Melissa Harris [ Chicago Tribune ] First look inside Theaster Gates’ new Stony Island Arts Bank. The last time Theaster Gates walked me through the abandoned bank at East 68th Street and South Stony Island Avenue, water dripped from the ceiling, clouds wafted over a hole in the roof, and shards of glass and scraps of plaster crunched under his feet.
The 42-year-old Chicago artist will debut his $4.5 million renovation of the bank — which he has transformed into a library and cultural center — on Oct. 3 , the opening day of the city’s first architectural biennial.
That the city’s cultural elite will be drawn about 9 miles south of the Loop into a building once scheduled for demolition speaks to Gates’ lofty position in the contemporary art world.
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It also speaks to his commitment to the South Side, even as Manhattan and Europe frequently draw him away, as well as his skill at requisitioning everything from record collections to patrons’ money. Playwright Regina Taylor once aptly summed up Gates’ demeanor in the Chicago Reader as that of “ a soulful Cheshire Cat .”
“I was really determined to see this project happen,” Gates said in a phone interview from Istanbul , where he was preparing for that city’s contemporary art biennial. “For people in my life who respect the work I do and understand the work, everyone around me had anxiety about its scale. And the friendly advice I got from everybody was to walk away.”
The 17,000-square-foot facility, once known as the Stony Island Trust & Savings Bank, opens to the public Oct. 6. Coffee and tea will be served behind a massive antique wood bar; a liquor license could come later. The plan is for the center to be open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
“The once vibrant commercial strip is active with the basics of a black strip mall but is culturally starved and in need of economic investment and more care,” Gates said of the area around the building, located south of Jackson Park between the Greater Grand Crossing and South Shore neighborhoods.
On deposit at the renamed Stony Island Arts Bank will be the magazine and book collection of John H. Johnson, founder of Ebony and Jet magazines; the record collection of disc jockey Frankie Knuckles, the godfather of house music; Edward Williams’ collection of negrobilia, racist collectibles the couple bought to take off the market; and slides of the University of Chicago’s and Art Institute of Chicago’s collections — no longer needed once the images were digitized.
Ken Stewart, chief executive officer of Gates’ Rebuild Foundation, said “this will be Rebuild’s first public venue that has normal operating hours.” The foundation oversees programming and the collections on the bank’s first and second floors.
Rebuild enables Gates to raise money from nonprofit foundations without having to sell artwork .
“We will have regular public programs,” Stewart said. “It won’t be these isolated moments or that you have to have an invitation. You can be driving down the street and come in.”
On temporary exhibit during the biennial will be Portuguese artist Carlos Bunga’s “Under the Skin, ” a mixture of sculpture and temporary architecture made from cardboard and packing tape.
Bunga’s cardboard columns lend a cathedral-like feel to the bank, immediately drawing the gaze up to the atrium’s arched plaster ceiling. On the other hand, the installation narrows the room, blocking light from exterior windows as well as views of many of the atrium’s archways.
Reclamation is a central part of Gates’ art practice. Pieces from saved and unsaved buildings, like the demolished St. Laurence Church once located a few blocks away, make their way into his art. Evidence of reclamation is everywhere inside the bank, most notably in the reading room tables, which are made of redwood from rooftop water tanks.
On a tour this week, the building smelled of drywall and lacquer as workers varnished the bar and tables. The air conditioning was installed that day. Others were organizing the Art Institute slides into vintage card catalogs as well as shelving Johnson’s books in the two-story second-floor library.
Aside from Bunga’s exhibition, none of the artwork had been hung.
The city sold the bank for $1 to an LLC controlled by Gates in 2013. To finance the restoration, Gates sold 100 “Bank Bonds” made from marble slabs pulled from the bank for $5,000. Gates has described the marble as the building’s “last usable currency.” Inscribed on the bonds are the words “ In ART We Trust .”
Gates also sold $50,000 “bonds” while Rebuild has raised more than $1.1 million from ticket sales for a Sept. 19 gala . Gates will auction an artwork made from wood reclaimed from the bank at the event.
The public will eventually gain access to the basement vault, which smells of mold and must. It was once submerged in water, and a “water line” mars the back wall of the vault . Adding machines are strewn about. Some stacks of safety deposit boxes have collapsed. Everything is rusted.
This is the one area Gates intends to remain as he found it , now that the water has been drained, Stewart said.
Something must be left unrenovated if visitors are ever to grasp the scale of this revival .