Theaster Gates: Building Something From Nothing

Place-based community revitalization – a fancy phrase to say that committed, passionate people can transform the run-down places they live into a vibrant destination for civic activity. Theaster Gates, an artist who worked predominantly in clay, did just this to his neighborhood on the South Side.

In his recent Ted Talk, Theaster Gates says:

“The neighborhood that I live in is Grand Crossing. It’s a neighborhood that has seen better days. It is not a gated community by far. There is lots of abandonment in my neighborhood, and while I was kind of busy making pots and busy making art and having a good art career, there was all of this stuff that was happening just outside my studio. All of us know about failing housing markets and the challenges of blight, and I feel like we talk about it with some of our cities more than others, but I think a lot of our U.S. cities and beyond have the challenge of blight, abandoned buildings that people no longer know what to do anything with. And so I thought, is there a way that I could start to think about these buildings as an extension or an expansion of my artistic practice? And that if I was thinking along with other creatives —architects, engineers, real estate finance people — that us together might be able to kind of think in more complicated ways about the reshaping of cities.”

He wanted to do something, so he bought a building.

The building was really affordable. We tricked it out. We made it as beautiful as we could to try to just get some activity happening on my block. Once I bought the building for about 18,000 dollars, I didn’t have any money left. So I started sweeping the building as a kind of performance.This is performance art, and people would come over, and I would start sweeping. Because the broom was free and sweeping was free. It worked out.” 

With his “Performance Art” at a building soon known as “The Archive House,”  Gates did something that is becoming best practice across North America – animating the space. It’s not enough to build something beautiful, you have to give people a reason to come to a place, to care about that place. Memories of great experiences build emotional ties to a place. Building it alone won’t get people to come.

“Very significant people in the city and beyond would find themselves in the middle of the hood. And that’s when I felt like maybe there was a relationship between my history with clay and this new thing that was starting to develop, that we were slowly starting to reshape how people imagined the South Side of the city.”

Not only was Gates creating a community space, an asset for people to use, he was building buzz around it. He was building a movement and a craving for community revitalization.

One house turned into a few houses, and we always tried to suggest that not only is creating a beautiful vessel important, but the contents of what happens in those buildings is also very important. So we were not only thinking about development, but we were thinking about the program, thinking about the kind of connections that could happen between one house and another, between one neighbor and another.”

Theaster Gates’ buildings had a mission and a vision: to make Grand Crossing a better place for the people who lived there by using arts and culture. He wasn’t driven by a profit motive, like a traditional developer. Gates married space with a mission – social purpose real estate at its core.

At the end of this TEDtalk, Theaster Gates’ has somadvice for people  undertaking these projects in their communities:

“One of the things I’ve found that’s really important is giving thought to not just the kind of individual project, like an old house, but what’s the relationship between an old house, a local school, a small bodega, and is there some kind of synergy between those things? Can you get those folk talking?I’ve found that in cases where neighborhoods have failed, they still often have a pulse. How do you identify the pulse in that place, the passionate people, and then how do you get folk who have been fighting, slogging for 20 years, reenergized about the place that they live? And so someone has to do that work. If I were a traditional developer, I would be talking about buildings alone, and then putting a “For Lease” sign in the window. I think that you actually have to curate more than that, that there’s a way in which you have to be mindful about, what are the businesses that I want to grow here? And then, are there people who live in this place who want to grow those businesses with me? Because I think it’s not just a cultural space or housing; there has to be the recreation of an economic core. So thinking about those things together feels right.”

Watch the video or read the transcript online at TED.com. Learn more about Theaster Gates and his work at his website.