The Art of Social Work

Can artists make tangible social change while also challenging the institutions that make that change necessary?

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The Rebuild Foundation’s “BUILD / REBUILD” benefit at the newly restored Stony Island Arts Bank.
Photo by Kelly Taub/, Courtesy of Rebuild Foundation.

On September 19, 2015, champagne flowed freely at the corner of 69th Street and Stony Island Avenue in Chicago’s South Side. Amongst liquor marts, tax offices, and auto shops, the commotion at the three story tall neoclassical Stony Island Trust & Savings Bank Building could hardly go unnoticed. Although it had been slated for demolition just three years earlier, conceptual artist and Southside local Theaster Gates intervened to save the historical building. In 2012, with the support of mayor Rahm Emanuel, blessings from the First Family, and the sale of 100 engraved marble “bank bonds”, Gates managed not only to save the building from destruction, but also to transform it into a multifaceted art center.

The project is described on its official website as a “space for neighborhood residents to preserve, access, reimagine and share their heritage”. On that September night, Theaster Gates was the host of the Rebuild Gala, a lavish dinner and symposium celebrating the imminent opening of the reinvented bank building. The crowd was made up of the few hundred project funders, ranging from museum directors and curators to philanthropists and CEOs. These cosmopolitan figures gathering for drinks in the poorest part of Chicago present a strange sight, but this was no accident. Through a clever integration of fine art and social practice, Gates has found a way to channel the excesses of the contemporary art market into substantial improvements in the lives of Chicago’s most underserved citizens. But since his community works depend on the mutual leveraging of investment collectors, Gates has developed a vested interest in maintaining the economic conditions that enabled the decline of these communities. His work raises an important question about artistic funding and social practice. Is it possible to make tangible social change through art while also critiquing the systems and institutions that make that change necessary?

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The newly restored Stony Island Arts Bank.

The Stony Island Trust & Savings Bank Building is located in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood of the South Side, and according to the National Register of Historic Places, it was constructed in 1923 to serve the residents of the wealthy South Shore neighborhood. After the Great Depression, it was occupied by various tenants until it was permanently vacated in the 1980s, remaining empty until Gates’ 2012 intervention. At that point, the building was a tragic eyesore. Its Beaux Arts classical facade stood in disgraceful contrast to its plywood shuttered windows and desecrated interiors. The once prosperous edifice had become a symbol of crushed hopes and the city’s disinvestment in the primarily African-American South Side. When Gates began renovations, he brought a new sense of purpose and vitality to the building, but was careful not to erase its derelict past.

In the main atrium, a towering bookcase now stretches from the shining hardwood floor to the second story ceiling, and yet remains flanked by pockmarked industrial wooden pillars. (Harris) Upstairs, the vinyl collection of Frankie Knuckles, a local house music legend, is nestled within the building’s original stained wooden filing cabinets. Surrounding Edward Williams’ collection of “negrobilia”, the books and magazines of Ebony founder John H. Johnson, and 60,000 glass lantern slides from the Art Institute of Chicago, onlookers are presented with strange spaces which seem to exist both in the past and the present simultaneously. Polished marble floors meet abruptly with peeling paint pillars, ceiling tiles fall away to reveal smooth drywall underneath. The choice to stop short of fully renovating the building may have been partially stylistic (Ben Davis labelled Gates’ aesthetic as “salvage cool”), but also serves as a historical reminder. In the basement, a bank vault is cordoned off and left to rust, remaining in its pre-Gates condition as the starkest reminder of what the building once was, and what it could one day return to, if projects like Gates’ are not believed in and funded. But who believed in this project, and what is stopping Gates from becoming just another doomed tenant?

Unlike other social practice artists who shun tangible documentation to focus on face to face interactions, Gates dedicates a large part of his artistic career to the creation of market ready art objects. Alongside his work on community projects, he regularly exhibits paintings and sculptures made with roofing tar, fire hoses, and other raw materials used by the craftsmen of Chicago’s South Side. His direct engagement with the world of curators, art dealers, and collectors is not a betrayal of his social work, but an engine to finance it. In 2011, Gates sold In the Event of a Race Riot, a series of coiled fire hoses mounted in sturdy wooden frames, for £250,000. (Christie’s) He used this revenue to fund the Dorchester Projects, a series of abandoned properties turned into libraries, soul food kitchens, and community centers. For the Stony Island Arts Bank, he cut off slabs of the building’s marble siding and carved them into certificates, limited edition $5,000 “bonds”, the proceeds of which went towards the Bank’s funding goal of $3.5 million. Giddy collectors snatched them up, and those collectors made up most of the audience at Gates’ Rebuild Gala.

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Gates’ Tarred Vessels at White Cube in London

Much of the allure of Gates’ work lies in his self-described “circular ecological system”: A local Chicagoan improves his struggling community, he also makes valuable works that you can buy, and buying those works funds more improvement in the community. Suddenly, paying £250,000 for a fire hose gets you more than just cultural capital. Gates is cheekily aware of this cosy relationship of mutual exploitation, explaining that “[overzealous collectors] were, in fact, just thinking about the market, and that I would leverage the fuck out of them as they were leveraging me.” (Colapinto) But as Gates becomes mutually dependent on private collectors, certain artworks will be left out of his oeuvre. There are some city improvements he will never make.

As funders were photographed at the Gala, residents of neighboring Bronzeville were reaching the end of their hunger strike to keep Walter H. Dyett High School open. (Davis) Since Rahm Emanuel’s election in 2011, an aggressive educational initiative resulted in the shuttering of over 50 public schools, and a shift in focus towards private charters. (Bosman) The middle class in the South Side has shrunk drastically since the financial crisis of 2008, and communities of color face immense obstacles in voicing their concerns. Those who do have the power to make change in these neighborhoods tend to be investors, corporate entities, and community outsiders.

Social practice is an art form based around listening, communicating with locals, and helping with their unique community struggles. However, the investors in Gates’ social practice have different priorities. In her essay on Gentrification and Art, Larne Abse Gogarty notes a cynical critique of “[Theaster Gates’] Rebuild Foundation acting as a kind of feel-good money laundering facility for the commercial art world and corporate developers.” (8) This is the flip side of Gates’ “circular ecological system”: By building productive neighborhood interventions from the money of private collectors, he brings legitimacy to their continued influence, concentrates power outside of the communities he serves, and allows familiar dynamics of power to be replicated. As his local projects help assuage the symptoms of capital flight, his investors make broader changes that fuel their causes with impunity.

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David Adjaye and Theaster Gates

Theaster Gates is the perfect artist of the present. Confronted with urban decay, glaring income inequality, and profit-driven artistic institutions, he ingeniously plugs these wrongs together to make a right. Like a modern day Robin Hood, he exploits oppressive institutions to help those who need it most. However, as an artist so dedicated to revealing and understanding the implications of the past, he fails to offer clear alternatives for the future. Greater Grand Crossing may now have a cultural institution for its residents to enjoy and learn from, but the vitality of the community is still at the mercy of private investors, and citizens are far from gaining true autonomy. The work Gates creates is beautiful and brings much needed amenities to the historically ignored citizens of the urban underclass. But without critiquing the institutions that allow his work to come alive, the divisions on the South Side will remain as stark as the contrast between the Stony Island Arts Bank’s hardwood floors and its decaying vault.

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designer in the streets, pseudo-intellectual in the sheets

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