Theaster Gates & The Stony Island Arts Bank

Last Saturday I had the opportunity to attend the opening of the Stony Island Arts Bank. The building, once a thriving bank, was built in 1923. However, it has been abandoned since the 1980s. Chicago artist and urban planner Theaster Gates began re-working the site in 2012 after purchasing the building for $1. In three years, the renovation is striking and the space is now officially open for use by South Side residents and artists from around the block and around the world.

The opening of the bank was celebrated as part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial. It showcased an installation by Portuguese artist Carlos Bunga on the main floor. There was a side room hosting minimally outlined take-away building plans and a small slide projector casting images on the wall. The main floor also featured space for poetry readings and dancing, room to mingle and free water, sparkling or still, provided to all guests. The second floor was home to long wooden library furniture holding 60,000 glass lantern slides acquired from the University of Chicago following their digitization, a stunning library focused on African-American history and culture, long rooms with elegant tables of repurposed wood, games set up for children and volunteers ready to help you learn more about the organization and become a member, an act which requires nothing more than a simple registration process and no money at all. The third floor holds the record collection, numbering around 5,000 records in all, of Frankie Knuckles, a DJ who changed the music scene with his unique and ecstatic sets and who passed away in 2014. Artworks by Gates are also on view and there are additional meeting spaces as well.

Gates has uniquely leveraged his training as an urban planner and artist, as well as his access to the artworld at large, to affect community change. As part of his fundraising for the project, Gates repurposed salvaged marble from the site to create 100 rectangular “bank bonds,” which were then sold at Art Basel in 2013.  With his unique access, he not only finds creative and lucrative ways to move the project forward, he develops an international platform that raises awareness and transcends the limitations of one community, one place and one building.  The global economy feeds local development and the layers of cultural dialogue, meaning and movement are exponential. As an article in the Wall Street Journal in 2012 states, “Artists don’t attempt altruism this extreme…[Gates] is pushing art beyond the sphere of social commentary into the arena of nitty-gritty do-gooding.”

Gates’ agency and activity responds to and illustrates his own questioning of what culture would be like if artists led the way. In this, it exemplifies a radical shift in the philosophy and practice of art making that is frequently grappled. The objects Gates produces, often using repurposed materials from the buildings he is working on, are so immaculately crafted and materially sensuous, that one never questions their classification as art objects or bemoans a loss of aesthetics. His projects and performances are the same. The seamless transcendence of his work in the round is awe inducing and exciting. It makes me wonder what is next, how will this new life move forward and what will it look like in the future, by Gates and others.

Video Interview with Gates at Stony Island Arts Bank Pre-Renovation:

All images culled from the internet, various sources.

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