Art, Community, and Ethical Urban Development

Professor Ben Lisle and students in AM 297: Art, Community, and Ethical Urban Development, Fall 2017.

Art, Community, and Ethical Urban Development is a course in American Studies that uses Theaster Gates’s work as a platform for considering city space, place identity, and the possibilities for more connective and equitable modes of urbanism. The class considers Gates’s work in relation to other interventions in urban space—from public artists and historians to profit-driven developers—with an eye toward proposing its own portfolio of projects for ethical urban development in Waterville.

Students enrolled in the course hosted Theaster in a class discussion, joined him on a tour of Waterville’s South End, attended multiple community meetings arranged around his visit, and traveled to Chicago to visit some of his projects on the South Side. These are some of their responses to that experience, which coalesced around a few major themes: Gates as inspiration, his work as a model for our own projects, the importance of authentic and engaged conversation, his ability to leverage power, and the possibilities of art.

Gates as inspiration

I come from a poor neighborhood in Boston called Dorchester. Theaster Gates’s redevelopment efforts in Chicago, such as his own Dorchester Projects, reassure my faith in the ability of my neighborhood to improve. One needs to use his or her inner “artist” to create and fund a platform that will inspire others to positively change the way in which we experience society. If we can pursue inner faith in ourselves and in humanity at large, and if we take initiative, we can create the sparks that will carry our work and fire into future generations and projects. Theaster’s work might not be changing the world, but it has done good for his community while simultaneously awakening and engaging the humanity in others, whether a donor or a recipient, or even someone removed like me who has caught the sparks of his work at Colby. With enough ambition and involvement, I think that the projects we pursue may do more than foster better social experiences and perspectives, but create a foundation that helps to address and change institutional social problems.

– Shamus Connelly ’20

Theaster Gates understands his own position within and around economic power. As an individual who has built up economic institutions from his own artwork and persona, Gates realizes the importance of capital. He not only skillfully works with powerful people and organizations to fund his projects, but he also creates wealth in places that have been historically shunned or forgotten by the world market. His commentary on how he maneuvers around powerful people to not only serve his own artistic needs but also help people changed my perspective on Colby’s revitalization process and how we as a class can guide it. Gates’s formation of economic and social institutions in order to realize massive projects is an inspired way of creating art. Gates proves that art can be used to effectively tackle cultural issues and inequalities that exist in America and Waterville.

– Danny Lehman ’19

Gates’s process and/or work as model for projects in Waterville

Through community-oriented development, Theaster Gates engages and brings together communities to restore the value in places that seem to have been ignored. Gates’s visit provided our class with insight on his process that seems significant when thinking about developing our own focused projects in the South End. Before interacting with Gates, I was critical towards some of his work on the South Side of Chicago because it seemed as if he was one man leveraging all of these resources to redevelop the South Side through his own eyes. This idea demonstrates the conflict in community-oriented development that we have discussed in our class: that urban development should come from the bottom up rather than top down. Initially, I agreed that bottom-up development should be the basis of where our projects come from, but Gates’s process of leveraging his own skills and resources seems more practical now.

– Danya Smith ’20

In our meeting, Theaster spoke about the need to create spaces where everyone feels welcomed and wanted. The first step is to determine your skills and assess what you have to offer. Everyone can bring something different to the South End of Waterville, and therefore help in a distinctive way. Gates’s skill is art. While change does not need to be art based, it does need to be a group effort based on skill and an agenda. In order to effectively help a community, individuals must first evaluate what they have to offer before assessing the community’s needs.

– Sarah Rossien ’19

The importance of engaged and authentic conversations

Taking the tour of the South End with Theaster and Colby representatives seemed like two polar approaches to observing a community. Colby’s video camera felt as intrusive as my Colby rugby jacket. Though the cameras were there to record the tour, it was hard to shake a sense of them having an invasive agenda downtown. Conversely, Theaster was a humble and attentive listener. His ability to take in a landscape, identify and question community obstacles is a testament to his success as an artist and renewer of urban space. His process of understanding the space can be summarized with the question “What about . . . ?” He would ask, “What about that fence, why is it so tall?” Or “What about the land between this plot and the river? Who owns that?” His methods served to empower the South End to bring positive change, rather than being an approach in which Colby imposes “revitalization.”

– James Lindberg ’19

Theaster Gates is a shameless shape-shifter. He reads his crowd and decides, effortlessly, which questions to ask, which topics to focus on, and which persona to emulate. Gates didn’t design anything tangible during his visit to Colby, but he still managed to showcase his ability to create a different kind of community platform: conversation. When Gates entered our classroom, it became a brainstorming arena brimming with charm: he asked questions to help read his crowd, generated ideas amongst the group, and told stories that would spark inspiration beyond that class period. Gates’s flawless facilitation skills made clear that the value of his spaces derives from the intention that goes into planning, not necessarily the production of the piece. By acknowledging that aesthetic value is not valuable unless the aesthetics are accessible to the people who need it most, Gates taught us that conversation will be the fundamental basis for our work in Waterville.

– Julia Grady ’20

The most personal thing that I gained from engaging with Theaster Gates is that I will have the most honest connections with people if I do not hide from them. In certain situations, I am self-conscious of my privilege, my age, or my origins. In certain past attempts to connect with people, I have presented myself as similar to them and their backgrounds, or I have overemphasized common ground. What Gates prompted me to realize is that being up-front about background, needs, and ability is a crucial step towards gaining trust in relationships, which is in turn the basis for positive community change. I worry that misunderstandings, or shallow generalizations, plague the relationship between Colby and the people of Waterville. Change downtown may feel positive for some groups and negative for others, and this disparity is worsened by a lack of human connection. Developers are having conversations, but are we?

– Cal Waichler ’21

Gates emphasizes engagement above all else. The people you’re hoping to affect need to be involved; Gates asserts that “the problem isn’t what we build—it’s what we say or don’t say.” While your physical project matters, social engagement should drive the project. It is crucial to engage with people on a personal level—as a fellow Waterville resident. If you want people to immerse themselves in your work, you must immerse yourself in their lives. For example, Gates employs locals from the community in his workforce, crafting a sense of community pride and commitment. He encouraged us to visit local businesses and to organically develop trust, respect, and familiarity. These relationships and common experiences are the foundation of a successful community project.

– Lorne Carter ’21

The pragmatics of leveraging power and working within systems

A self-proclaimed artist, capitalist, and trickster, Theaster Gates is all three rolled into one.  His ability to read a room allows him to take advantage of anything or anyone. Gates’s leveraging of power has afforded him numerous opportunities, from receiving the first residency of the Lunder Institute for American Art to acquiring a million-dollar installation in a Chicago subway terminal.  These achievements are not due to his role as solely an artist, but rather his ability to work within systems and use his self-proclaimed “tyrannical charisma.” Gates’s aptitude for reading a room and acting accordingly is what most struck me from my time observing him.  His adaptability and knowledge of not only the artistic but also the bureaucratic is why he is where he is today. Anyone can be an artist, but to achieve Gates’s success takes more than just artistic skill.

– Aisling Flaherty ’20

The way Gates speaks about the subtleties of various power dynamics that exist in our expanding Colby bubble as well as his nuanced way of assessing these dynamics was significant to me. He used humor and a touch of humility to talk about the preexisting power dynamics that delivered him to our classroom. When he talked about Colby and its relationship to the South End, he described the ways we need to use his same nuanced approach when speaking to residents, especially when it comes to Colby. Overall I think Theaster’s understanding of the various power dynamics that exist in daily life is a part of what makes him appealing to and successful amongst different groups.

– Namita Bhattacharya ’19

The limits and possibilities of art and beauty

Theaster Gates is first and foremost an artist—a creative, charismatic, and fervent artist who understands that art is a selfish process, one that requires a certain level of egotism to create a desired aesthetic. While his art and his ongoing projects function as community-engaged social practice, embedded within them are intimate and personal narratives connected to the environment in which he works. His artistic practice is alchemic—he transforms labor into a creative form and takes things that are often unnoticed and underappreciated and makes them seen, makes them important, and makes them beautiful. Gates’s platform for advocating social awareness is grounded in his ability to present people with the very objects, detritus, and everyday raw materials they neglect as a way of emphasizing both their aesthetic significance and cultural importance. His work weaves together self-expression, shared experiences, and cultural history, and he utilizes his role as an artist to create beauty from forgotten remains.

– John Egner ’18