Shinique Smith overseeing installation of her work at the Arts Bank Credit: Deanna Isaacs

The Stony Island Arts Bank may soon be the trendiest place to meet for a drink on the south side.

Its creator—artist, arts entrepreneur, and community developer Theaster Gates—is applying for a liquor license. He hopes to finally get the gorgeous 19th-century wooden bar that he installed during the building’s initial renovation three years ago into profitable operation and have the drinks flowing sometime this summer.

“There has to be a space where I can make some money [to support the rest of what we do],” Gates said during a tour of the bank to show off a just-completed second round of renovations that have turned the building’s grungy-chic vibe into something more sleekly elegant. “I need to be able to sell a drink.”

It probably won’t hurt that when (if) the Obama Presidential Center opens in Jackson Park in 2021, the Arts Bank, at 6760 S. Stony Island, will be just a few blocks south.   

The Arts Bank has been closed to the public since January while the renovation was under way, but it will reopen Saturday with its part of a three-gallery exhibition, “Out of Easy Reach,” that features abstract artists who are women of color.  (The other galleries are the DePaul Art Museum and UIC’s Gallery 400.) Artist Shinique Smith was there during the tour, overseeing the installation of a big, swingy, DNA-chain-inspired fabric sculpture that’ll dangle from the ceiling of the former bank lobby, now known as the Atrium.

Gates acquired the Arts Bank building from the city in 2013 for $1 when it was dilapidated and scheduled for demolition.  Since then, he says, he’s put $6.5 million into it. This latest renovation provided, among other things, new gallerylike walls for the Atrium and a catwalk for access to the towering shelves in the iconic second-floor library space, which will house a much-anticipated exhibition of the Johnson Publishing archives slated to open in June. According to Gates, the few years between the Arts Bank’s 2015 opening and this reopening gave him time to figure out which additions would work.

Theaster Gates in the library at the Stony Island Arts BankCredit: Deanna Isaacs

When it first opened, Gates said, “we knew the bank wasn’t fully baked.” And the formal, colonnaded structure, originally built in 1923, proved to be not so welcoming. “The bank was meant to be formidable; it isn’t a calling card to everyone,” Gates said. “But last summer we opened up the yard [an empty lot on the north side of the building], which became like a pocket park.”

And there are big plans for the yard this summer, including a yet-to-be-named pop-up restaurant operated out of an adjacent garage.

The yard is also slated to be the site for a temporary installation of the Cleveland park gazebo where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed in 2014. Its disassembled wooden planks and bolts, and the teddy bears that became part of a spontaneous memorial there, are currently housed in a room on the Arts Bank’s main floor.

Gates said he was only “managing the moment” when he took possession of the gazebo at the request of Tamir’s mother, Samaria Rice, in the face of a threat by the city to remove and demolish it.  He considers displaying it congruent with the Arts Bank’s mission of “conserving black material culture,” but expects to offer it back to Cleveland, eventually.

Meanwhile, the Rebuild Foundation, the nonprofit that operates many of Gates’s projects, has been staffing up. New hires include chief operating officer Tregg Duerson, a Kellogg MBA, who came from Rebuild Foundation supporter J.P. Morgan. (He’s also the son of the late Bears safety and chronic traumatic encephalopathy victim Dave Duerson.) 

Gates, who took over the Rebuild Foundation’s executive director job in 2016 after Ken Stewart left, also has a new title at his other main gig, the University of Chicago: he’s now Senior Advisor for Cultural Innovation at the Harris School of  Public Policy.