Theaster Gates: The Dorchester Project

“Best of Chicago Art Magazine” series. Originally appeared on the site 11/11/2010

Yolanda Green

Theaster Gates, The Dorchester Project. Copyright: Sarah Trigg

What does it look like to create work that is not only beautiful and functional, but also something that gives back to the Chicago community? Architectural and structural artist Theaster Gates is investing time and energy in The Dorchester Project, long term effort to bring positive change to the Woodlawn/South Shore area where he feels there is tremendous need for more creative urban renewal. As director of Arts Programming and lecturer in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Chicago, his work is diverse and spans across different artistic techniques, cultures, beliefs, and social spheres. Last year, in his Museum of Contemporary Art exhibit, Temple Exercises, he successfully merged Japanese and African American culture through temple-like structures, tackling issues concerning race, politics, and art. In his latest ongoing project, he wants to turn an abandoned building on the south side into something inspiring, cultural, and educational for the surrounding community.

Making Art a Presence

While some of Gates’ work derives from the Black experience, for him, inspiration comes from a variety of sources. In an interview with Kathryn Born last year, Gates stated, “Black isn’t the only thing that governs who I am, it’s not the only thing that constitutes my identity, but it’s part of it.” He explains, for instance, that the kind of atmosphere one would find in charismatic Black Baptist church is much different than in a Catholic church. The music, dancing, shouting, and general culture within black churches are specific aesthetics that sometimes appear in his work. In this case, spirituality is connected to blackness. But at the same time, Gates spent a significant amount of time studying religious places from other cultures, visiting other countries, reading, and researching. His personal well of knowledge from many different people and experiences fuel his artistic endeavors.

Copyright: Sarah Trigg

He is aware of the fact that making art a presence in the world can take many forms, especially when it comes to architectural spaces. In the Bad at Sports interview, Gates talks about the many transformations that urban spaces can take. A building that was originally a church can turn into a synagogue, then a bank, then a thrift store over a span of time. So many different institutions, both formal and informal, can occupy a space. Gates is fascinated by this social and spatial collision and aims to explore “the life in between” both formal and informal institutions.

There is also another motive for this exploration. For the Dorchester Project and his other work, Gates takes interest in abandoned buildings that, otherwise, would be used by landlords who may not have the best interests of the surrounding community in mind. Because he is fortunate enough to have resources in order to buy the spaces he wants to buy, Gates feels that his money should go to the places that need it. He thinks that many people could do the same, yet do not, and this may factor into why certain neighborhoods are suffering. “These people have every right in the world to want what they want. But maybe there’s room to want other kinds of things. I want to do other things with money,” he said.

The Dorchester Project

The two-story building on Dorchester and 69th street had been vacant for about a year. But in 2009, Gates decided that he wanted to use the space in conjunction with his involvement in an exhibition. He envisioned the building functioning as an artistic meeting ground, where he could invite people to gather, share ideas, eat, and have good conversations. That year, he had accumulated additional materials for the building, including the University of Chicago’s lanternslide archive – a collection of 6,000 images – and 14,000 used books from a bookstore that ran out of business. It was then that he realized that the building could serve a much bigger purpose.

Copyright: Sarah Trigg

By the end of the renovation, the building will transform into a place where not only artists and historians can gather, but a place where people can create performances, lectures and other happenings based on the archives and collections within the building. It will also function as a place where people with all sorts of backgrounds can come, invite friends, have a good meal and talk with each other. Gates also plans to create a reading room that will also serve as a visual literacy resource center. He has acquired several discs and vinyl records from a closed record shop as well. With the lanternslides and many books, the music will serve as additional collection. Essentially, the building will be a multimedia library and everyone is invited.

The abandoned building is just the start of the Dorchester Project. Gates hopes to bring more to the community by transforming the entire block into a cultural epicenter and an outlet for people to use their diverse talents in productive ways and to create an outlet for what he calls “cultural narratives.” In the volume 20 of the Chicago Art Journal, Gates says, “On Dorchester different kinds of people with varying kinds of knowledge and experiences can start relationships. Those who spend their lives gaining knowledge and have lacked opportunities to be engaged and active in environments with people whose experiential wisdom can be quite rewarding and refreshing can stretch out here. Creating spaces and zones where knowledge and experience can be regarded as equals and the sharing is an equal sharing, is something that I want to try to do.”

So far, Dorchester has had a series of small dinner gatherings. A few weeks ago, the Museum of Contemporary Art hosted a dinner at the location for Mark Bradford, who gave talk on the Museum and inclusivity. Gates hopes to open the space for dinner conversations in the spring of 2011. By winter 2012, the space will become part of the Smart Museum’s exhibition Feast (http://smartmuseum.uchicago.edu/exhibitions/feast/). Dorchester Project was also the recipient of a Propeller grant.