Arts & Public Life: Theaster Gates

This week, I had the privilege of touring Theaster Gates’ Arts Incubator and Dorchester Projects, and hearing him talk about his extraordinarily multi-faceted art practice.

Gates describes himself as “wearing three hats”:

• The artist whose practice includes performance, sculpture, installation, and large-scale urban intervention;
• The real estate developer who has assembled a portfolio of buildings into centers for artist residencies, arts education, and community-based arts projects;
• The Lecturer in the Department of Visual Arts and Director of the Arts and Public Life Initiative at the University of Chicago.

Theaster talking

I’m most interested in Gates’ ideas about encouraging community transformation by empowering youth to become stewards of their local communities, and by his understanding that urban planning and art intrinsically belong in the same sentence: “the way space helps make cool things happen.” The brick-and-mortar facilities have arisen as logical extensions of his art installation projects.

Gates started out by acquiring a long vacant-building at the corner of East Garfield Boulevard and South Prairie Avenue, when it looked like this:

Orig Cond

and turning it into the Arts Incubator offering arts education for local teens and young adults; artist residencies, and artist-led projects and events. The building now looks like this:


with beautifully equipped and airy rooms where students learn carpentry, landscaping and design in the Design Apprenticeship Program.

Gates’ other efforts include Dorchester Projects, which offer a variety of events in the Black Cinema House, the Archive House and the Listening House. These respond to the needs, desires and suggestions of Gates’ friends and neighbors. These programs include movies screened in the backyard of the Cinema house, the complete contents of the library maintained by Johnson Publishing,

Johnson Publishing's library, in the Archive House

Johnson Publishing’s library, in the Archive House

and an enormous collection of glass slides previously used by the University of Chicago’s Department of Art. They are a community resource, as well as inspiration for Gates’ own art.

Glass slides from the UofC

Glass slides from the U of C

All of these efforts provide exposure: to the infinite forms of art for teens and young adults; to new ways of perceiving “the way space helps make cool things happen;” to concepts and ideas that haven’t been juxtaposed before.

Jane Jacobs wrote about “the ballet of the sidewalk” … and Theaster Gates explores the ballet of putting things together in new ways, and then watches what happens. Any neighborhood, anywhere, would benefit from such a heightened awareness.