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Stony Island Arts Bank: Theaster Gates Reclaims Treasure


Stony Island Arts Bank: Theaster Gates Reclaims Treasure

Theaster Gates has spent his life seeking ways to bring new life to forgotten and dilapidated corners of Chicago. With projects like the Stony Island Arts Bank his unique approach to reclaimed art is garnering national attention.

Gates Reopen to Stony Island Arts Bank

If “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” then Theaster Gates is a master treasure hunter. Born and raised in Chicago, Theaster Gates first fell in love with the arts by way of church music. He holds degrees in both religion and urban planning.

ArtReview referred to Gates as “the poster boy for socially engaged art” who does “more outside the gallery than within.” 

He also won the Artes Mundi prize for his eclectic installation that combined African religion, Freemason symbolism, and traditional gospel music.

Theaster Gates Portrait
Artist Theaster Gates is using his creative talents to revitalize Chicago’s once-forgotten neighborhoods. [Photo by Rankin/]

Everything Gates creates is for the singular purpose of creating a reimagined use for something that, at first glance, appears to be worthless and cast away. His vision for the South Side neighborhoods of Chicago is a grand one.

“I want the South Side to look like my friends’ home in Aspen. I want my pocket park to look like Luxembourg,” says Gates.

Rebounding Blight from Buildings

It’s no small undertaking to Chicago Architecture. As time passes, morale declines, poverty takes root, and the residents of forgotten communities lose hope.

But every neighborhood can rebuild and reclaim its culture from the ground up. And it’s usually the artistic community that sees such innate potential.

Gates believes that the first step in social progress is seeing the beauty in distressed neighborhoods and transforming it into something to be proud of. He creates sculptures with the very tar, clay, and raw materials that comprise the buildings around him and uses the proceeds from his projects to fund neighborhood rehabilitation.

He began The Dorchester Project in 2006 with the purchase of an abandoned building in the city’s South Side.

Working with a team of designers and architects, Gates gutted the building and refurbished it with found materials. Since 2006, the Dorchester building has become a hub for concerts, performances, cultural events, and more.

Decentralizing the Stony Island Arts Bank

Another of Gates’ projects, the Stony Island Arts Bank, was born out of an abandoned bank building. When Gates purchased the Stony Island Trust and Savings for $1 from the city of Chicago, it had several feet of rancid water standing in the basement, and it appeared to be a total loss at first glance.

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Gates saw something more, and by selling “bank bonds” of salvaged marble to investors, he funded a renovation that resulted in a beautiful neo-Classical exhibition hall.

Today, the Stony Island Arts Bank is a thriving library, community center, and gallery.

A Blueprint for Social Activism

Gates’ nonprofit, Rebuild Foundation, manages his local projects within Chicago. And along with an expansion of upcoming projects in cities and neighborhoods throughout the Midwest.

In addition to managing his many nonprofit projects, Gates is also a professor at the University of Chicago, the Senior Advisor for Cultural Innovation, and holds director titles at several art colleges and research institutes.

Above all, Gates is a man driven to use his artistic talents to promote hope and opportunity for the communities around him.

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