The National Building Museum is honoring Theaster Gates and hosting a conversation with the artist on Nov. 3
AN INTERNATIONALLY ACCLAIMED potter, sculptor, performance artist, and social innovator, Theaster Gates has developed an ambitious archiving and building practice. He acquires historic collections and restores abandoned properties on Chicago’s South Side, transforming them into lively cultural spaces that host curated programs and house thousands of records, books, and memorabilia. He is reviving the community through cultural development.
His work has garnered many accolades. The latest comes from the National Building Museum. The museum announced that Gates is the recipient of the 2023 Vincent Scully Prize. The award “recognizes excellence in practice, scholarship, or criticism in architecture, historic preservation, and urban design.”
Gates will receive the Scully Prize at a public event on Nov. 3 at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. Following the award presentation, Gates will be in conversation with Jessica Bell Brown, curator and department head for contemporary art at the Baltimore Museum of Art, and architect/designer Germane Barnes, principal and founder of Studio Barnes and a professor of architecture at the University of Miami.
(Barnes is part of the inaugural cohort of Dorchester Industries Experimental Design Lab awardees, announced last year. Established by Gates with Prada Group, the initiative supports Black designers through networking and mentorship opportunities.)
“Theaster’s work is very much in the spirit of Vincent Scully’s scholarship, melding art, architecture, and urban design,” National Building Museum President and Executive Director Aileen Fuchs said in a statement. “His pioneering approach to cultural preservation and community building aligns so well with the Museum’s institutional Pillars of Innovation and Equity and we are thrilled to recognize his achievements and impact with this award.”
“Theaster’s work is very much in the spirit of Vincent Scully’s scholarship, melding art, architecture, and urban design.”
— National Building Museum President and Executive Director Aileen Fuchs
Thousands of vinyl albums acquired from Dr. Wax, a Hyde Park record store that went out of business are housed at Stony Island Arts Bank. | | Still From “Theaster Gates | Collecting,” Courtesy Art21
GATES WAS SELECTED by a five-member jury led by Ellen Dunham-Jones, a professor architecture and director of the urban design program at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Jury members also included Oakland, Calif.-based landscape architect Walter Hood and Paul Goldenberger, a professor of urban design at Parsons School of Design and Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic who received the Scully Prize in 2012.
When considering the selection of Gates, the jury was particularly impressed with the collecting aspect of his practice. The artist has acquired an array of collections. The journey began in 2009 when Gates purchased two neighboring vacant homes on his residential block—South Dorchester Avenue—and later added a third across the street. He brought the properties back to life as cultural spaces and sites of gathering and archiving, where he installed a library, held film screenings, and hosted dinner parties, convenings, and residencies for artists and musicians.
The same year Gates began developing the buildings, he acquired a major collection: 14,000 books from Chicago’s Prairie Avenue Bookshop, which focused on architecture books. That was just the beginning. An early coup was the landmark collection of 15,000 books and periodicals from the Chicago headquarters of Johnson Publishing Company, the publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines.
Over the years, Gates has added the final inventory of 10,000 LPs from Dr. Wax, the Hyde Park record store; 60,000 glass lantern slides of Medieval art and architecture from the University of Chicago’s Department of Art History; the entire contents of Halsted Hardware, after the family-owned True Value Hardware store closed; the record collections of DJ and House Music legend Frankie Knuckles, Olympic track and field star Jesse Owens, and ceramic artist Marva Lee Pickford-Jolly; and a collection of “negrobilia” assembled by Ana and Ed J. Williams, abut 4,000 objects based on racist images and stereotypes of Black people.
“I have this keen interest in not just autonomous, singular objects, but whole collections of things. Part of the reason I think I’m attracted to collections is because they constitute one person’s—or one institution’s—way of seeing the world. And it’s like this little time capsule of things that were important to someone,” Gates said in an Art21 video about his collecting practice.
In 2010, Gates established the Rebuild Foundation. He envisioned the nonprofit as “a platform for art, cultural development, and neighborhood transformation.” Through the foundation the artist has saved more than 40 buildings. Chief among them, he opened Stony Island Arts Bank in an old, neo-classical bank building in the South Side neighborhood of Greater Grand Crossing. That was in 2015. Stony Island Trust and Savings Bank was built in 1923. Out of use for 30 years, the structure was compromised and exposed to the elements. Seventeen developers tried and failed to rescue the building, before Gates purchased it from the city for $1 in 2013. He raised more than $6 million for the renovation and after many challenges eventually succeeded.
STONY ISLAND ARTS BANK focuses on Black artists, Black space, and Black objects. The building is a nexus for the artist’s many projects and serves as a cultural hub in the community with exhibition space, a bar, and foundation offices. (Stony Island Arts Bank is currently closed to the public until spring 2024.) The building also features a two-story, glass-walled space where the Johnson collection is displayed and houses the archival collections with which Gates has been entrusted. The acquisitions reflect the community’s shifting identity and serve as a record of its shuttered local businesses and storied institutions. They also represent important aspects of African American cultural history.
Months before the grand opening of Stony Island Arts Bank, Gates gave a TED Talk about how to revive a neighborhood with imagination, beauty, and art. “One of the things that really excites me in my artistic practice and being trained as a potter is that you very quickly learned how to make great things out of nothing… As a potter you also start to learn how to shape the world…” he said.
“Is there a way that I could start to think about these buildings as an extension or an expansion of my artistic practice. I was thinking along with other creatives—architects, engineers, real estate finance people—that us together might be able to think in more complicated ways about the reshaping of cities.”
“Is there a way that I could start to think about these buildings as an extension or an expansion of my artistic practice. I was thinking along with other creatives—architects, engineers, real estate finance people—that us together might be able to think in more complicated ways about the reshaping of cities.” — Theaster Gates
ESTABLISHED IN 1999, the Scully prize is named for influential architectural historian Vincent Scully (1920-2017), Sterling Professor Emeritus of the Arts at Yale University. The New York Times said Scully’s “lectures inspired students for more than 60 years,” his “writings on architecture had a decisive influence on its practice in the last half of the 20th century,” and he “treated the history of every culture and every period as if it were in continual dialogue with his own time.”
Scully was honored with the inaugural prize. Over the years, recipients have also included architect Robert A.M. Stern (2008); Adele Chatfield-Taylor (2010), president and CEO of the American Academy in Rome, from 1988-2013; Joshua David and Robert Hammond (2013), who envisioned the High Line park in New York’s Meatpacking District; and architect/designer Mabel O. Wilson (2021), a professor of architecture and African American and African Diasporic studies at Columbia University and the author of several books, including “Negro Building: Black Americans in the World of Fairs and Museums.”
Wilson was the first Black person to be honored with the Scully Prize. Gates will be the first artist to receive it. CT
Theaster Gates: Collecting | Art21 “Extended Play. From his Chicago studio, Theaster Gates talks about his collecting practice. (Published in 2017, Interview by Stanley Nelson). | Video by Art21
Published earlier this year, “Theaster Gates: Young Lords and Their Traces” accompanied a comprehensive survey of the artist at the New Museum in New York. “Theaster Gates” is published by Phaidon. Recent volumes also include “Theaster Gates: Every Square Needs a Circle,” “Theaster Gates: Black Madonna,” “Theaster Gates: How to Build a House Museum,” and “Theaster Gatees: Black Archive.” Also consider, “Theaster Gates: Facsimile Cabinet of Women Origin Stories: Reflections.” a collection of commissioned writings in response to the Facsimile Cabinet of Women Origin Stories, which includes nearly 3,000 framed images of women from the Johnson Publishing Company archive. “Theaster Gates: A Clay Sermon” documents a 2021 exhibition of his clay works at Whitechapel Gallery in London. The volume is forthcoming in March 2024.
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