Theaster Gates Speaks on Books, Art, and Real Estate at Cindy Pritzker Lecture


Taylor Castle/Chicago Tribune

“Love, Administration, Iteration.” This is the Holy Trinity of ingredients for the stew of our future, according to Theaster Gates. Chicago artist, urban planner, and craftsman, Gates is founder of the Rebuild Foundation and responsible for revitalization projects that engage communities and promote the celebration of art and culture grounded in investment and advocacy. On the stage of the Cindy Pritzker Auditorium at the Harold Washington Library Center, Gates and Dr. Adam Green, associate professor of history at the University of Chicago, discussed the importance of developing safe spaces to create and to experience. Green observed in Gates’s work common themes of generosity, practicality, and speculation; the mirepoix at the base of a meal meant as food pro multis.

The Chicago Public Library is planning to donate 1 million books to Gates to not only preserve and display, but also make available for patrons who want access to knowledge. This is not the first major donation he has received for archival. The Johnson Publishing Corporation donated more than 15,000 nonfiction and fiction books, and magazines, including a historical Ebony Magazine collection. Pulping books is a cringeworthy act in Gates’s eyes and he would rather see the books live a second life in the massive library and reading room of the Arts Bank. Acquiring a wealth of literature to simply make it available to everyone for free…


A potter by trade, Gates often sat at his wheel “with mounds of clay trying stuff.” His art ultimately evolved and became intertwined with property and shaping communities. He became the man sitting with architects and developers “trying stuff,” turning eyesore buildings on his block into beautiful bodies that both house and behave as art–what he calls the Dorchester Projects. Green asked when the concept of reuse became an integral part of the artistic process. Gates suggested it began at home: “It’s probably about survival.” His mother kept a plastic bag full of plastic bags to reuse (a comment often made in jest as a practice of black families). He also cites the use of take-out food containers that were washed and then reused to take lunch to work the next day…in a plastic bag. It begins with making use of a thing and then recognizing that thing as having potential or value in another capacity.



As the evening wound down, the conversation took an important yet morbid turn into the realm of police brutality and inner city violence. Gates minces no words when it comes to his responsibility to the black community. So much so that he has coordinated another unorthodox project. The gazebo where Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in Cleveland was dismantled earlier this year to be transported to Chicago. When Green inquired why this artifact is important to preserve, Gates was clear in his response. The gazebo is unequivocally a “black object” and is a site of black trauma. Once erected in what Gates lovingly refers to as “Kenwood Gardens,” an artist compound in-the-making, full of living and workspaces, the gazebo will act as a tangible place to mourn; to freely weep. It becomes a piece of art, a piece of history, and a gathering place to release pain and reflect and consider the future as a community.


Theaster Gates is Chicago’s neighborhood chef. One of his first endeavors after gaining an amount of success was to have a dinner, not unlike his mother’s Sunday gatherings. Only his dinners would be with gatekeepers and people with access to resources on a grand scale. He would then arrange another meal with community members with the drive “to get things done,” the goal being to share information across the table: knowledge served family style. He does not want singular success or to be elevated to the point of becoming a gatekeeper himself, but rather to provide the keys.

Gates name-checked Mayor Rahm Emmanuel once he arrived, acknowledging the dinner following the artist talk, but Gates also knew he would have to eat again. He realized some time ago, in order for people to get things done, they’d have to have two dinners.

bon appétit


Be good.

Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates has developed an expanded practice that includes space development, object making, performance and critical engagement with many publics. Founder of the non-profit Rebuild Foundation, Gates is currently a professor in the Department of Visual Art and director of Arts and Public Life at the University of Chicago.


That Time My City Didn’t Kill Anyone

crime scene

Native son of Chicago. Raised in Chatham. Bulls, Bears, and Sox fan (in that order). Lived just a few blocks off of 79th and the Dan Ryan until my late twenties. This information would populate my FLEER Chidentity trading card (if such a thing existed) and I’m proud of every stat line. But some time between taking my first swing as a member of the South Side Little League baseball camp, and the third year of the second term of the first black President of the United States, my city became the unofficial murder capital of the nation.

A reputation of murder? It’s hard to believe because numbers don’t lie. Then again, (Chicago murder rate) statistics and their presentation are often manipulated to tell false or at least specific truths. I doubt that is news to anyone. What is news: 7 injured in shooting at South Side club; beloved special education teacher killed by stray bullet; 15 Chicago homicides have occurred in the first 10 days of June this year; 6 dead and at least 21 injured in shootings across the city since Friday (June 20-23,2014). Young black folks are doing most of the dying and the killing. These are the reports synchronized with our morning alarm clocks and nightly lullabies of late. The kinds of “accolades” you never want associated with the place some people ignorantly call “Chiraq”, but you lovingly call home.

If you believe that Chicago is one three-day weekend away from declaring Martial Law, I implore you to pay attention and widen your perspective. Chicago is not the only city suffering from outbreaks of crime and violent activity. See also Philadelphia. If you remove the element of race, the entire state of Florida has had a troubling last few years, lest we forget. Many campuses including those in Isla Vista, California and Seattle, Washington will be holding annual vigils for lives lost too soon. Cities and nations around the world are going through political upheavals that result in violence to which Chicago can’t compare (i.e. Egypt, Nigeria, and the Middle East). Please understand I’m not making excuses; I’m making observations.

Here’s another one: there is hope for our city and the youth who reside here. We shouldn’t have to be afraid to walk in our neighborhoods, even after an incident we hoped would continue to happen to everyone else in those “terrible” West Side and Englewood areas. But I’ve worked with youth in the past and it’s amazing what they can accomplish if you can simply inspire them. They are more than just the sum of their perceived parts; they are people who can be encouraged to achieve greatness beyond measure. But the lives that some of these kids live embody struggle that isn’t included in the reports of violence. Obstacles that many of us haven’t had to overcome. Resources we haven’t had to do without. A myriad of contributing factors affect how these kids act out but the details are often excluded.

Example: Picture, if you will, two teenage girls walking into your performing arts after-school program with looks on their faces that let you know they won’t be participating. And I don’t mean that “I’m a teenager and I don’t want to be bothered with this” look. I mean a look of genuine frustration and defeat. Later, after the proverbial pulling of teeth, you discover that the girls are upset about a graded assignment returned to them with disturbing notes from one of their teachers. The assignment was to write a paper describing future goals. These two girls had each written goals centered around family: husbands and kids and dogs and back yards. The students were given C’s because the teacher did not see family as a sufficient goal. That was when I realized that the look they held when walking into class was of heartbreak. A teacher thought it best to tell these students that family is not a goal to aspire toward. It’s one thing to ask a student to reach further, but to tell them that part of their dream is insignificant is akin to a violent act; only against the spirit and not the body. Particularly because at least one of the girls lived in a single-parent household. It’s conceivable that she saw a two-parent household as a major accomplishment. She wants her children to grow up in an environment that she thought better than her own and was essentially told that was wrong. So if she’s neither encouraged at home nor at school by the most influential adults in her life, who does she turn to?

It’s complicated. There is no simple answer. I get that. But despite all of the negative attention that Chicago has been getting lately for an uptick in violence and crime, just know that there was one day when there was peace in the land. Check the link below:

A day of peace in Chicago