How to be a good neighbor with Theaster Gates
Theaster Gates, artist, planner, developer, activist, preservationist, neighbor has the energy of a presidential candidate and the schedule to match. It takes a small village (various staffers at the University of Chicago, where he is director of arts and public life and a visual arts professor; his own eponymous studio; and the Rebuild Foundation he founded) to book his activities with sharp precision and keep him on time.
The carefully orchestrated agenda is working in his favor. Besides an oeuvre of artwork so rich and deep that renowned fine arts publisher Phaidon has just issued a meaty monograph on his work (“Theaster Gates,” Phaidon, $49.95), Gates has a significant and growing body of adaptive reuse projects that “transform spaces, institutions, traditions and perceptions,” notes the publisher. They are also changing the fabric of their surrounding communities for the better, making him that rarest of finds in our day and age: an exceptional neighbor.
Though Gates has received the most attention of late for a resplendent restoration of the Stony Island Arts Bank in South Shore, which turned a long-shuttered, dilapidated savings and loan into a dazzling and dynamic cultural center, he has a string of equally significant and transformational redevelopment projects in Grand Crossing and Washington Park. The former includes a 32-town-home housing collaborative and three venues to hold archives and host films, and the latter, and most recent, includes Bing, a fine-arts bookstore at 307 E. Garfield Blvd., and the Arts Incubator and Currency Exchange Cafe on the same block — hence its moniker as The Arts Block. This project is affiliated with the university.
All of Gates’ projects are executed with massive amounts of elbow grease and creativity, rather than great sums of money. He aims to “incite movements of community revitalization that are culture-based, artist-led and neighborhood driven. Projects like these require belief and motivation more than they require funding.” And his output makes it clear that he is a master at creatively and ambitiously leveraging local resources to achieve these goals.
Yet Gates is quick to say, “I don’t think I’m doing that much. I’m just scratching the surface of the things that I wish I could do.” We sat down with him for exactly one hour at Bing to discuss his many roles, from artist and organizer to preservationist and policymaker.
Q. You’re an artist, but also an urban planner, community organizer, real estate developer, builder, preservationist and more. What does it mean to be an artist today?
A. I think it means the same thing that it has always meant: You have to be ready to speak truth to power. You have to be ready with poetry and pragmatism. And you have to be ready to see the world you want to see, commit to the change and be bold about it. Art is a very complicated thing today. Sometimes it’s about things that hang on walls, and sometimes it’s one’s desire to have an effect in the world. I believe that all the work I do is art, and artists should make art in the biggest ways possible. That’s the best thing they can do for the world.
IDEA1 is the first step to establishing the District’s vision of becoming San Diego’s design + technology innovation hub. We will achieve this goal by mixing all of the critical uses – office, residential, and retail – in a way that encourages interaction between inhabitants of this block and the larger community. The design principles that support an innovation ecosystem are on display in this project to act as an inspiration for other I.D.E.A. District designers and developers.