Theaster Gates married his artistic talent with his civic responsibility when he turned an abandoned home into a library and archive that houses 60,000 slides, 14,000 books, and 8,000 albums.
Theaster Gates married his artistic talent with his civic responsibility when he turned an abandoned home into a library and archive that houses 60,000 slides, 14,000 books, and 8,000 albums. Credit: Jason Smith

In 2006 then-emerging artist Theaster Gates, looking to buy himself a home, came across a squat masonry building on the 6900 block of South Dorchester. The neighborhood had a dicey reputation, and the place wasn’t in great shape, but it was close to the University of Chicago, where Gates was hoping to land a job—and, in an overheated market, the price was within his budget. The building, which once had a candy store in the front and living quarters in the rear, looked like a good candidate for conversion to an artist’s live/work space. He snagged it for $130,000 and moved in.

“It was the first house I’d ever bought, and it had this beautiful tree in the backyard,” Gates, now 37, recalls. “Maybe I could have a studio in the front room, and life would be good. I’d work hard and pay it off one day, and have some babies, stuff like that.”

Gates’s archive, less than a mile south of Hyde Park.

The reality was that for at least the first year, while he slept on a table, “it was a construction zone.” Working on the house at night and on weekends, using recycled materials, especially well-worn wood, he began transforming the compact interior—now a studio, kitchen, den, and two bedrooms with deck and garden in the back—into a blend of art, rehab architecture, and hand-built craft.

By the time he was fully settled in three years later, both Gates’s career and the neighborhood had changed in ways he couldn’t have anticipated: while one soared, the other tanked.

For a Renaissance man on a mission, Gates is a disarmingly low-key presence. Equipped with an eclectic academic background (one of his two master’s degrees combines urban planning, ceramics, and religion) and some solid arts administration experience, he arrived at the University of Chicago at the perfect moment—just as the venerable, theory-bound institution began a push to establish itself as a vigorous practicing arts school. The most visible evidence of this effort is the towering $114 million Reva Riva and David Logan Center for Creative and Performing Arts, under construction on the Midway and slated to open in 2012.

Hired in 2007 as coordinator of arts programming for the Humanities Division, by 2009 Gates was artist in residence in the Department of Visual Art and had been bumped up to the provost’s office as director of arts program development for the entire campus. (Gates’s responsibilities at the U. of C. are growing still; come September he’ll be director of arts and public life.) At the same time, his artwork—which is grounded in the aesthetic reuse of humble materials—had expanded from ceramics to more explicitly social and political installations and performances that were turning him into an art-world rising star. He had solo shows in the works at venues including the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Milwaukee Art Museum, and a prized invitation to participate in the 2010 Whitney Biennial, put together that year by former MCA curator Francesco Bonami.

Chicago art dealer Kavi Gupta, with a gallery in Berlin and an international clientele, began representing Gates’s rapidly appreciating work. A selection of Gates’s pieces—including massive, expressionistic sculptures of shoe-shine thrones and a series of works incorporating fire hoses, sometimes rolled and framed (In the Event of Race Riots 2011)—is on display at Gupta’s Chicago gallery, where a solo show is running through July 2.

These days, a Kohler sink modified by Gates goes for $18,000; a painted urn embellished with a brief poem is priced at $15,000. Gupta sold just about all of Gates’s work displayed at the recent Next show (held in conjunction with Art Chicago) and much of the work at the gallery show, mostly at prices ranging from $20,000 to more than $50,000.

It’s been a meteoric rise. The youngest and only son in a religious family of nine children, Gates grew up in East Garfield Park, helping in his father’s roofing business and singing in the choir (which he began leading at age 14) at the Baptist church the family attended. After graduating from Lane Tech, he went to Iowa State University as an urban planning major and took a course in ceramics from Ingrid Lilligren that got him hooked on clay—and made him think he could be an artist. He studied religion in South Africa, sojourned in Japan, and earned the first of his two masters degrees. In 2000 he was hired as an arts planner for the CTA, then led by Valerie Jarrett. From there, he went to Little Black Pearl Art and Design Center as director of education and outreach, returning to Iowa State for the second master’s before joining the U. of C.

Meanwhile, Gates went from throwing pots to mounting emotionally charged installations and performances, including multiple events based on a faux biographical story that gained some traction. The gist of it was that a master Japanese potter, Yamaguchi, had fled Hiroshima and landed in Mississippi, where he married a black woman, combined Japanese and black southern cultures, mentored Gates, and then died, leaving Gates to continue his mission of “fostering social transformation” by “convening dinners in cities with extreme racial and social tension just beneath well articulated geographical boundaries.” With former Wilco member LeRoy Bach, Gates formed an experimental music ensemble, the Black Monks of Mississippi, making performance art out of a blend of Eastern chants, gospel, and the blues. And at the Milwaukee Art Museum and elsewhere, he channeled Dave Drake, an enslaved 19th-century South Carolina potter whose work—often embellished with his own poems—is now treasured by museums and collectors.

By 2010 Gates was a hot ticket on the museum circuit, with a schedule that included on-site projects or residencies at Artadia Arcadia (New York), the Museum of Contemporary Craft (Portland), Wisconsin’s Kohler facility, the Milwaukee Art Museum, Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum, and New York’s Armory Show as well as the Whitney. (A project with the Smart Museum, Feast: An Exhibition of Radical Hospitality, is scheduled for February 2012.)

But in the summer of 2009, while his career was thriving, his neighborhood had emptied out. Renters using Section 8 housing vouchers were leaving the city for the suburbs in droves; landlords with empty buildings that were under water after the housing market collapsed stopped paying their mortgages; lenders foreclosed and prices continued to tank. The house next door to Gates—bigger than his and bustling with three tenant families when he moved in—was abandoned and bank-owned, and had been on the market for a year. When Gates bumped into the listing agent there, he inquired about the price. It was less than the cost of an ordinary new car, and way less than a year’s tuition at the University of Chicago. If you were a home owner on that block, it was gut-sinkingly low.

Gates revisited the decision he’d made to buy into the Grand Crossing neighborhood. He could have moved to a loft downtown, like everyone else. But, he says, “I was always making art that was asking questions about the city, and why the city functioned the way it did. How does cultural and economic disparity happen? How can we fight it? I was trying to present these questions in the form of little abandoned ceramic houses and drawings or performances that spoke to the issue. And I just got tired of pointing a finger at it and wanted to actually do something about it, challenge it in a real way.”

His block, less than a mile south of Hyde Park and “on the cusp” of South Shore, has seen both better and worse days, Gates says. “If the worst came because everybody who had been successful in the neighborhood left, what would happen if, as I did better, I decided to stay?”

Apartment galleries were popping up in places like Wicker Park and Pilsen, and Gates had already been casting his house as a place to “convene people.” In a flush of opportunity and vision—bolstered by what he says is a better exercised “belief muscle” than most people possess—he began to think he could transform the whole block “as a kind of artistic practice and cultural statement.” He bought the forlorn frame house next door for $16,000, planning to turn it into something the neighborhood could use, like a good soul food kitchen and dinner club.

The residential zoning squelched that idea and instead—after a major rehab—Gates’s extra house became a library and archive. That was convenient, since around the same time he purchased it, Gates also acquired 60,000 glass lantern slides from the U. of C.’s art history department, 14,000 books from Prairie Avenue Bookshop, which was closing, and the 8,000 LPs that the Dr. Wax record store still owned when it also shut down.

Last fall he bought another vacated foreclosure, an abused but handsome old multiunit brick building on the corner across the street, and an empty lot next door to his house, and the grand plan for what is now Dorchester Projects LLC began to take shape. The three buildings, with the addition of a food pavilion on the lot, would make up an arts compound including a potters’ studio and living quarters for a few artists in residence, and could, perhaps, transform the neighborhood.

This spring, with the support of a Propeller Fund grant and help from two staffers—Dara Epison, who works with Gates at the University of Chicago, and recent U. of C. grad Elly Fishman—Dorchester Projects launched a series of artists’ residencies, featuring public performances in Gates’s house promoted by word of mouth. (Jazz musician and composer David Boykin was the inaugural artist; DJ and record archivist Ayana Contreras is in residence now.)

Epison and Fishman have also been in residence, manning the ship while Gates sandwiched in a yearlong Loeb fellowship at Harvard, focusing on things like real estate law, finance, and nonprofit management. He also recently formed his own nonprofit, the Rebuild Foundation, and has begun to acquire property in blighted neighborhoods in other cities: several buildings in Saint Louis and one each in Detroit and Omaha, all to be converted into grassroots cultural use.

In late April, during his brief return to Chicago to appear on a panel with National Endowment for the Arts head Rocco Landesman, word came out that Gates and the Rebuild Foundation would also be part of a group acquiring a much bigger project: the Dante Harper Townhomes, a shuttered 36-unit CHA property a couple of blocks from Gates’s home. The plan: redevelopment into mixed-income housing for people with an interest in the arts.

That announcement turned out to be premature. Late last month, on the phone from San Francisco, where he was designing sets and rehearsing for an upcoming tour of Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s multimedia eco show Red, Black and Green, Gates said his group is “having a conversation with the CHA”—and that the agency has indicated interest in their proposal.

If they get the project, it will likely work like this: the city will hand over the units, along with financial support (perhaps in the form of tax credits) to help pay for a gut rehab. Gates’s partners, Northbrook-based Brinshore Development, will also be paid by CHA to manage the completed project, which the partnership will eventually own.

It’s all of a piece, Gates says. “A big part of my art practice has been creatively investigating what happens in neighborhoods. That also includes playing in the real market, not just gesturing at it. We’re at a moment where the interventions that artists make are not just in museums and galleries.”

But it’s a work in progress, he says: “I’m at the beginning of asking questions about what else the black south side can be.” 

E-mail Deanna Isaacs at