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‘I Thrive in a Certain Kind of Complexity.’ Artist-Musician Theaster Gates on the Transformative Power of Art

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Belinda Luscombe is an editor at large at TIME, where she has covered a wide swath of topics, but specializes in interviews, profiles, and essays. In 2010, she won the Council on Contemporary Families Media Award for her stories on the ways marriage is changing. She is also author of Marriageology: the Art and Science of Staying Together.

Theaster Gates is swooping around and through the audience like a low-flying eagle circling a lake. It’s dark, but a band is playing Grace Jones covers, he’s a very good roller-skater, and he trusts the smoothness of the floor he installed. Occasionally he straightens a bit and shouts, “This is not a conference!” and sometimes “This is not a f-cking conference!” It’s the first night of Gates’ sixth Black Artists Retreat, a weekend of discussions, performances and films dedicated this year to exploring “Sonic Imagination.” But occasionally, because of the speakers and presentations, it verges on feeling like a conference. Hence the roller skates.

Gates is a potter-sculptor, who is also an urban planner, who is also an archivist, who is also a factory owner, who is also a bandleader, who is also a real estate developer who is also many other alsos, including a university professor. “I came into the art world with a broad sense of life, and I’ve tried to maintain that broad belief over the narrowing effects of the art world, which can make you commit to one way of making,” says Gates, 46, sitting in the opulently macho Veterans Room of the Park Avenue Armory, a former military installation turned New York City art space.

The alsos are deliberate, evidence of his distrust of categorization and his wariness about being labeled. “If you can say, ‘I make paintings,’ people really can sink their teeth into it because it’s simpler,” he says. “But I don’t just make paintings. I feel like in some ways I’m living and in living there are multiple forms that my artistic practice takes.”

Nevertheless, he will allow that on some occasions, he is given to create art—to make work, as artists like to say—about space. That space can be between the walls of a pot or of a neighborhood. “What does it mean for land to be vacant? What does it mean for land to be occupied?” he says. “How can art take an abandoned building from being abandoned to being activated and escape some of the political stuff?” Some people call this social-practice art: installations and performances that are also community-development projects. He calls it research.

One of the must-watch stories of the art world, Gates had exhibitions this year in Paris, Milan, Berlin, London and Los Angeles. In January 2020, museumgoers can see his work in Munich, Minneapolis, Liverpool and Atlanta. Or they can just walk through Chicago’s South Side.

When he was hired at the University of Chicago in 2007 as a coordinator of arts programming, Gates bought a former candy store in Greater Grand Crossing, the impoverished neighborhood a few blocks from the school, and moved in. After the Great Recession hit, he bought the house next door and mined it for parts to turn into the Archive House, a small library, then another ruin, which became the Black Cinema House (since moved) and the Listening House. These days he has significant real estate holdings, what landlords would call 80 doors, plus several hundred thousand feet of commercial industrial space in various states of use and renovation.

How does art make a neighborhood better? When the city of Chicago sold Gates a derelict old bank for $1, he and some collaborators tore out the marble urinal dividers and chopped them up into small art bonds, which he then sold for $5,000 each, netting enough equity to start transforming the building into the Stony Island Arts Bank, a repository for objects as varied as house-music pioneer Frankie Knuckles’ record collection and the archives of Jet magazine. Gates has now brought millions of dollars into the South Side via a network of sources, including his studio and his nonprofit Rebuild Foundation, his company Dorchester Industries, the university, the city and donor organizations that want to be part of something cool.

But art’s about more than just money. Gates believes in adjacency. “What would happen if a poor person actually had access to the most beautiful, most important, most relevant art in the world?” he says. To bring one to the other he’s experimented with institutionalizing work that has historically not been considered important or relevant in neighborhoods that have been abandoned. The block where he lives is now an arts corridor as well as a place to “demonstrate how my life as a middle-class person is better and a poor person’s life might be better because we’re adjacent to one another.”

Gates’ first exposure to the power of art was in the west Chicago Baptist church his mother took him and his eight older sisters to every week. He has described the gospel singing there as a “protective hedge” from the grim realities beyond the church doors. No matter what was going on during the week, there was transformative beauty to be found, and created, on Sunday mornings. At college he studied urban planning, ceramics and religion, but began to focus on found art. Discarded wood became shoeshine booths, and decommissioned fire hoses became tapestries, reclaiming symbols of racial inequity for purposes of beauty.

The alsos of Gates infiltrate his approach to everything. He is a showy stuntman (remember those bathroom bonds) but also a serious art historian and theorist. His speaking style can veer from lyrical to profane to deeply erudite to entirely streetwise. When the Armory asked what he’d like to do during his year as artist in residence, the professor talked about hosting a roller-skating party. The curators were dubious, citing the condition of the floor. So Gates, whose Dorchester Industries takes on apprentices to teach them trades, one of which is milling, decided he would replace the floor. “It’s not like I was like, ‘I’m a floor artist,'” he says. “The floor is banal. But when that room is cleared and it’s just the floor, I actually think that it’s a pretty significant work of art. It’s almost like a gift.” Gates the artist-renovator is also Gates the benefactor.

The Armory retreat, the biggest of these convocations so far, and the first that was partly open to the public, was about sound. “We have experts who know the history of humming,” says Gates of the participants. “Humming as a protective device. Wailing as a form of healing. Silence as a kind of resistance.” While it may seem like a bank shot from the kind of art he has been pursuing, noise has been one of the boldest through lines of his work. In 2007, he co-founded the Black Monks of Mississippi, a musical group who are devoted to Southern black sonic traditions rather than to a deity. For him, music is another overlooked black cultural artifact worth collecting and revitalizing. Plus, it livened up the skating party that closed out the retreat.

Gates doesn’t have a lot of time for pottery these days. He’s in demand from city governments, philanthropies and art galleries. Perhaps that’s why his face seems to be settled in a permanently worried expression. “I thrive in a certain kind of complexity, and I don’t so much thrive in a certain kind of simplicity,” he says. For his next act, he’s thinking about giving away some of the real estate, what he calls “simplifying to start a new complex order.”

One thing that won’t change is his capacity for faith. Gates believes in art the way his mother believed in God. Neighborhoods, music, trades, building detritus or even mud before the potter’s wheel: to Gates, they are containers waiting for the transfiguring and redeeming power of creation.

Correction, Dec.5

The original version of this story misstated the number of Black Artist Retreats there have been. It is six, not five. It also misstated the name of an institution. It is The Archive House, not the Archives. It also misstated that Gates had won a MacArthur ‘genius’ award. He has not.

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