ARTISTS OFTEN TALK about real estate, but Theaster Gates, 38, multimedium artist, designer and musician, deals in it. An urban planner and developer, community organizer and cultural entrepreneur, Gates is also the inaugural director of Arts and Public Life at the University of Chicago; the new program will include artist residencies and collaborations with area cultural institutions. In 2006, he bought into Chicago's Grand Crossing neighborhood, on the 6900 block of South Dorchester Avenue, where many buildings are vacant and some boarded up, where one hears gunshots and there is the occasional murder. He eventually acquired the house next door and one down the street, both for a song. Together, the three buildings, all generic multifamily dwellings from the late 19th century, are known as the Dorchester Project. A clear precedent is Houston's Project Row Houses. The Dorchester Project houses a library and slide archive; with the support of several foundations, Gates recently instituted an artist residency, including public arts programming.
On the day I visited, the neighborhood was peaceful, Gates's houses handsomely if quirkily made over with materials salvaged from other abandoned structures, the two adjoining backyards neatly landscaped. In one house, there is a library, consisting of 14,000 volumes on art and architecture that Gates purchased from the famed nearby Prairie Avenue Bookshop when it closed, and around 60,000 glass lantern slides donated by the University of Chicago art history department. Another houses 8,000 LPs bought from Dr. Wax, a storied local record store, now also shuttered.
Gates's sculptural practice is also based on remnants—humble materials "potent" (a word he favors) with associations. He saves furnishings and pieces of derelict buildings, formerly inhabited by black people, for reuse in his sculptures. His esthetic is minimalist but infused with a strong sense of narrative; his thronelike, custom-upholstered shoeshine stands, stacks of plates embedded in concrete blocks, and framed, rolled-up fire hoses all speak to aspects of black history and black daily life.
In 2007, unable to find a gallery to show his work, he held his own event, a highly orchestrated dinner party-cum-performance, Plate Convergence, and, he says, "people came, they all came"—locals, artists and other art world figures. It was his breakthrough, making him an area celebrity and heralding a rise that was national and then international. In 2009, curator Francesco Bonami visited the Dorchester Project, and Gates found himself in the 2010 Whitney Biennial. Exhibitions followed at the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston.
Gates has shows currently at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and the Seattle Art Museum. In 2012, he will be included in a group show at Chicago's Smart Museum, "Feast: An Exhibition of Radical Hospitality," for which he will arrange a series of dinner parties to explore the role of hospitality and food in cultural exchange and social transformation, themes that figure prominently in Gates's projects and echo those addressed by artists from Joseph Beuys to Gordon Matta-Clark and Rirkrit Tiravanija. Gates has also been chosen as the commissioned artist for the 2012 Armory Show in New York; his work will be used to create the fair's visual identity.
Born in 1973, Gates grew up in East Garfield Park, on Chicago's West Side, as the youngest of nine children. He studied urban planning and ceramics at Iowa State University, and, at the University of Cape Town, in South Africa, earned an MA in fine arts and religious studies. In 2006, he returned to Iowa State and got an MS in urban planning, religious studies and ceramics. He has lived in Chicago since then.
I talked with Gates this summer at his enormous studio on Fulton Street, in an area that is a mix of factories and artists' studios. In conversation, he is a natural, charismatic raconteur (he considered becoming a preacher) with a firm grip on vernacular and spiritual languages as well as the theoretical and academic. The space was stuffed with materials stripped from 6901 South Dorchester that will be used in a future project.
LILLY WEI There's been a great change in your career recently, hasn't there? You said that as recently as four years ago, no one would show your work.
THEASTER GATES The process of emerging really is a process. I love ceramics and traditional sculptural materials, I really like working with people, and I enjoy place-based interventions. But the language for that was pretty new to me. Four years ago, I was still trying to figure out what my art was and how to be a good citizen in a place like Chicago. It became clear that if I wanted to have a practice that is both object-based and engagement-based, I had to figure out ways to present it on my own. It wasn't until a project that I did with the Hyde Park Art Center in 2007, Plate Convergence, that everything began to come together.
WEI This involved the Yamaguchi story, right?
GATES Yes. I created a story centered on a fictive pottery commune in Mississippi founded in the 1960s by an also-fictive Japanese ceramicist, Yamaguchi, who had fled Hiroshima, married a black civil rights activist, and instituted a ritual called Plate Convergences, or conversations where people came from all over to discuss issues of race, political difference and inequity. Yamaguchi is supposed to have made ceramic plates specifically for the "black food" served at the dinners, and this dinnerware went into the Yamaguchi Institute Collection as part of the story. It was shown with a video at the Hyde Park Art Center as an example of his object-engagement projects. I claimed him as a mentor. As the story went, he and his wife died in a car accident in 1991 and their son founded the Yamaguchi Institute to continue their vision of social transformation. I made ceramic plates, videotaped highly curated dinners and found a space for an exhibition of the ceramics and video. We gave a huge Japanese soul-food dinner, made by a Japanese chef and my sister, in honor of the Yamaguchis and their dinners. A young mixed-race artist enacted the role of their son and thanked everyone for coming. The whole thing duped a lot of people.
WEI And this helped you to realize you might not need institutions to present your work?
GATES I realized that if I had the courage to make work outside the institution, then institutions might actually be interested in the work. I was ready to be an outsider and have an outsider practice.
WEI Courage works, evidently. How did you end up in Francesco Bonami's Whitney Biennial in 2010?
GATES I met Francesco in 2009 and we started talking about the Biennial. He came to Chicago and saw Dorchester and was really interested in my ability to think about multiple properties and about space in a big way. He was sizing me up for the Whitney's sculpture court, which is a hard space to deliver in, but not unlike the Dorchester Project. The Whitney was my first breakthrough to a larger public and I was greatly honored, but the real breakthrough was what happened at the Hyde Park Art Center three years prior. Had it not been for that, there would have been nothing to show Francesco. And at Art Basel Miami Beach in December, just before the Whitney Biennial, Kavi Gupta, my Chicago dealer, showed the first shoeshine stands. They created a modest buzz and it gave me real pleasure to imagine that objects that had deep meaning for me might potentially strike a complementary chord in others, although our experiences are very different.
WEI Tell me about the Dorchester Project.
GATES You tell me about Dorchester.
WEI I was impressed by it when I saw it in March. It seemed a wonderful community hub with books, music, film, art, residencies, a garden, dinners and performances for your neighbors, friends and visitors. I also loved the way it looked and was made, constructed from salvaged materials. It was not simply optimistic but also pragmatic, economical, a good investment in the future and an expansive way to define art. It seems to exemplify one aspect of your notion of stewardship.
GATES It's the kind of utopian enterprise you really get wrapped up in. I like to let things emerge. Dorchester—the architecture, the programs, the people—is something that emerges from a belief that beautiful things can happen anywhere. I'm not talking about a formalized, historicized sense of beauty. I'm talking about planting flowers in dirt, which is often better than just dirt. And framed dirt is often better than unframed dirt.
WEI You refer to frames a lot.
GATES I do. I think people miss things when they're unframed, when no context is given. The frame says that something is so important that a gaudy frame has been put around it. There are all kinds of frames—writing is a frame, financing is a frame, endorsement is a frame.