Originally published in The Colby Echo on September 28, 2017.
Artist, urban planner, musician, community organizer—a jack-of-all traits—Theaster Gates joins us on Mayflower Hill as the first inaugural Lunder Institute Artist in Residence. Made possible through the generous contributions of Peter ’56 and Life Trustee Paula Lunder, Gates’s residence this year will see through the mission of the newly established Lunder Institute of American Art to engage his practice and scholarship with Colby students, faculty, and the wider central Maine community. Established this February and implemented at the start of this school year, the Institute continues the Lunders’ tradition of making formative contributions to Colby and the Art Museum, as well as the larger field of American art to which their generosity has impacted so profoundly.
Artist in Residence Theaster Gates contributes much more than just artistic vision to the Waterville and Colby communities
Renowned for his work in fusing art with urban development and planning, Gates comes from the University of Chicago, where he serves as the director of Arts and Public Life and professor of visual art. But this title does not begin to do him justice. With degrees in urban planning and ceramics from Iowa State University, Gates has had his work in sculpture displayed in some of the world’s most famous galleries and museums, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., White Cube Gallery in London, The Art Gallery of Ontario, Foundazione Prada in Milan, and Kuntshaus Bregenz in Austria. Despite this fame, Gates has been on Colby’s radar since his work alongside President Greene at the University of Chicago and the surrounding Hyde Park. More recently, Gates founded and serves as the Executive Director of the Rebuild Foundation, a Chicago non-profit that transforms vacant lots and buildings in Chicago’s South Side into community spaces as well as affordable housing.
Finding beauty in the ordinary is central to Gates’ artistic and social processes. In his opening lecture on September 19, Gates fascinated the audience as he explained his philosophy of combining artistic talent with critical analysis of urban systems. The son of a roof builder, he was quick to identify the beauty in the functionality of ordinary forms. After working with his father, the intersection between sculpture and architectural form became apparent to Gates. Today he is well known for repurposing architectural features from significant places to represent processes of urban change and the social injustices that often lead to their destruction.
In his role as the founder and executive director of the Rebuild Foundation, Gates is committed to revitalizing disenfranchised neighborhoods through community-oriented development. Gates has reimagined community development in Chicago’s South Side by renovating and repurposing architectural landmarks, such as the Stony Island Bank, to provide communities access to creative spaces. In this project, Gates saved this historic building from demolition by purchasing it from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, for just one dollar, contingent upon Gates’ ability to raise the money for its renovation. He was quick to turn materials from the building into art for sale that then went on to fund the project. In this regard, both his artistic and political processes work to achieve the same goal of community development. After decades of vacancy, the Stony Island Arts Bank now serves as a community center, library, media archive, and gallery.
Looking to Waterville, Gates brings with him his experience and expertise in using art as a catalyst for urban revitalization. In just the week that he has spent here, Gates has visited a wide array of classes, met with different student groups, and has spoken to community groups in Waterville including the South End Teen Center and Waterville Creates. His work in urban development and revitalization is aligned with Colby’s partnership downtown, which offer a great opportunity for an outside expert’s take on an evolving Waterville. In addition to the various lectures and workshops he will be engaged with this year, Gates will be working closely with American Studies Professor Ben Lisle in his course titled “Art, Community, and Ethical Urban Development”, which uses Washington Park in Chicago as a case for ethical redevelopment by means of art, identity, and culture.
Coordinator of Academic and Public Events Jordia Benjamin is enthusiastic about Gates’ recent visit to Colby: “Theaster provided intriguing solutions to ‘over exhausted’ problems with enthusiasm and passionate optimism. His residency brought a multiple of audiences to the table and established common ground where all parties concerns were represented.” She continued, “After these meetings with community members and all concern, no one left disappointed feeling their voices went unheard or undervalued. His talks and insights were inspiring and will pay great dividends to the Lunder Institute and benefit the city of Waterville as well in the future.”
Gates’ passion for his work is obvious, something that has captivated those with whom he has interacted so far. Keep an eye out for his events this year, as his time at Colby provides the community with an extraordinary opportunity to learn how the College’s liberal arts philosophy can impart new methods of creating positive change.