Theaster Gates Takes New Leap as Arts Pioneer

Theaster Gates

By Susie Allen, AB ’09. Excerpt from article as appeared in University of Chicago Magazine

Long ambitious in his artistic and civic vision, Gates will foster new connections as Director of Arts and Public Life.

Theaster GatesTheaster 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.

WPAI elevationThe 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.

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