Theaster Gates: Chicago's Entrepeneurial Artist
Gates, whose work engages the post-industrial fragment, racism, and the Black experience, is an international art star. He is also the director of Arts + Public Life at the University of Chicago, implementing the university’s goal to create a thriving cultural life in Hyde Park, the Chicago South Side community which was once a center of black life and culture, but, due largely to the university’s “Negro Removal Projects” throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s, developed a reputation as a staid academic outpost, surrounded by impoverished black ghettos.
Gates has purchased properties with money from his art sales in the blighted, African American community of Woodlawn just south of the University’s campus, converting them into studio and exhibition spaces and winning acclaim and funding for his “creative place-making” and community revitalization projects. Residents there continue to battle depopulation, gangs, violence and a steady drain of employment and social services.
My study of the “Gates Phenomenon” deploys participant observation and interviews with members of his organization, university representatives, artists, and other community members to shed light on how discourses concerning the arts, community, heritage, and culture are harnessed to legitimate and push forward economic development and at what costs and benefits to community members such agendas are put into place.