Knight Foundation invests $3.5 million to help UChicago expand a model for community revitalization

A new University of Chicago project will expand and test a community development model that supports arts and culture to help transform communities and promote local growth and vibrancy. The Place Project, which will build on pioneering work by Theaster Gates, is supported by $3.5 million from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. 

Under the leadership of Gates and the University’s Arts and Public Life initiative, the Place Project will jump-start community-led development by bringing together artists, designers, urban planners and policy experts in cities such as Akron, Ohio; Detroit; and Gary, Ind. The project will involve training and mentoring partners in each city to localize the approach and develop best practices. It will draw on work that is already achieving success in Chicago, Omaha, Neb., and St. Louis, part of a prototyping process to develop a model that can be spread across the country.

The Place Project is rooted in the idea that reinventing abandoned spaces through community-led arts and cultural programs can open opportunities in urban communities—both by mobilizing residents to contribute to neighborhood change and by attracting outside investment.

“From my artistic practice, I learned early on that art has the capacity to change people's perceptions—not only about a concept or an idea, but also about a place,” said Gates, director of Arts and Public Life at UChicago. “What I've tried to do is leverage my understanding of art and how people view art to help them reimagine what can happen in poor neighborhoods.”

“Theaster’s work on the South Side of Chicago has created neighborhoods that attract talent, bring people of different backgrounds together and foster spaces where ideas are exchanged,” said Carol Coletta, Knight Foundation vice president of community and national initiatives. “It is a model that we want to scale, as a remarkable example of how smart and even modest interventions that lead with community engagement can spark new interest in disinvested neighborhoods.”

The project’s home base will be the Place Lab, a 2,500-square-foot space adjacent to the University’s Arts Incubator in Washington Park, which has provided a site for artist residencies, arts education, community-based arts projects and other activities. The Place Lab will recruit research fellows to complete in-depth case studies of each project location, and call on a wide range of scholars and practitioners to share their expertise. Renovation of the lab space will begin in May and is expected to finish in November.

“At the University of Chicago, we believe the arts are essential to both scholarly and community life. The Arts and Public Life initiative, together with the many events and programs taking place across campus, are building deeper, more meaningful relationships with our neighbors on the South Side through art,” said Larry Zbikowski, deputy provost for the arts at UChicago. “The Knight Foundation’s support of the Place Project allows us to continue that work, and to share with partners across the country what we’ve learned about the ways the arts can breathe new life into communities.”

The University of Chicago has made major investments in the cultural development of Washington Park through the Arts Incubator, also led by Gates. In the year since its opening, the once-abandoned building has become a vibrant center of artistic activity and public programming and has brought new life to Garfield Boulevard. It is now home to a residency program, which supports artists in all disciplines whose work will impact the city’s cultural landscape, a design apprenticeship program for teenagers in the community and a rich array of public programs.

The Arts Incubator has quickly gained recognition as a beacon of civic and cultural engagement and been honored with the Urban Land Institute Chicago Vision Award, the South East Chicago Commission Community Project Award and the LISC Chicago Neighborhood Development Award.

“The Arts Incubator is a powerful example of how the University can be a catalyst for change in our city. In the brief time it has been open, we have seen it promote not only economic and artistic activity, but provide new opportunities for the community to come together on Garfield Boulevard. The new UChicago Place Lab will be another key anchor on the block,” said Derek Douglas, vice president for civic engagement at UChicago. “We are grateful to the Knight Foundation for their support of the Place Project, which will build on these efforts and create an innovative model for community transformation.”

Both the Place Project and the Arts Incubator are part of an emerging national conversation about culture-driven community change. Gates and his collaborators have been at the center of that conversation, through an expanding number of projects—including the Arts Incubator, the Black Cinema House, the Dorchester Artist Housing Collaborative, the 95th Street Chicago Transit Authority station, the Stony Island Arts Bank and more.

As founder of the non-profit Rebuild Foundation, Gates and his team have successfully revitalized more than a dozen dilapidated buildings in Chicago, Omaha, Neb. and St. Louis. Their work has created 50,000 square feet of new residential space and 75,000 square feet of commercial space, including public venues for cultural programs and affordable live/work spaces for artists.

About Theaster Gates

Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates has developed an expanded practice that includes space development, object making, performance and critical engagement with many publics. Founder of the non-profit Rebuild Foundation, Gates is currently director of Arts and Public Life at the University of Chicago and teaches in the Department of Visual Arts.

Gates has exhibited and performed at the Studio Museum in Harlem, N.Y.; Whitechapel Gallery, London; Punta della Dogana, Venice; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Santa Barbara Museum of Art; and Documenta 13, Kassel, Germany; among others.

About Arts and Public Life

Arts and Public Life builds creative connections on Chicago’s South Side through artist residencies, arts education, and artist-led projects and events. Public events and exhibitions led by resident and visiting artists, as well as campus and community partners, take place at the Arts Incubator, the Logan Center and in the surrounding neighborhoods. These programs act as catalysts for collaboration and exchange, creating dynamic and critical creative spaces.

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

The Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged.