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Artist Transforms Abandoned Buildings on Chicago’s South Side into Cultural Gems

Curators’ Corner

Artist Transforms Abandoned Buildings on Chicago’s South Side into Cultural Gems

Theaster Gates’ work transcends the impact of even the most culturally-driven visual art.

Gates, “a potter by training and social activist by calling,” transforms abandoned buildings in one of Chicago’s grittiest neighborhoods into social meeting grounds. His vision began with a two-story property near his studio on South Dorchester Avenue in Grand Crossing. Gates purchased the vacant house in 2009 and turned it into a design project, his mission being to “restore and reactivate the home as a site of community interaction and uplift.” Today, the building is a micro library called the Archive House.

Theaster Gates Listening House Theaster Gates projects

Gates’ success with the Archive House led him to replicate the process in buildings nearby. Gates repurposes local artifacts to create cultural institutions and essentially a new neighborhood called the Dorchester Projects, best defined by the artist on his website:

“Dorchester Projects encompasses a cluster of formerly abandoned buildings on Chicago’s South Side that Theaster Gates renovated from sites of neglect into a vibrant cultural locus.”

The Archive House’s sister properties include the Listening House and the Black Cinema House. The Listening House is home to part of the Johnson Publishing Company collection and an archive from the legendary Dr. Wax records. The Black Cinema House, the flagship program of Gates’ non-profit Rebuild Foundation, hosts screenings and film discussions by and about people of the African diaspora, along with youth video classes. Next, Gates is working on the long-vacant Stony Island Arts Bank, which he singlehandedly saved from demolition in 2012 and is now reimagining as an art and creativity hub.

Theaster Gates Bank

“Nothing had happened there. It was dirt, it was nothing, it was nowhere,” Gates said. “But if we can land kind of a miniature Versailles on top of that and connect these buildings by a beautiful green belt, this place where people never wanted to be would become an important destination for folk from all over the country and world.”

Gates’ shear ability to turn his elaborate visions into physical realities is truly inspiring. But perhaps more uplifting is his philosophy.

“I’ve always felt like it’s important that artists be good citizens,” Gates told the Chicago Tribune. “Citizenship for me includes thinking hard about the cultural life of the place that I live in. No matter what my resources have been, I’ve always tried to make culture happen.”

Gates’ profile is renowned and still growing. In 2014, he designed the largest public art project in the history of the Chicago Transit Authority, and has participated in art shows around the world. He also serves as the University of Chicago’s director of arts and public life. See Gates discuss his passion in the TED Talk below, “How to revive a neighborhood: with imagination, beauty and art.”