Art Talk with Theaster Gates
Theaster Gates. Photo by Lloyd DeGrane, University of Chicago Magazine
"Artists have to live passionately and deeply, share what they want, do what they can." --- Theaster Gates
As you'll learn in the interview below, for Theaster Gates, there is no clear division between canvas and community, between artwork and engagement. Rather than limit his art practice to the studio, Gates has steadily enlarged its boundaries so that it includes sculpture, it includes installations, it includes converting abandoned buildings into thriving neighborhood spaces. With advanced degrees in fine arts, religious studies, ceramics, and urban planning, it's no surprise that for Gates, being an artist is "bigger than making." I spoke with Gates—who also finds time to be on staff at the University of Chicago and lead the community development-focused Rebuild Foundation—via e-mail about the relationship between artist and community, his work as a cultural planner, and how a Reading Is Fundamental competition introduced him to the idea of making art.
NEA: What is your version of the artist's life?
THEASTER GATES: An artist's life—or my life—accepts that the work that I do comes from a place of internal motivation but is also constantly responding to and being thoughtful of other forces that shape how we live and what we value. I have the gift of sharing things that I feel and think with the rest of world. An artist life is first about creativity and calling, then about how can my calling be in service to other things that I believe in.
NEA: What do you remember as your earliest experience or engagement with the arts?
GATES: When I was in third grade, RIF (Reading Is Fundamental) was having a competition in local elementary schools for the best student-made campaign for the work they did, encouraging young people to read more and like books, etc. I drew a small painting that was a book with the letters “RIF” in it with some black slang in it saying why young people should read as a kind of tag line. I really liked the idea of making something that was a response to something external and it was a super fun project. I think I won a prize for my RIF competition. It was put up on the hallway bulletin board. That was nice.
NEA: What has been your most transformative arts experience to date?
GATES: I think I am in the middle of an important transformative moment right now! My practice is shifting from something I'm excited about to something other people are invested in and that lives outside of my studio, in the world of ideas and museums and with people. Taking stock of that reality, but still wanting to push further and do more, both with museums and galleries and outside of those venues seems important. Having the belief that it’s possible to have deep and substantial impact on the world of images and the possibility of new practices is transforming what I think I should/could offer the world. It’s bigger than making [and] lives more closely in the realm of belief making than object making, though things are a part of this moment.
NEA: What decision has most impacted your arts career?
GATES: The choice to extend my practice beyond just object making and into the built world. To understand that the resources available through the art world become additional tools that allow me to be effective in the non-art world.
NEA: What does it mean to you to be an African-American artist?
GATES: Not sure. Being black, being from Chicago with rearing in Mississippi, being from a stigmatized place, being raised with religious belief, being a Virgo, being a planner who worked for large and largely white bureaucracies, being college-educated, being inspired by Martin P., Jasper J. and Bob R. and Eva H. and Joseph (Bueys and Cornell), being the ninth of nine kids...all these things are coming to bear on my practice. Singling out being black (I don't say African American) as the core of my artistic practice would be a missed opportunity to suggest that so many things actually impact what and why I make. Blackness is a part of it, but not exactly how I think about where it begins.
NEA: How do you define your work as a cultural planner, and how did that become part of the work you do?
GATES: Pretty simply. When asked by cities, neighborhoods, people, or other institutions, I try to identify culture or cultural phenomena in a place and make sure that there is venue, audience, and resources for it. I'm not exactly sure how it’s become so much a part of what I do. I think I was just filling in a gap that seemed like I had the skills and interest in. Feels natural. When there is an opportunity for a cultural moment, I try to think hard about where that moment happens and why it's important. Sometimes, the vehicle by which it happens is really informal and just needs a little bit of cash. Other times, it’s substantial and I have to call in the troops which include HUD, departments of culture, the philanthropic community, my mom, or [I] even may have to create an organization that helps me work out and model the cultural work.
I have also always been interested in city systems having been trained in it. When you combine my interests, convictions, and training, you get a weirdo.
NEA: How does your work as a cultural planner inform your art practice, and how does your art practice inform your work as a cultural planner?
GATES: Well, they are one thing. One body. One set of beliefs, I think. Sometimes, the way to resolve a piece of art is by renovating a building in an adjacent neighborhood. The object needs the building. Sometimes the only way to complete the building is by selling an object. The building needs the art market and, as a result, depends on the object. They all need to share the narrative, which is thicker than I may have thought. Narrative is a kind of driver of the work, but there is also a need to resolve the narrative and the resolution often happens on the block.
NEA: What do you see as the role of the artist in the community?
GATES: Not sure. This is a lot like the race question to me. Artists have to live passionately and deeply, share what they want, do what they can. We do not owe service to community anymore than a business professional does. I don't think that it should be demanded of artists to become community activists either. I do believe that artists, unlike others in the world, do more of what they do from a place of conviction and that quality could have astounding impact on a place. For those artists who believe that part of the conviction includes engaging deeply with people and places outside of the gallery space, studio, or traditional folds, [it’s] awesome because there is a tremendous amount of need.
For myself, it happens that I believe that part of what my practice is lives in the real world. I didn't go to school to figure that out. It is a belief! I see my role as helping cities and communities see themselves more clearly. In Chicago, it could mean convincing a mayor to invest in the cultural wealth of the South Side in addition to cultural programming on the North Side. In my neighborhood, it could mean creating a space where local musicians can make music for local people. In public conversation, it could mean acting as a bridge between the creative practices happening among artists from different geographies, cultural backgrounds, and levels of access. Let's not use the word community. I want to add to the cultural and artistic wealth of the places where I live, work, and am called to work.
NEA: What do you see as the responsibility of the community to the artist?
GATES: Believe that artists’ voices can make a difference in the way a place works. Ask artists to participate in the political and physical conditions of a place. Support artistic work. Acknowledge artists as professionals who can assist in how conversations are shaped.
NEA: What does the phrase Art Works means to you?
GATES: Sounds like a creative work force development program for teens or the addition of an artist to the Public Works department. It could also mean that "the Arts" should be a part of the fully integrated system, alongside transportation, human resources, social services, etc. That, if given the opportunity, the Arts could substantially shift solutions in all aspects of policy thinking and transformation. Art Works is an apologetic ask to be included in the big conversation of the city or policy but a necessary intervention. Let's put that t-shirt on and make it happen.
Visit the Rebuild Foundation website to learn more about some of the work in which Theaster Gates is engaged.