capital. The city’s artists, performers and musicians were heard for free and were not scheduled, and audiences shared the performance space, one single floor from entrance to back windows. Photo Credit: Max McClure
The performance space Sanctum was commissioned by public art agency Situations and concluded Bristol's year as European Green Capital. The city's artists, performers and musicians were heard for free and were not scheduled, and audiences shared the performance space, one single floor from entrance to back windows. Photo Credit: Max McClure

As recently as 2007, he was selling pots and paintings for modest sums while working at the University of Chicago, where he is now Professor of Arts and Public Life. But it was then that he began curating provocative social experiments, most notably a series of soul-food dinners in his South Side neighbourhood, which he called the Yamaguchi Institute (named after a fictional Japanese potter and his African-American wife). Here he invited people to talk about art, racism, power and value - why a 'nobody' who makes a vase can only sell it for $25, while a 'somebody' can sell theirs for $30,000. The project marked a turning point - a wealthy philanthropist underwrote the dinners for $10,000.

Nowadays, Gates is most definitively a 'somebody'. We meet on a sunny November day in Bristol, where Gates is celebrating the successful launch of his project Sanctum, commissioned by public art agency Situations and programmed with music partner MAYK, which concludes the city's art-fuelled year as European Green Capital.

Sanctum is a performance venue designed by Gates and his long-time collaborator Andrew Cross, built from repurposed materials and placed inside a derelict 14th-century church, which is usually closed to the public. For 24 hours a day, over 24 days, the sound of Bristol's artists, performers and musicians - drawn from all demographics, all genres and from right across the city - was to be heard continuously and for free, performing in half-hour slots.

There was no schedule; punters had to take pot luck with whatever was playing when they arrived. In this way, people would hear music they didn't normally seek out, and performers would access new audiences. Gates' idea was to create an 'amplifier for the city'.

The performance space Sanctum was commissioned by public art agency Situations and concluded Bristol’s year as European Green Capital. The city’s artists, performers and musicians were heard for free and were not scheduled, and audiences shared the performance space, one single floor from entrance to back windows. Photo Credit: Max McClure
The performance space Sanctum was commissioned by public art agency Situations and concluded Bristol's year as European Green Capital. The city's artists, performers and musicians were heard for free and were not scheduled, and audiences shared the performance space, one single floor from entrance to back windows. Photo Credit: Max McClure

I ask at what point did he realise that awakening 'sleeping' buildings and generating human capital and communities out of their programming was the way forward for his practice, or was it just something he felt compelled to do?

He says: 'When I was a younger person, we were always performing outside the neighbourhood where I lived. We would play soul music in an Irish pub on the North Side [of Chicago], because it was the only place with a PA that would say yes to our music. But in my neighbourhood we were surrounded by abandoned buildings and there was this disconnect between what was possible in my neighbourhood and who owned the venues that allowed cultural production to thrive... The person who owned the space owned the means of production, and all of that talent was victim to its availability and this fiscal structure.

'So, I think I felt really unempowered in my 20s and in my 30s I was just pissed [off]. And I thought, I have to convert this energy into something that's productive. In my visual art practice is it possible to think about space as a kind of motivator of new works of art? Could I reflect on space as a kind of symbolic question? And then slowly the symbolic question started becoming, could I make real interventions in space that could demonstrate the thing that I was trying to demonstrate symbolically? I used to make paintings of derelict houses and now I want to change derelict houses.'

But the provocation of his projects or work - where artistry meets activism - doesn't come so much from the way he refurbishes derelict buildings, as for whom he refurbishes them.

He agrees: 'Yes. In a way it's both an urbanism question but it's also a social justice question. I was asking: where does our government or our philanthropy or private individuals choose to build venues for culture? Are they always in the city centre? Are they always about an outward-looking tourist gaze or are they for the web of neighbourhoods that make up our city? And what I found was that most of the investment was happening in our downtowns and that these little moments of life at the local pub or the local dance spot, there was no attention to that. So I thought: OK, let me try it.'

He had no idea that this experiment would turn into this vibrant portfolio of cultural and community hubs - effectively turning him into a developer - or that it would propel him to the higher echelons of the global art world. But he now uses his superstar status to fund more community projects. For example, when he heard Chicago's 19th-century Stoney Island State Savings Bank building was about to be demolished, he funded its purchase and restoration by 'repurposing' some of the bank's lavish marble flooring - much of it under water at the time - cutting the blocks into tiles and turning them into 'bond certificates', engraved with an image of the building, his signature and the words In Art We Trust. These were sold as part of his Art Basel installation in 2013, at $5,000 each. The Stoney Island Arts Bank building is now a sizeable library, museum, archive, exhibition space and artist resource.

The materials available dictated how the Sanctum building developed and its appearance. Photo Credit: Max McClure
The materials available dictated how the Sanctum building developed its appearance. Photo Credit: Max McClure

Was it at that point, I ask, that he realised the power of what he was doing through this practice? 'If we were honest,' he says, 'if we were trying to measure the moment that I knew by something outside of myself, that moment is just happening.

'Every time I made a decision to invest in a space people would say: "It's a waste of your money. No one will come. This is a really tough neighbourhood. It's an albatross. You should not use your resources in this way. It's going to be a den for outsiders." Every negative thing they could say [was said], because the immediate fiscal return on the investment was not evident. And so, I think that it was my second house when I was like: you know what, who cares what people think about this? This is the way I want to grow my art practice, to grow my resources and go for it.'

Main image: Max McClure

1 of 2




Working on something exciting? Submit your project to Design Curial.

Submit project to DesignCurial