Theaster Gates discusses Arts Incubator

What is the purpose of Arts and Public Life?

The Arts and Public Life initiative seeks to build artistic connections between the University of Chicago, local artists and the surrounding community that amplify the vibrant creativity already occurring in the area. The newly renovated Arts Incubator in Washington Park and the Logan Center for the Arts on the University of Chicago campus are art-focused spaces that can make these connections happen.

What happens at the Arts Incubator?

The Arts Incubator is a space for local artists to grow professionally and connect with the surrounding cultural community. It houses studio spaces for the Arts and Public Life artists-in-residence; the Design Apprenticeship Program, which is essentially a small shop that will assist in the beautification of Washington Park; and project and program spaces for exhibitions and events.

Why did you decide to create the Arts Incubator in Washington Park?

The Arts Incubator was born out of a clear set of considerations. First, artists are a valued part of our community. Second, there are very few spaces for cultural production for artists in Chicago. This leads to even fewer venues for artists to grow in their craft, which leads to losing artists to other cities. And third, art and culture have the ability to create real and deep meaning in a place. While Washington Park has an amazing legacy of cultural life, it is not immediately evident on the main street. The Arts Incubator seeks to make some of the cultural life in the neighborhood more evident.

What is known about the Arts Incubator building? What measures were taken to preserve its historic character?

The building is a beautiful 1920s terracotta structure that had seen better days. It had been abandoned for over 20 years. Before that it had been a thriving mixed-use building. We have heard stories of pool halls, grocery stores, dry cleaning and laundry facilities. It was an active business generator. When renovating the building we learned there were many levels of successful businesses that occupied the space, but from those stories we could also feel the impact of the subsequent economic downturn on the South Side. People in the neighborhood frequently stop by to tell stories about what happened in the building. We see value when people recognize the significant reinvestment in the building and are reminded of those memories.

Why is the University of Chicago invested in the Arts Incubator project?

Arts and culture are important at the University of Chicago. Equally important is the role that community engagement plays in our ability to be a thriving institution. As an urban university, we are committed to serving as a good neighbor, friend and cultural collaborator in the surrounding neighborhoods, including Washington Park. Garfield Boulevard and the South Side more broadly have a rich cultural legacy that UChicago believes the Arts Incubator can help to amplify.

How does the Arts Incubator fit into the work you do outside the University?

Large and small institutions bring culture to life in a place. I am not doing this work alone and have the pleasure of sharing the vision of a dense tapestry of culture with many others throughout the city. Magnifying the amazing work that is already happening and the resources and assets in the surrounding area is at the core of the Arts and Public Life mission. I feel like I’m just doing my job as a University employee and brother on the South Side. Other initiatives that I have started, like Dorchester Projects and the Stony Island Arts Bank Project, are all part of a larger desire to see culture thrive throughout the South Side and the city.

Is there evidence to show that the work you do has impact?

Art is important. Period. Economic development is important. Period. But while art can be used to spur economic development, it’s not automatic. “Placemaking” is a new name for an old phenomenon. When people drop anchor and establish a place, they are makers of place. This has been happening in Washington Park for a long time, collectively and individually. I’m interested in continuing this work. For us, the evidence of the Arts Incubator’s impact will be the social shift that happens when the buildings that are currently transitioning from boarded-up to active start giving people an opportunity to come in from the bus stop and listen to some music, get a coffee, read a book, or get to other cultural destinations from our arts hub. People on the block are already coming into the space and asking how they can be a part.

What opportunities are available for the public at the Arts Incubator?

We have worked hard over the past year to talk with organizations in Washington Park and cultural leaders about what’s going on in Chicago and about what is possible. The artist residency and design apprenticeship programs are intended to be resources for people on the South Side. We want to support people interested in design and architecture. The Arts Incubator will be open to the public throughout the week and through advertised special events. As we get into the space more fully, the calendar and programs will be available on the Arts and Public Life website and inside the building.

Ten years down the road, what do you think the Arts Incubator will be?

In the near term, I hope it acts as a model for cities around the country. And eventually, I hope poignant cultural spaces and projects—large and small—will overshadow the Arts Incubator. I want the space to be part of a constellation of cultural activity where extraordinary talent can thrive.