‘ArtHouse: A Social Kitchen’ to blend food, public art, community in Gary, Ind.

An underutilized property in Gary, Ind., will be transformed into a culinary incubator and community gathering space, thanks to a partnership between the city of Gary, the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and the University’s Arts + Public Life initiative, through its Place Lab.

"ArtHouse: A Social Kitchen” aims to provide an anchor for what civic leaders hope will become a reinvigorated commercial and cultural district in downtown Gary. A 15,000-square-foot building will be renovated to provide space for culinary training programs, emerging food-based businesses, and space for art and public programs.


Local, regional and national artists will be recruited to think about creative design solutions for the interior, exterior and temporary public art works. Architects, designers, and craftspeople will be brought in to build artful objects like furniture or other pieces to adorn the repurposed space.

The project is supported by a grant from the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Public Art Challenge and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation through the Knight Cities Challenge.

“We know that meaningful revitalization starts by keeping our young people at home,” Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said of the project. “Too many talented young residents leave Gary to pursue careers as chefs, restaurant managers and entrepreneurs. We want to provide opportunities for them to foster their abilities and achieve their goals. Through the arts, we can capture that energy and breathe new life into our downtown.”

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

Gary’s potential also was of interest to artist Theaster Gates, who leads a multidisciplinary team of experts in law, urban planning, architecture, design, social justice and social work through Arts + Public Life’s Place Lab. Supported by the Knight Foundation, Place Lab explores, documents and demonstrates the successes of arts and culture-led neighborhood development in Chicago to realize policy change. 

The team is working with the City of Gary to identify local assets that can catalyze cultural growth, economic vitality and promote space reinterpretation.

Unconventional and collaborative redevelopment

With their shared vision and complementary skills, and the support of Mayor Freeman-Wilson, Chicago Harris and the Place Lab collaborated on grant proposals designed to support local business, art, culture and community in Gary. Place Lab will focus on project management, design support, public programs and engagement with artists and other creative practitioners, while Chicago Harris will work to develop training programs for aspiring restaurateurs and employees.

“In order for significant transformations to happen in our cities, partnerships between everyday people, city leadership, the philanthropic community, cultural workers of the city and great institutions are absolutely necessary,” said Gates, professor of Visual Arts and director of Arts + Public Life. “Creating projects that are practical, catalytic and arrest the imagination of a city by offering multiple entry points to engagement could help make what seems like magic the new form of ethical redevelopment. We are excited that ArtHouse can function as this platform.”

“Traditional models of development don’t always solve new city problems,” Isis Ferguson, Place Lab’s program manager, said of the group’s unconventional approach. “We’re trying to create meaningful collaborations and unlikely partnerships. It takes a fresh set of folks to get this done.”

Restaurants represent both an opportunity and a challenge for Gary. The lack of dining options has led residents to spend tens of millions of dollars a year on food outside the city, according to research by Chicago Harris students. But many fledgling restaurants in Gary fail because of a lack of trained workers—a key problem “ArtHouse” seeks to address.

Students at Chicago Harris first proposed the idea of converting a vacant building into a culinary incubator to Freeman-Wilson in 2013. She immediately took a keen interest in the idea. Over the next year, students studied other culinary incubators and made recommendations that informed the proposals for “ArtHouse.”

In particular, students found that community engagement was a key ingredient in successful incubators—something project leaders are taking to heart as they design public programming.

The underutilized building identified by the city of Gary is already home to a popular soul food and BBQ restaurant, Mama Pearl’s, and a large commercial kitchen ideally suited to training culinary students. The building’s downtown location was another point in its favor—project leaders hope a thriving culinary incubator could lead to reinvestment in the area.

Mama Pearl’s owners, Joni and Hope Mason, already have demonstrated the space’s potential. “Joni and Hope Mason have put in long hours and hard work to create good food for people and a space hospitable to multiple needs,” said Ferguson. “We are lucky to have their knowledge folded into the vision of ArtHouse.”

“ArtHouse” will address “multiple public policy challenges for Gary,” according to Carol Brown, director of strategy and program development for the Richard M. Daley Distinguished Senior Fellowship at Chicago Harris and one of the leaders of the project. These include high unemployment and an abundance of vacant or underutilized buildings.

“We hope this building is a catalyst for future development in downtown and also a community builder,” Brown said.

Megan Mineau, AM’14, was one of the students involved in researching the possibility of a culinary incubator in Gary. Along with students from Chicago Harris and Booth, Mineau investigated different culinary incubator models and presented them to Freeman-Wilson. The research provided an opportunity to collaborate with students from other parts of the University—and to do so “knowing that [this work] would eventually help the city,” Mineau said.

Gates added, “We are excited to partner with the Harris School on this project and future projects, changing lives by transforming space and mapping our progress along the way.”