Theaster Gates: Where Art and Activism Meet

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As part of the Thought Leadership Speaker Series presented by Credit Suisse and co-hosted by Urs Rohner, chairman of the executive board of Credit Suisse Group, rising art star Theaster Gates spoke with Daily Beast editor Tina Brown at an Art Basel panel held in the Swiss city’s striking Kunstmuseum. During the conversation, Gates addressed his use of art as a catalyst for social activism.


Things get complicated very quickly when talking about Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates’ work. For one thing, his creations are eclectic: In addition to working in traditional media such as sculpture and pottery, Gates has converted abandoned buildings into cultural spaces, formed a gospel choir and even curated a series of Japanese soul food dinners. But the endeavors that defy easy categorization are best described as a combination of art and urban planning in which art becomes a creative platform for revitalizing run-down neighborhoods. In what he calls his “Dorchester Projects,” for example, Gates has turned a number of dilapidated Chicago buildings into a movie theater and public archive with 14,000 art and architecture books and a collection of glass slides from the art department of the University of Chicago, where Gates is director of the Arts and Public Life Initiative.


Theaster Gates My Labor Is My Protest South Galleries and 9x9x9 White Cube Bermondsey 7 September - 11 November 2012 (medium res)

Theaster Gates, “My Labor Is My Protest,” South Galleries and 9x9x9, White Cube Bermondsey © Theaster Gates. Photo by Ben Westoby, courtesy of Johnson Publishing Company, LLC. All rights reserved and courtesy White Cube.

With some of his pieces now commanding upwards of $100,000, Gates’ star in the art world is rising rapidly. But a nagging question always persists: Is breathing new life into neighborhoods art? Even Newsweek’s Tina Brown had trouble settling on a genre when she interviewed Gates during an event in his honor at Art Basel, jointly hosted by Credit Suisse and The Daily Beast.


Perhaps the reason people have so much trouble labeling what Gates does is that his work goes beyond the artist’s traditional roles of creating something aesthetically interesting or engaging in social commentary. Gates actually acts on the bold idea that struggling urban areas can be places to innovate and experience culture, rather than merely places to avoid. Reclaiming marginalized places, Gates said, starts with paying enough attention to give them a specific identity – just as one would for any landmark.  


Something I learned really young is that when you want to give power to something, you should name it. I thought, ‘Why not start with my own block and name what is beyond my house? So then my house and the house next door became known as the ‘Dorchester Projects,’” Gates explained to an audience that featured an array of experienced collectors, well-known artists and art world social fixtures. “It’s an extension of our practice, which thinks about the spaces that people are no longer interested in or investing in and how… they could become these small, affordable repositories of cultural activity.”


Theaster Gates Dorchester Projects Chicago 2012 (high res)

Theaster Gates “Dorchester Projects,” Chicago 2012
© Theaster Gates. Photo by Sara Pooley, courtesy of White Cube

In other words, Gates believes great art doesn’t have to happen within the confines of a traditional museum, and his next project will push that conceit even further. Late last year, the artist began transforming a run-down 1920s-era bank on Chicago’s South Side into a thriving cultural hub. When it is completed, the building will include a restaurant, a culinary school, a library, artist studios and office spaces for local organizations. At Art Basel, Gates showed a mixed-media installation, “BNKUDRWTR 2013,” that explores both the bank building transformation and the dire economic impact the closure of cultural and business institutions can have on communities. “Art Basel has given me a chance to say, ‘Here is how a real problem in the real world makes me think artistically,’” Gates said. “I’m delivering an exhibition that reflects on this real thing, and then maybe by the end of the exhibition, people will not only be interested in this work, but also be curious about the work in Chicago.”


It turns out that the theme of transforming the forgettable into the essential also figures into Gates’ own artistic identity, which began with a summer job doing roof repairs.


“Its been really exciting to imagine that the things that we discard – the parts of our personal narratives that seem unremarkable and flat – are in fact the things that have the capacity to be the most important and influential ways of communicating to the world a set of ideas,” Gates told the audience.“There was nothing glamorous about roofing with tar in Chicago when it’s 100 degrees, but I started to imagine: What is roofing and plaster and concrete—these materials that were part of the language of labor for my father—and what if I committed myself to those things, in part in homage to my dad, and part in homage to the history of American art?”


And so, back to where we began: Just what can we make of an artist like Theaster Gates? Brown suggested that the artist defies easy categories and represents a whole new artistic persona – the social change agent. Perhaps so. Perhaps, however, Gates is something much simpler: an engaged citizen who has chosen to use his talents to do something about the problems he sees.“I’ve never seen myself as an activist. I feel like the work that I do is ‘neighborhood.’ That’s the work that we should all be doing,” Gates said. “It’s almost impossible for me to think about what happens in my studio without thinking about what happens in the area around my studio.”