Mayor Rahm Emanuel & Theaster Gates are teaming up to bring a cultural renaissance to Chicago.
On a chilly winter morning, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and artist Theaster Gates are driving around the Grand Crossing neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. At Gates’ request, the car stops in front of a building on Kimbark Avenue. It’s a stunning yellow brick structure, technically owned by ComEd, but vacant. “Look at the architecture on this thing,” Emanuel says. “This is beautiful.” Gates, who is currently working to acquire the building from ComEd, explains his plans for the structure: He’s going to convert one section of it into a music venue, and one section into a sacred space where people can congregate, inspired by the Rothko chapel in Houston. “Music, exhibition and contemplation,” he sums up.
The building is just one small piece in the contemporary artist’s in-progress master plan: to turn his South Side neighborhood into a cultural incubator by converting run-down, vacant buildings into spaces suitable for artistic endeavors and neighbors alike. Though the Chicago native started out on a solo mission — “I was just trying to be a good citizen; I like where I live. I wanted to invest in my neighborhood” — his work got the attention of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and now the two are joining forces to invigorate the city’s neighborhoods through the arts.
The pair’s partnership sparked several years ago. While running for mayor, Emanuel attended an event at the home of Anita Blanchard and Marty Nesbitt, who have a Gates piece hanging in their home. Emanuel says he was enchanted by it. “I kept saying, ‘This is a really unbelievable piece, I really love this piece,’ ” he says. After he was elected, Blanchard suggested he meet the world-renowned artist. So Blanchard, Emanuel, his wife Amy Rule (who has a master’s in art history from the University of Chicago), and Gates got together. “Theaster said, ‘I want to lay out this vision.’ And we went driving around.”
Since that initial meeting, Gates’ vision has blossomed. In Grand Crossing you’ll find his studio, a 28,000-square-foot former Anheuser-Busch warehouse that’s currently being converted into a gallery, event space and workspace. There’s also Dorchester Projects, a slew of two-flat buildings on and around South Dorchester Avenue that combine living areas with cultural gathering spaces. “The philosophy is that in the absence of certain building types, or the economic structure to support big cultural things, maybe the two-flat is the rightly scaled space,” says Gates, who lives in one of the buildings. “If we could work with the department of planning and zoning to think about how buildings are used, then these buildings, which are 1, 2, and 3,000-square-feet, could do amazing things.”
South Dorchester Avenue is now a village of culture. There’s a film-screening space called Black Cinema House; the Listening House, which holds the music collection from the now-shuttered record store Dr. Wax; the Archive House, which has the entire collection from the old Prairie Avenue Bookstore, and much more. And there are more renovations in the works: Gates recently saved a 1920s-era bank from demolition and is turning it into The Stony Island Arts Bank, which blends gallery space, a restaurant and a reading room, and will house the editorial library of the Johnson Publishing Company. (Gates also owns the company’s archives, which are housed in a separate space.) Also in progress is Dorchester Artist Housing Collaborative, a Chicago Housing Authority building which will soon hold artist studios, market value apartments and CHA homes. “We gave the property, and when all the artists are in there, there will be an energy that we can’t [create],” says Emanuel.
Emanuel is adamant that Gates’ awareness of what already existed helped bring his idea to life. “In his energy and vision, he organized us,” Emanuel says. “From the bank to that ComEd building, nobody knew what we had. His vision helped us get smart about what we had, and he found a way to give it a cultural repurpose.”
For Gates, the project is in part about changing the narrative of the neighborhoods. “In some ways I feel it’s impossible to talk about poor places without talking about the cultural riches that probably live there,” Gates says. “Sometimes we spend time on the wrong part of the narrative. We spend time on how violent the place is, how bad the schools are. But we also never give platform to the amazing things that are possible there. And what I’m finding is that all I had to do is invent the platform, and all of the people doing amazing things, they were right there.”
Gates’ vision fell neatly alongside the city’s own arts initiatives. Since taking office in 2011, Emanuel — an avid supporter of the arts and a ballet dancer in his own right — has worked to take Chicago’s culture scene to new heights, and this year, he’s going even further with the help of Michelle Boone, the city’s commissioner of cultural affairs and special events. “The big drive of the new cultural plan is to bring culture and arts back to the neighborhoods and back to the community,” Emanuel says. He points to last summer’s Night Out in the Park program, in which arts nonprofits held free outdoor programming in Chicago parks, as just one example. It was such a success that the city is expanding it next year. “Everywhere, every night in the summer, there are seven performances across the city [by organizations such as] Redmoon, Chicago Symphony, Steppenwolf. All over, all free,” Emanuel says. “If you get any public money, you must give us a plan of where you’re going to do something somewhere in the city — and it can’t be downtown.”
The blending of community and arts is starting early, too, thanks to a new CPS program in which every school has an arts planner, and each student receives a minimum two hours of arts education each week. “There’s a great phrase: cultural redevelopment,” Emanuel says. “I’ve always heard of neighborhood redevelopment, neighborhood rezoning … but I think it’s a great way to characterize it. It’s cultural redevelopment that has limitless potential for a neighborhood. And it can’t fail — there’s only upside.”
Next up, the city and Gates are joining forces to create the artwork at the newly renovated 95th Street Red Line station. It will be the largest piece of art in CTA’s history, located at the busiest station in the city. In order to create a piece that honors the neighborhood, they’ve turned to the community for input. “We decided that in advance of the design work, we would have five meetings where we would spend time with that community, tell them about the project and make a pitch for their participation. And it’s been awesome,” Gates says. “Artists from all over come out to tell me what they do and how it can fit, or they tell me what they think should happen at the station. So I’m trying to figure out different ways to internalize that so that new work is created.” Emanuel adds, “It will bring tourists, and that’s a good thing. But it will get people in a neighborhood to imagine their own community in a way they never saw it. They probably felt it, thought it could happen, but needed a leader to build it and then give them a space where they, too, could contribute.”
Now, they’re seeing the energy spread quickly. “People are like, ‘What’s next?’” Gates says. “I have doctors saying, ‘I’d love to be the doctor on the block,’ scholars from the University of Chicago saying, ‘I really want to live here.’ Then on the other side, my neighbor says, ‘Do you have an apartment I can rent?’ That’s when you know you’ve reached the sweet spot, when people from outside are wanting to be in, and people from the inside are wanting to be more vested than they already are.”
And not just in Grand Crossing — Chicago-based artists are getting in on the chance to contribute to the city’s public art as well. For instance, artist Hebru Brantley has teamed up with the city to create a mural on Lake Shore Drive near the Museum of Science and Industry, and the mayor says there’s more to come. “I want the artists in the city to know that we’ll embrace you if you stay,” Emanuel says. “We’re going to help you be the artist you want to be.”