Monday, December 5, 2011

Theaster Gates

Theaster Gates is a Renaissance man on a mission.

Gates grew up in Chicago and graduated from Iowa State University as an urban planning major. While there he took a course in ceramics that got him hooked on clay and made him think he could be an artist. He studied religion in South Africa, sojourned in Japan, and earned the first of two masters degrees. In the process, Gates went from throwing pots to mounting emotionally charged installations and performances, including multiple events based on a faux biographical story that Gates created. In his tale, a master Japanese potter, Yamaguchi, had fled Hiroshima and landed in Mississippi, where he married a black woman, combined Japanese and black southern cultures, mentored Gates, and then died, leaving Gates to continue his mission of "fostering social transformation."

With former Wilco member LeRoy Bach, Gates formed an experimental music ensemble, the Black Monks of Mississippi, making performance art out of a blend of Eastern chants, gospel, and the blues. By 2010 Gates was a hot ticket on the museum circuit, with a schedule that included on-site projects or residencies at the Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland, Houston's Contemporary Arts Museum, and New York's Armory Show and the Whitney Art Museum.

But in the summer of 2009, while his career was thriving, his Chicago neighborhood had emptied out due to assorted consequences of poverty and economic collapse. The house next door to Gates — bigger than his and bustling with three tenant families when he moved in — was abandoned and bank-owned, and had been on the market for a year. Gates bought the forlorn frame house for $16,000, and the extra house became a library and archive housing Gates' 60,000 glass lantern slides from the University of Chicago's art history department, 14,000 books from Prairie Avenue Bookshop, which was closing, and the 8,000 LPs that the Dr. Wax record store still owned when it also shut down.

In 2010, Gates launched a series of artists' residencies, featuring public performances in his house promoted by word of mouth. After a tremendously successful year, Gates formed his own nonprofit, the Rebuild Foundation, which acquires property in blighted neighborhoods in other cities including Saint Louis, Detroit and Omaha, all of which he intends to converted into grassroots cultural use.

In late April, the Rebuild Foundation acquired a much bigger project: the Dante Harper Townhomes, a shuttered 36-unit Section-8 property a couple of blocks from Gates's home. The plan is to redevelop the building into mixed-income housing for people with an interest in the arts.

It's all of a piece, Gates says. "A big part of my art practice has been creatively investigating what happens in neighborhoods. That also includes playing in the real market, not just gesturing at it. We're at a moment where the interventions that artists make are not just in museums and galleries."

A new installation by Gates opens at the Seattle Art Museum on December 8, and runs through July 1. Theaster Gates speaks at Town Hall Seattle on Tuesday December 6 at 6:30 p.m.

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