Partner Profile: Theaster Gates

When Theaster Gates set out to major in Urban Planning at Iowa State University, he didn’t know how much the ceramic class he signed up for as an “elective” would end up changing his life. Today, Gates is a well-known and well-respected artist – who has exhibited everywhere from the Museum of Contemporary Art to the Whitney Biennial — and the Director of the University of Chicago’s Arts Development Program. Far from abandoning his original interest in urban planning, however, Gates is combining his artistic talent with his ardent care for community development and social activism in an attempt to save his Chicago neighborhood from economic
decline and cultural decay.

After acquiring two masters degrees and travelling the world, Gates returned to his hometown of Chicago, purchasing his first home in the Dorchester neighborhood. At that point, the neighborhood had seen its share of ups and downs, and was struggling to flourish as a place for local businesses and cultural venues. The neighborhood was hard-hit by the recession, however; homes in the neighborhood were foreclosed and banks repossessed buildings that had been abandoned by residents.

With his meteoric success in the art world, Gates could have easily chosen to move to a more affluent, up-and-coming neighborhood. Instead, he decided to tackle the problem of his neighborhood’s deterioration head on. He started by purchasing the bank-owned building next door, with the intent of creating a venue offering soul food and music for local residents. When zoning restrictions prevented that from happening, Gates was undeterred. He converted the building into a library and archive, which now houses over 60,000 glass slides, as well as books and vinyl records from closed stores around his community.

Indeed, it appears that Gates has found his latest calling. After purchasing another building in the neighborhood and creating the Dorchester Projects, an artistic and cultural center home to a number of artists-in-residence, Gates spent a year at Harvard University on a Loeb fellowship, learning about non-profit management and finance. From there, he founded his own nonprofit, the Rebuild Foundation, and is now taking his mission nation-wide, purchasing buildings in decaying neighborhoods in St. Louis, Omaha, and Detroit for rehabilitation and cultural enrichment.

Back in Chicago, Theaster is partnering with Brinshore on the latest project in his Dorchester neighborhood, the conversion of a former 36-unit Chicago Housing Authority project into a 32-unit mixed-income development and arts center. The Dorchester Artist Housing Collaborative will offer sustainably developed mixed-income rentals for artistically inclined residents, as well as youth programming and public space, bringing increased economic growth and cultural revitalization to a community, which has already benefited greatly from Gates’ presence. The Chicago Housing Authority Board formally approved the project on October 18 – to the cheers of residents, CHA staff and community residents click here for a report from WTTW’s Chicago Tonight – WBEZ reporter Natalie Moore talks about the project three minutes and 50 seconds into the segment).

Theaster Gates has come full circle since his early days at Iowa State. Through his unique mix of artistic talent and deep concern for community, he has brought neighborhood growth and cultural renewal to the places that need it most. Brinshore is delighted to partner with Theaster on this mission.

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