An Island on the South Side

Published October 6, 2015

When Theaster Gates, Jr., a potter by trade and multidisciplinary social activist/artist in practice, moved to the South Side of Chicago in 2006, he couldn’t even afford an oven. His new neighbor had one, however, and welcomed him into her home to cook. Gates now embodies this spirit of generosity through his artistic practice alongside his cultural redevelopment non-profit, the Rebuild Foundation, which he founded in 2010. This past weekend, during the inaugural edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, Gates unveiled his latest endeavor with Rebuild: the transformation of the 17,000-square-foot Stony Island Trust & Savings Bank into the Stony Island Arts Bank.

Gates first purchased the bank in 2012 for the mere price of $1 from the City of Chicago, when—after 30 years of desertion, rainfall, and 17 failed rehab attempts—it had three feet of standing water in the basement. To fix the damage and erosion, the artist went to Art Basel armed with 100 marble “Bank Bonds,” using the ensuing profits to fund the structure’s transformation. As the artist says without a hint of irony, “Who better to bail me out of a bank than the Swiss?”

In the past three years, Gates and Rebuild Foundation have created what opens to the public today as Stony Island Arts Bank, an exhibition space, lounge, bar, music venue, archive, program center, and library—with even more functions to come. Already inside is the entire Johnson Publishing Company archive (which includes publications such as Jet, Ebony, and Negro Digest); the Edward J. Williams “negrobilia” collection of racist objects that were bought simply to be removed from the market; glass lantern slides that span from Primitivism to Modernism; and late DJ Frankie Knuckles’ entire vinyl collection. Cardboard columns by Portuguese artist Carlos Bunga also currently fill the bank’s main hall for the inaugural exhibition, “Under the Skin.”

The Stony Island Arts & Savings Bank is just one example of the South Side’s desolation during the ’80s and slow rebirth. Throughout the latter half of the 20th and into the 21st century, following a history of bitter segregation, the area once rife with industry (meatpacking factories, steel mills, et cetera) saw businesses leave, and individuals who could afford to followed suit. The results of the exodus are still seen through a plethora of abandoned buildings and empty lots dotting most blocks. These derelict buildings, the neighborhood’s history, and current reality have become the subject of Gates’ craft. More than Stony Island, he renovated his own live/work space and began a series of projects including, but not limited to, renewing a deserted public housing project into 32 mixed-income residences and artist studios, and converting an Anheuser Busch warehouse into the Black Cinema House, a community hub that screens films centered around the African Diaspora and hosts weekly discussions.

We sat down with Gates at Stony Island Arts Bank, where we spoke about Chicago’s South Side, the Bank’s archive, and fostering community.

HALEY WEISS: To start off, as this is my first time in Chicago, I’d like to hear a little bit about your community and the people who live on the South Side.

THEASTER GATES: I live in a pretty amazing situation where Grand Crossing and South Shore, if you put those [populations] together, it’s probably 94 or 95 percent African-American. What’s interesting is that given that kind of homogeneous complex, there’s a huge range of cultural interests, education, and ways of being social. It’s unfortunate that with all of the diversity within this black community, there are no venues that really capture all of the different kinds of things that people want to get into. I often meet people who live in my neighborhood, when I’m downtown or in other neighborhoods, and we’re all looking for the same amenities. We all want to go to the reggae spot up north, we all want to go to the jazz club downtown. So I think that being here, I’m thinking about, “What are the amenities that I want to benefit from?” In their absence, I feel like, “All right, maybe I should make them.”

WEISS: I wonder how you’ve been thinking about the notion of vacancy, which relates to what you’ve said about [the Illinois Institute of Technology] taking over a space where people were living. Maybe vacancy isn’t the right word for these spaces; it’s more that they’ve fallen into disuse, and you’re making them alive again for the community.

GATES: One way of reading vacancy is that it’s a symptom of something. If you were to imagine vacancy as a symptom, then you could ask, “Okay, what’s not healthy in the organism of this community?” Sometimes a symptom, like a cough, could be nothing, and you could cure it with some vitamin C. Other times it requires deeper interrogation and you may realize, “Oh, this person is on the verge of pneumonia.” Each one of those has different cures, different processes, and different levels of contagion. There are moments that I feel like the work that I’m doing of restoring a building that had been vacant is like vitamin C work. And then there are moments when the work feels way more complicated, and it may require another kind of surgeon—a more complicated procedure than anything that I have ever done. So then the question is, “Given this cough, which is a more complicated cough than just vitamin C, what are the tools that I need in order to help create health?” There are moments when I’m not the right doctor, or I don’t know what to do, but even in those moments, I think, “Who are the right practitioners—other architects, city officials, scholars, policy experts, lawyers, bank finance people—who are the folk that can help me do the more complicated procedure? Who are the people that I need around me in order to help think through this thing?”

And then, once all the procedural stuff is done, did I sew it well? Will the wound heal well? So, there’s the aesthetics, which should be as thoughtful as the interrogation, intervention, surgery, and so I feel like I’m thinking about those things a lot, together. How do I make a potent work of art that also resonates as something that I want to look at, or feels right and complex to me? And with the buildings, sometimes I’m actually not the right person to deal with the building at all, but can I turn it on to other people, is there some kind of intervention that deals with the symptoms toward health?

WEISS: What’s the cultural significance of this building, The Stony Island Trust & Savings Bank, for the South Side?

GATES: When we think about banks, and banks that were made in this period, [circa 1923], they were meant to symbolize, “You can bring your treasures here, and they will be safe.” Thinking about the Johnson Publishing Company’s archive, I feel good that I can say that. This building was once a place for people’s money and most precious things, and it’s that again. There used to be lots of beautiful terracotta buildings lining this street, and now this is the last one standing. There’s this way in which the fact that this is the last fossil of that era, of that species, it felt really important to not let it go away. I worked really hard to demonstrate that there was redemptive value in allowing this building to remain up.

WEISS: Speaking about the archive, which is tremendous, what do you hope people who come here and do residencies, or visit, will take away from what you have?

GATES: It’s interesting, you use the word archive, and I sometimes use the word archive. One or two of the collections are archived, but I often talk about them as collections because in some ways, today, we have groupings of things, and I hope that over the next couple of years those groupings of things will become fully retrievable, and will make sense among other archives. But I think that there’s a way in which by having these things here, there’s a community of people that will both know that they have access to a legacy of art and culture—art being the glass lantern slides and culture being those plus all of these other things—and that’s all available right across the street from them. I hope that would feel like an empowering moment. And not only do they have access, they also have a space, an ambitious space, where they can simply be themselves in their neighborhood. That feels good.

WEISS: In terms of the architecture of this space, how do you balance the original integrity of the building, what it once meant to this community, and make it functional for all of these purposes? Because there are so many things that—

GATES: —that we want to do! To be honest, that is the question. That is the guiding principle, that question of, “How do you maintain integrity around the building and make it function?” What we did was strip back all of the years of added things that divided the rooms and lowered the ceilings—we just stripped it all back, and looked at our stuff, and thought, “How can it fit best given this existing structure?” And then we said, “How can we get people to circulate around this stuff?” What you see is a pretty open building, and then the program will have to be sensitive to the fact that some rooms don’t have walls, or doors, so what do we do in terms of privacy, security, and quiet? How do we use time to be the walls that we need? I think that there’s a fair amount of innovation happening around the use of the building, the times that it’s active, and the different ways that we’re able to say welcome to different kinds of people.

THE STONY ISLAND ARTS BANK IS OPEN TO THE PUBLIC TUESDAY-SUNDAY, 11AM-6PM. FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT THE BANK’S WEBSITE.