Theaster Gates to lead new cultural policy partnership at Chicago Harris

Nora Semel
Director of Communications for Visitor Experience and the ArtsUniversity Communications

A new partnership between the University of Chicago’s Arts + Public Life initiative and the Harris School of Public Policy will bring together artists, policymakers, faculty and students to design and implement new approaches to urban development.

Renowned artist and UChicago faculty member Theaster Gates will lead the joint enterprise, which merges Arts + Public Life’s Place Lab with Chicago Harris’ Cultural Policy Center under the Place Lab name.

The partnership will be announced at a Feb. 1 event featuring Michelle Boone, commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events; Carol Coletta, vice president of community and national initiatives at the Knight Foundation; Daniel Diermeier, dean of Chicago Harris; and Gates.

The new entity unites Chicago Harris’ commitment to cultural policy and evidence-based analysis with Place Lab’s work on arts- and culture-led neighborhood transformation. The expanded Place Lab will advance arts and culture projects that directly engage communities and enable cities to develop in more mindful and equitable ways.

“This partnership will have an enduring impact on urban communities across the United States and abroad,” said Diermeier, the Emmett Dedmon Professor of Public Administration. “By combining our strengths, Place Lab and Chicago Harris are uniquely positioned to be a catalyst for change in current cultural policy practices, while training the next generation of policy leaders how to develop more vibrant cities in the future.”

Gates, professor of Visual Arts and director of Arts + Public Life, said the partnership will create new synergies between artists and public policy practitioners, allowing for increased intellectual inquiry about how cities change and improve through the integration of arts and culture.

“Through an innovative combination of research and practice, the newly expanded Place Lab will provide local, state, federal and international policymakers with effective, creative alternatives to current development strategies. In particular, Place Lab will focus on approaches to community development in which the arts and artists play a prominent role,” he said. 

The expanded Place Lab also will facilitate public convenings, symposia and leadership development for professionals interested in the role arts and culture can play in the transformation of urban neighborhoods.

In April 2016, Place Lab will kick off a monthly social learning network and peer-mentorship program aimed at promoting knowledge exchange among artists, community organizers, and development and planning practitioners from across the nation. The convenings will be used to imagine different types of “city building” that depart from conventional models of development. Discussions and strategy sessions will explore the emerging principles of “ethical redevelopment,” developed from Gates’ expanded practice, which includes space development, object making, performance and critical engagement with many publics.

Place Lab was established in 2014 by a Knight Foundation grant to Arts + Public Life. Place Lab includes professionals from the diverse fields of law, architecture, design, social work, arts administration, and gender and cultural studies. In addition to defining ethical redevelopment principles, Place Lab is committed to fostering a network of like-minded artists, urban planners, design professionals, developers, community members and policy experts. Both Place Lab and Arts + Public Life are part of UChicago Arts

Chicago Harris’ Cultural Policy Center, founded in 1999, serves the arts and culture sector by researching critical issues, facilitating interdisciplinary conversations and educating a broad range of graduate students about policy issues in the arts. Its 2007 study of cultural building projects in the United States, “Set in Stone: Building America’s New Generation of Arts Facilities, 1994-2008,” has been used by cultural leaders around the country to guide major construction and renovation projects.

The merger builds on the success of past collaborations between Place Lab and Chicago Harris, which first began working together in 2015 on “ArtHouse: A Social Kitchen.” That project will transform an underutilized property in Gary, Ind., into a workforce training kitchen, culinary business incubator and cultural site. Place Lab is leading project management, design support, public programs and engagement with artists and other creative practitioners, while Chicago Harris is focused on developing training programs for culinary entrepreneurs and those engaged in the food service industry.

“ArtHouse” has its roots in Chicago Harris’ long-term collaboration with the city of Gary, which grew out of the relationship between Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson and Chicago Harris Distinguished Senior Fellow Richard M. Daley. The Gary-Harris partnership allows UChicago students to gain hands-on public policy experience while offering their energy and expertise to the city. 

Going forward, Chicago Harris students also will assist with ongoing analysis of “ArtHouse” to evaluate the benefits of integrating cultural and economic redevelopment policies to accelerate local change. 

The newly expanded Place Lab will provide Chicago Harris students and faculty with opportunities to support the development, execution, impact analysis and evaluation of other Place Lab projects and to help develop and advance new and innovative arts and cultural policy approaches in other places.

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