Arts and Public Life Initiative to deepen University's engagement with local arts community

The University of Chicago is launching an ambitious new effort to enrich its cultural interactions with the city and local artists.

The Arts and Public Life Initiative will foster collaboration and conversation between the University and the civic, cultural and artistic communities of Chicago, with a focus on the South Side. As part of the initiative, the University will open a new arts incubator in the Washington Park neighborhood.

Renowned artist Theaster Gates, who is currently Director of Arts Programming, resident artist, and lecturer at UChicago, will lead the initiative.

As Director of Arts and Public Life, Gates will work to realize the initiative’s major goals: advancing artistic ambition through a program of artist residencies, amplifying cultural assets by promoting interactions between artists and cultural institutions on the South Side and the University’s faculty and students, and inspiring creativity in youth through apprenticeship programs and enhanced K-12 arts education efforts. 

“Arts and Public Life is a way of framing how we imagine our relationship with our neighbors,” Gates said. “It also gives us a chance to hone in on ways that the University’s friendship to the South Side could be extended, and think about how the facilities at the University and the vast artistic knowledge that surrounds this place could act as platforms by which other emerging artists in the city could benefit.”

The new initiative reflects the University of Chicago’s dedication to exploring the role of the arts in an urban research university, said Larry Norman, Deputy Provost for the Arts.

“We continue to be committed to building thoughtful, genuine relationships with artists and arts organizations throughout the city, especially in our neighboring communities. Under the leadership of Theaster Gates, the Arts and Public Life Initiative stands poised to deepen our impact in and strengthen our ties to the vibrant arts communities and cultural life of Chicago’s South Side,” Norman said.

'A catalyst for community development'

The Arts and Public Life Initiative’s flagship project, the Washington Park Arts Incubator, is designed to enhance collaboration among University faculty and students and the arts community in Washington Park by providing space and resources for artists, youth and members of the community.

The Washington Park Arts Incubator will be housed at 301 E. Garfield Blvd., a two-story, terra-cotta building that dates to the 1920s.

3rd Ward Alderman Pat Dowell gave essential support to the project, which will reinforce other arts and community development efforts currently under way in the neighborhood.

“Programs that expose young people to the possibilities of the art world have the power to transform not only their lives, but also the communities in which they live. That’s why cultural venues like the Washington Park Arts Incubator are so important for the South Side,” Dowell said. “The adaptive reuse of this historic building along Garfield Boulevard will help contribute to the economic and cultural vitality of the boulevard and the neighborhood as a whole.”

Slated to open in late 2012, the incubator will feature space for performances, exhibitions and community conversations; a design workshop dedicated to teaching arts skills to youth in the community; and studios for three Chicago-based artists of color and women artists, who will be awarded one-year residencies.

“We are deeply committed to strengthening ties to the community and to the city of Chicago. The Arts and Public Life Initiative allows us to build on this important work, which is already under way at the University,” said Sonya Malunda, Senior Associate Vice President for Community Engagement. “The Washington Park Arts Incubator has the potential to act as a catalyst for community development by bringing together artists, youth, members of the University community and residents of our local communities. We are grateful for Theaster’s vision and Alderman Dowell’s support of this singular project.”

'The right man for that job'

Gates has garnered international acclaim for his work as an artist, which includes performance and installation art as well as more traditional sculpture. His art practice often engages diverse communities and has been shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago; the Milwaukee Art Museum; and will be featured at the 2012 Armory Show, the Seattle Art Museum and Documenta 13. He was invited to participate in the 2010 Whitney Biennial, a major honor for early-career artists.

Gates, who grew up on Chicago’s West Side and studied urban planning at Iowa State University, is also engaged in an ambitious effort to revitalize his own neighborhood. By converting several buildings on his block into multipurpose arts spaces, Gates hopes to create a vibrant cultural corridor in Grand Crossing, located just south of the University.

Arts and community leaders praised the University’s choice of Gates as Director of Arts and Public Life.

“Theaster is the perfect person to lead such a groundbreaking initiative because of his heartfelt and innovative approach to issues of civic collaboration and community building. He has already demonstrated tremendous leadership within Chicago on these issues working on his own volition, so to attach himself to as robust a framework as the University of Chicago seems to me a dream pairing,” said Michael Darling, the chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Monica Haslip worked with Gates at Little Black Pearl, the arts education nonprofit she founded in North Kenwood/Oakland. “I think he’s going to do extraordinary work, especially with the Washington Park Arts Incubator. He’s one of few that understands the complexity of that work. I think he can really help to transform that community, and his presence is going to be felt immediately,” she said. “He’s the right man for that job.”