Retrofit

The wooden floors of the house at 6918 Dorchester Avenue in Chicago originally lined a West Side bowling alley. The stacks of vinyl once stocked a Hyde Park record shop, and some of the windows were once doors in a museum. Viewed from the kitchen, the words “Museum Hours: 9 to 5” run backwards across the glass.

The Chicago artist Theaster Gates has shown at the 2010 Whitney Biennial and this year’s Armory Show, as well as at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and the Seattle Art Museum. But at this Dorchester residence in the Grand Crossing neighborhood, discarded pieces of Chicago’s urban landscape are helping him create a house-turned-artwork-turned-incubator.

Gates has combined a former candy store, a single-family house, and a duplex across the street into a site of artistic and community change for a neighborhood that has suffered years of blight and cultural neglect. The installation is an entry in a growing art movement to create hybridized arts spaces that serve multiple functions.

For the buildings that Gates calls the Dorchester Projects, trash to treasure is an understatement. In the first house, the former candy store acquired in 2005, ware boards from an old Wrigley chewing gum factory smell faintly of spearmint. Gates bought vinyl records, shelved nearby, when Dr. Wax, a Hyde Park record store, closed in 2010. Next door, a two-story house refitted with salvaged wood holds hundreds of architecture books from the now-defunct Prairie Avenue Bookshop, as well as a collection of half-century-old lantern slides donated by the University of Chicago.

As part of the hybridized art movement, Gates has begun inviting local performance artists and the public into the first two houses. At one such event, Gates served soul food to a diverse crowd of Museum of Contemporary Art donors, neighbors, and other Chicago artists. He hopes to catalyze a community change in the area around Stony Island Avenue and 71st Street that once bustled with businesses, jazz clubs, and restaurants.

Gates’s creative approach takes as much from the privileged precincts of contemporary art as it does from his own biography. Raised in rural Mississippi and Illinois, he joined the choir of Chicago’s New Cedar Grove Missionary Baptist Church when he was twelve years old. By fourteen he was the choir’s director. In college, Gates became immersed in politics. “The conversation of the choir seemed too narrow,” he told the Independent. “I had as much zeal for the political and social as I did for God and the choir.” In 1996 he graduated with a degree in ceramics and urban planning. A decade later—in a bid to burrow deeper into his spirituality—Gates obtained another interdisciplinary degree that included religious studies.

He continued on this eclectic path by working for a Christian mission in Seattle that ran a housing program in poor neighborhoods. He ran an arts education nonprofit center, Little Black Pearl, in Chicago’s black community. He slogged as an arts planner for the Chicago Transit Authority under Valerie Jarrett, a job he found bureaucratic and limiting. Eventually he settled into work as a coordinator of arts programming at the University of Chicago.

“I’m not a social worker,” Gates has said. “I did study urban planning because I knew that cities had problems, and black people in cities were considered the problem.” Gates immediately embraced art-making with a rare and savvy sense of social responsibility, knowing that poverty was the principal problem. In the guise of an artist-curator-activist, he served as a bridge between his community and the contemporary museum.

James Baldwin wrote, “No people come into possession of a culture without having paid a heavy price for it.” During his brief but significant career, Gates has raised virtual cathedrals from this sentiment. During his one-man exhibition at the Milwaukee Arts Museum, Gates led a 250-person gospel choir he assembled from local churches through its galleries. They sang hymns the artist had scored as a response to poems written by a slave-era potter named Dave Drake. For his 2010 Whitney Biennial turn, Gates built a space that was part Buddhist temple and part minimalist hangout—it hosted, among other collaborations, Gates’s band, the Black Monks of Mississippi, whose music combines black spirituals with Zen chants. In another instance, the artist gathered some 200 musicians and dancers to perform for 150 white academics at the University of Chicago.  The performance was followed by a lecture the artist delivered, corrosively titled “You Need N*****s?” For a university whose relations with its predominantly black neighbors are notoriously fraught, it is funny to imagine the audience’s squeamishness.

These activities were only a precursor to The Dorchester Projects. Its chief mission, as defined by Gates, was not merely to integrate life and art, but to do so at a juncture where creativity might get a jump on commercial interests. That crossroads, Gates judged, exists in America’s inner city, a place looked down upon not just by real-estate developers and city planners, but also by the culture at large. Gates believes that places that need but can’t possibly afford culture today provide contemporary art with a purpose.

Predictably, Gates turned the building on Dorchester Avenue into a haven for cultural activity. Dinners, concerts, performances, and other happenings followed, attended by people from every walk of life. In creating this easily replicable model, Gates has successfully combined the business of real estate with what Andy Warhol once called “business art.” By taking advantage of market conditions as well as municipal and federal housing grants, Gates has found a breach in the system that allows himself (and, by extension, others) to use art’s freedom and leverage to break through high society’s cliquishness and runaway commodification. Gates’s project has boldly ventured to the places in Chicago’s blighted inner city where money dare not go.

“When I first moved to 69th and Dorchester, people were like ‘You need a dog and a gun,’” Gates has said. “There was such a stigma. And I began to wonder, ‘What can I do to destigmatize the place?’” Aside from buying up buildings and converting them into miniature cultural institutions, Gates has trained and employed local people to do the construction once done by crews from outside the neighborhood. Today they constitute his main artistic workforce. Once unemployed (two are ex-convicts), these individuals speak to the power of contemporary art as reimagined from the ground up.

It’s a work in progress. As Gates told the Chicago Reader, “I’m at the beginning of asking questions about what else the black South Side can be.”

KATE WELSH B’12 raised virtual cathedrals.

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