By Susie Allen, AB'09
Photo by Jason Smith

Theaster Gates always has taken an innovative approach to melding his art with pressing public concerns.

Trained as a multi-modal artist and an urban planner, Gates has gained acclaim in both roles since coming to the University of Chicago in 2007.

In addition to his work as a resident artist and lecturer in Visual Arts, Gates began an effort to revitalize his neighborhood, Grand Crossing, and convert his block into a vibrant arts corridor. In 2010, he forged an intriguing partnership with the plumbing fixture company, Kohler, to create an exhibition examining craft labor and race relations in the United States. In the coming months, his work will be featured at the Smart Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Documenta 13, and the 2012 Armory Show.

Now, Gates is poised to tackle an even more ambitious project. He has moved from his role as Director of Arts Program Development on campus to the position of Director of the Arts and Public Life Initiative, a multifaceted effort to improve the University’s engagement with the local arts community. The new initiative aims to foster collaboration and conversation between the University and the civic, cultural, and artistic communities of Chicago, with a focus on the South Side. As part of the initiative, the University will open a new arts incubator in the Washington Park neighborhood.

It might sound daunting, but as Gates told the Chicago Reader earlier this year, he has always had a strong “belief muscle,” offering confidence even when he’s forging a new path.

“I’m feeling pretty ambitious,” he says.

Arts and Public Life

The Arts and Public Life Initiative was born out of the desire to “hone in on ways that the University’s friendship to the South Side could be extended,” Gates says.

Gates, who studied urban planning at Iowa State University, hopes the new initiative will allow for more interaction between the University community and artists, youth, and members of the surrounding communities.

The initiative’s flagship project, the Washington Park Arts Incubator, is designed to do just that. The incubator, which will be housed in a two-story terra cotta building at 301 E. Garfield Blvd., will have space for exhibition and conversation, artist residencies, and a design workshop where local youth can gain arts skills.

The initiative is a natural extension of Gates’ approach to his own work. “I really try, as much as I can, to make work that I believe in, and have that work done with people I believe in,” he explains. “I think Arts and Public Life could work in the same way. By creating space for artists, and creating opportunities where they can work together, share ideas, interact with out faculty and staff, and our students, it will create new opportunities for rich cultural development, both on campus and off campus.”

The project is ideal for Gates, according to his friends and colleagues.

“Theaster will create something transformative for the Washington Park community in alliance with University students and faculty,” says Mary Harvey, Associate Provost for Program Development, who describes Gates as “a gifted artist and natural connector.”

Theaster is “the perfect person,” agrees Michael Darling, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, because of his “heartfelt and innovative approach” to community building. “He has demonstrated a truly ‘out of the box’ perspective on these ideas,” Darling says.

A unique path

Monica Haslip has known Gates for years—the two worked together at Little Black Pearl, the arts education nonprofit she founded in the North Kenwood/Oakland neighborhood—and she’s watched both his ambitions and arts practice grow.

“Theaster has always had an interest in using art to empower the community. He forces you to tear down some of the barriers and some of the walls that people have put up, and helps us to really see how much we are alike and how connected we are,” Haslip says. “I realize that everything I’ve seen him do over time has led to this place where he is now.”

But the path to where Gates is now was anything but direct. His varied background includes two master’s degrees (one in fine arts and religious studies, the other in urban planning, ceramics, and religious studies), study and travel in Japan and South Africa, and a stint as an arts planner at the Chicago Transit Authority.

His interest in art emerged early but took time to develop into a professional practice. Growing up on Chicago’s West Side, Gates sang in his church’s gospel choir and helped his father, who was a roofer, construct buildings.

At the time, “neither of those things felt like art,” Gates says. Yet as he grew older, the mixture of the tactile and the spiritual began to fuel his art.

His training was in ceramics, and Gates still considers himself a potter, although in recent years, his practice also has expanded to include performance and installation work. To prepare for a recent exhibition at the Milwaukee Arts Museum, Gates partnered with workers at Kohler to create audio speakers out of a Kohler sink. For the 2010 Whitney Biennial, Gates used found materials to convert the Whitney’s sculpture court into a makeshift gathering space for musical performances and conversation with fellow artists.

“Performance and ritual and the spiritual and the metaphysical combined with building and pragmatism and labor—those things feel like they’re starting to meld,” Gates says.

Although his practice continues to evolve, Gates believes his experiences at UChicago are shaping its trajectory.

“Being at the University has had tremendous impact on my practice,” he says. “I was attending a class by Darby English, one of our art historians here, on artists’ writings. I found in that class a team of historians who were deeply invested in why things are made, and why artists talk about what they talk about, why they choose to talk about their things. I found myself really fascinated by the idea that my practice could be among practices that were worth talking about. Darby, in the most gentle way, helped me feel like the practice was a professional practice.”

“So I started writing about it in a different way, and as a result of writing about it differently, believing differently.”