B magazine

How an artist is bringing transformation to Chicago buildings

There are reasons that the private spaces of the 2018 Nasher Prize winner work their way into his compelling art. (And vice versa.) Jeremy Strick, the director of the Nasher Sculpture Center, reports from inside a singular, spellbinding world.

Principal photographs by Nan Coulter

Theaster Gates in a pottery room in his studio in Chicago. In his work, he incorporates sculpture, ceramics, performance, music and more.

Chicago is famed for its architecture. And while the Frank Lloyd Wright houses that dot the landscape from south to north are justly celebrated, the city most owes its reputation to the magnificent skyscrapers that cluster downtown, making Chicago itself an icon of modernism.

All of that seems distant from the low-lying neighborhoods on Chicago’s Southwest Side, some of which have been devastated by the legacies of racism and decades of regressive social policy. And yet, in one such neighborhood, Grand Crossing, remarkable redesigns are happening.

Buildings in Grand Crossing are being renovated and repurposed. These range from modest houses to a former elementary school to an abandoned bank. Only recently they sat abandoned, in states of extreme dereliction. Now they buzz with activity, some serving as cultural and community centers, others as repositories of collections of cultural and historical artifacts. Yet others are destined for housing, education and job training. And while these building transformations are designed primarily to serve the immediate community, they are magnets for visitors from around the world.

We might imagine that the impetus for these interior redesigns would come from a government planning agency, or perhaps a private developer. And indeed, the person responsible holds a degree in urban planning. But this person, Theaster Gates, is not by profession a developer or a planner. He is an artist, and is the winner of the 2018 Nasher Prize.

Gates grew up in West Chicago and settled into Grand Crossing around 2006, when he was offered a position at The University of Chicago. He was a firsthand witness to the neighborhood’s decline, and is dedicated to its revival. He is adept at identifying and pulling the levers of civic power and leveraging the resources of philanthropy to realize his vision. But that vision is as much — or more — artistic as it is social, and it is the artistic vision realized in these buildings that makes them so extraordinary.

Step into Gates’ Listening House, a modest domestic structure that now holds portions of the Prairie Avenue Bookshop archive, as well as the collection of a Chicago record store, Dr. Wax. These archives preserve an extraordinarily rich cultural and intellectual legacy, one that is far too little known. But these rooms, lined with shelves of books and records, look like no library you have ever seen. Walking into this house, you are immediately aware that you have entered a work of art.

Just part of Gates’ extensive book collection, in the bank building he has restored.

Not far away, Gates transformed a former Anheuser-Busch distribution facility to serve as his studio. The building houses Gates’ extensive personal library and includes a woodshop, pottery studio, printing studio and private and administrative offices. Of these, the interior design of its private offices is especially memorable. A true sanctuary, set in warm, dark tones of wood, punctuated with choice pieces of furniture — some classically modern, others of Gates’ own design — and surrounded by walls hung with Gates’ paintings, the offices offer a meditative space to retreat and re-center. The spare yet warm aesthetic reminds us that Gates lived and worked for a time in Japan, an experience that influenced his art and his thinking.

Perhaps Gates’ most ambitious project to date is the restoration of the Stony Island Trust & Savings Bank building. An imposing classical structure, its façade set off by massive Doric columns, it was built in 1923 and closed in 1979, after which for years it sat unoccupied and deteriorating. Gates purchased it from the City of Chicago for $1, with the promise that he would raise the funds required for its redesign. It reopened in 2015, rechristened the Stony Island Arts Bank. Uses of the bank are evolving: In addition to holding a range of archives and collections, the building accommodates meeting rooms, offices and gallery space, as well as the Black Cinema House, which holds weekly screenings of films by and about people of the African diaspora, and holds free filmmaking workshops for young people in the neighborhood.

Gates’ Stony Island Arts Bank, a former bank building now restored and used for archives, gallery space and film screenings.

The single most impressive space in the bank is its main-level atrium, just off the entrance. A vast, vaulted space, intended originally to express grandeur and power, the atrium speaks now to the aesthetic and historical themes that underlie much of Gates’ art. In restoring the atrium, the least expensive solution would have been to strip the ceiling of its coffers, many of which had fallen away. Instead, Gates chose the far more difficult and expensive course of keeping the ceiling as it was, while also determining not to retouch the atrium’s walls and arches, the paint on which was badly flaked and mottled. The idea was to preserve and reveal the building in all its complex history, to make of it a center of contemporary life and culture that spoke unflinchingly of its past. Like a ruin, the space possesses a beauty that might seem romantic, and that beauty is in no way diminished by the urgent realism that underlies the enterprise; for the very causes of the bank’s near-disastrous disrepair are brought forward in the bank’s collections and programs. The beauty of this architectural space, like in so much of Gates’ art, results from a powerful aesthetic sensibility brought to bear upon a difficult social and personal history.

While the buildings Theaster Gates is transforming are rooted firmly in their neighborhood, the materials he finds in that neighborhood often find their way into his paintings and sculptures, and then find their way back into his interiors — and into museums and private collections around the world. Their powerful yet subtle beauty illuminates the artist’s approach to art, and the densely meaningful nature of his project.

Theaster Gates is the 2018 recipient of the Nasher Prize, presented annually to a living artist who has had an extraordinary impact on the understanding of the art form. Each winner is chosen by a jury of renowned museum directors, curators, artists and art historians and receives a $100,000 prize, conferred in April of each year. More information here.

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JEREMY STRICK has been the director of the Nasher Sculpture Center since 2009. He was the director of The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles, a senior curator at the Art Institute of Chicago and has held curatorial posts at the Saint Louis Art Museum and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

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