Theaster Gates [ TEDxUNC ] Good morning everybody. How you all doing? How many artists do we have out in the audience? Right on! Right on!
How many people want to change the world?
I think this morning I’m going to talk about on how artist change the world . For the last several years I’ve had the great opportunity of sharing my artistic practice in museums around the world. Museums would ask me to think about a particular space in their museum and they’d say well you know we really love this urban planning mapping stuff that you do, can you share some of that?
And what I found was that there is a way in which, because of my training as an urban planner and my interests in sculpture and the performing and visual arts, that I wanted to have opportunities to [. . . .] both these poetic things that happen in museums, like putting a fire truck in and think about the history of civil rights and these things sort of things, but there are also moments where I wanted my creativity to expand outside of the museum to take on real problems that happen in the world.
And so today I’m going to think a lot about that. What I found was that in most of the cities in the Midwest, I’m a Chicagoan and most of the cities in the Midwest we have a problem with abandoned buildings. And a lot of you guys know that in 2008, there was this huge – people talk about a market bursting – the bubble bursting – but really it was this moment when [. . .] the world’s greed and our ability to inflate the value of, say, housing stock.
It got to a point where [. . .] no longer makes sense.
And the response was that Banks no longer have the capacity and people no longer have the capacity to take on these things that were kind of making tremendous amounts of money but often not giving anything back.
And it’s really at that moment that [I?] started to shift away. I thought about my artistic practice and thought maybe there’s a way that this problem of abandoned buildings could offer a poetic and pragmatic solution to the needs for poor people and the need for culture in neighborhoods.
So this first slide you’re looking at is really kind like how might my brain works in relationship to the issue of housing and culture in poor neighborhoods.
I’m an artist who thinks about communities but I understand that in order to really create a healthy, thriving community, it’s not just about artists moving to a neighborhood and painting a building and putting some stuff up, but it also takes a willingness to work with educators, developers, policymakers to think about how systematic and creative change happens in a place.
And so I’m going to walk through my little scenario of kind of being an artist and thinking about places in the Midwest
One of the things that became really clear was that as an individual you can do a lot. But there’s a reason why these legal structures called Corporations and Not For Profits, there’s a reason why they exist.
And part of the reason is so that individuals with good ideas could not only grow and expand their vision but they could have a team of people that can grow that vision with them.
And so over the last five years, I’ve spent time slowly thinking about single storey and two flat buildings , two-story buildings, in the Midwest and thinking how could I have not just turn those buildings into a revenue stream like my dad says, “oh you know son if you get that building you can not only make 750 dollars a month and you can house some people.”
And I thought, Dad, is it possible for us to think about these building types as an opportunity to create cultural spaces uh… throughout our different cities.
And so I started doing this in Saint Louis, in Omaha, Nebraska and in Chicago .
Three places where in the Midwest there is an amazing amount of variety and need. And also there are really amazing people already doing great things — often without the venues necessary.
So how could I, with my interests and creativity and culture really think about this one specific thing. That is, Chicago used to be the blues and jazz capital of our country . And that great people came through there, it had all these venues.
What happened to the venue?
And now where do you go in Saint Louis when you want to hear good jazz music, when you want to hear good gospel music? What happened to those space treasures that used to be there? And often they’re gone.
And so a lot of my time is spent thinking about, okay, how can I think about small buildings in a neighborhood that is abandoned and wake those buildings up ?
So here you see a diagram. It has a couple of buildings. Let’s say that in Chicago about 40% of the buildings in my neighborhood were abandoned.[INSERT DIAGRAM HERE]
And there are varying ways in which you can acquire a building in the city. You can ask the city to give you a building . You can find out what the mortgage is and you can talk to banks about the state of the building.
Or you can just do some due diligence as a not-for-profit and say, “is there a way that our mission fits with this abandoned space to do something?”
So here’s my scenario: I bought an empty house in Chicago and found that, if I were to invest a little bit of cash and a little bit of Sweat Equity into that building, the building would look good. And I decided pretty early on that these buildings that I acquired, that I wouldn’t fill them with rental space, but I would find reasons to need the buildings.[INSERT IMAGE OF THEASTER’s HOUSE HERE]
And so right around the time that I bought the first building, I found out that there was a record store that was going out of business. So I acquired this record store called Doctor Wax and they had about 8,000 albums.
And I thought, “All right. What I’m going to do is take this first building and I’m going to call it The Listening House and we’re going to play cuts. We’re going to play Disco and Jazz Funk and Soul, Gospel music and I’m going to invite my neighbors over to do that stuff.
Well that went really well, and we’ll call that an Artistic Gesture, when I was ready to move on to the next Artistic Gesture, I thought, “man, it would be really great if there was an organization that could stay there and continue to keep that life of The Listening House going while I move on to the next building.
And so that’s what we did. We created a small Not-For-Profit. The Not-For-Profit started thinking about those abandoned spaces, thinking about the ongoing programming that could happen. We found that there were students all over the country that were really excited about this work and that we could receive them as a kind of Dorchester Fellow , like on the block living on the block helping us to program the space.
Before you knew it, we had two spaces that were active. We had The Listening House and The Archive House. because a bookstore went out of business and they had 14,000 books and the guy said, “look if you can get them out next week you can have the books”.
Well there’s a bookstore dedicated to Art and Architecture and I thought, man, where better than a neighborhood that’s struggling with its architect, to reimagine creative design.
So we had two buildings.
Then there were a couple of larger pieces of property that were available in the space, like a thirty-six unit former low-income housing project that was now abandoned .
A huge eyesore, a very bad memory in that neighborhood, and I thought it would be great if we could think about how The Arts could play a role in the re-establishment of the space.
So we approached the local housing authorities and said look this had been a low-income housing space. How about it become a space where artists of all kinds could come and it would be a mixed opportunity for artists?
So they said great, that would be awesome … and there’s resource available and we can help you think about how that happens .
And what I found was that all of a sudden, we went from one building to thinking about forty buildings, in one city, then thinking about 60 buildings between three cities. And I found that, in order to have a healthy community, you can’t just have houses . So I started thinking about other kinds of spaces. Could I find cultural spaces, old warehouses, empty store fronts.
Could we start to have a kind of campaign not only for artists living is spaces, but also artists working and thriving in spaces. Could we create new economies, so that as we were working on the school system, we would also be working on the housing piece. We’d also be able to think about a creative labor force .
Then we could start to think about the possibility of restaurants, small cafes, grocery stores. That it was. . . I kind of incidently found myself helping to restore a neighbourhood.
Just because I had an itch for old buildings and I was pretty good with a hammer and I had a real desire to see culture happen in the place where I live.
And the most beautiful things in a city happen, instead of having to go downtown , or to the north side of Chicago, I wanted those things to happen in the Hood, on the South Side.
And so I started thinking about these buildings as a kind of constellation inside of one square block, or four square blocks. There was like forty new housing units, there’s some commercial space, there’s a big old venue that’s been abandon for a long time and I started to understand that if I would talk to other people that were actually really good at a creating new space, talked to developers and architects, that maybe they could be partners in this work.
And so that’s what we did. We started thinking about wow, maybe there is something here. That if we could find some private resource that could think about these buildings, invest that money into these buildings then have a Not-For-Profit that could support the program that happens in that space. And the Not-For-Profit could, with sweat and love, encourage other people to think about that space, that the space would become active again.
Money, plus an abandoned building, equals an active building.
But then we thought that there’s something also that has to do with what are the structures by which artist can be really successful at being Change Makers in the neighborhood ? And we found that sometimes it’s good to partner with organizations that are already doing cool stuff like Habitat for Humanity or in Chicago we had an organization called architreasures, where they train Architects to think about places that don’t normally get good design influence , or professional support, and we’ve been kind of working on that.
And so now these buildings in in these various cities they do lots of different things. They think about the visual arts, we have book readings, we have lectures and people are wanting to now adopt those spaces as important cultural sites around the country.
We also found that, while my primary interests was in making sure that my neighbors in that neighborhood had uh… a new library resources or had a Sunday brunch spot where they could listen to their favorite jazz album, that the more that we did this work the more people from all over the city want to participate in this work that we were doing .
And so uh… where up my neighborhood Greater Grand Crossing had been stigmatized as a place where no one wanted to be, now some of the hottest Jazz, and readings, poetry readings, Jazz ensembles were coming, that people were starting to come to this place and we were Creating Heat.
That artists have the capacity, when we gather, to do things that nobody else in the world can do. We can, out of a series of nothings, a series of abandoned buildings, out of detritus, [. . .], things that people would discard, artists have a way of connecting belief and ability and are willing to work at a thing longer than most would, so that there’s Heat.
It’s cold right now in North Carolina. Wherever there is Heat, you kind of want to be around it. What we found is that people wanted to be wherever artists work . And that if artists could manage some of that Cultural Capital, that we had, that we could be the real transformers of communities.
And so I’ve been trying to figure out: is there a model here? Is there a way that we can think about these connectors, these buildings, as being the sites where things happen and then this thing becomes a model whereby, in Durham, in Raleigh, in other parts of the northeast, in the southwest, like are there other ways that we can take this model and share it with others.
I believe that there’s a way in which folk who are creative, like us, combined with really practical skills in learning a lot about how buildings are financed, how banks work, if we could take that creativity and pragmatism, we could do things throughout the country and throughout the world , that I really believe that artists have the capacity to change the world and I hope you guys will join me in changing communities.
Thanks so much.
FEATURED IMAGE PHOTO CREDIT: MYFIREGAME