Covering All Bases: How One Artist's Work Mirrors the Philanthropic Zeitgeist

Make a list of some of art philanthropy's hottest trends and you'll come up with things like creative placemaking, public art, urban renewal, affordable arts spaces, engagement and curating a more inclusive and immersive arts experience. 

This is why, dear reader, you owe it to yourself to check out Theaster Gates' work, which effortlessly encapsulates all of these trends. Gates, a Chicago native, started the Rebuild Foundation in 2009, which works with the city to transform more than 30 vacant lot buildings into "aesthetic and affordable living and cultural spaces." 

Sarah Newman, the curator of the National Gallery exhibition, doesn't mince words. "He's got the whole art world interested in him," she said.

This New York Times piece on Gates' work looks at it from an artistic and operational perspective. There is no "funding angle." While Gates' organization receives support from funders like Bloomberg Philanthropies, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Kresge Foundation and the Surdna Foundation, no foundation representatives are quoted in the piece. 

But the inference is clear. The pantheon of institutional arts philanthropy endorses Gate's approach because he effectively addresses their main priorities.

Take the issue of creative placemaking. You'd be hard-pressed to find a better definition of the term than Gates' efforts to transform vacant lot buildings into "aesthetic and affordable living and cultural spaces." Not coincidentally, Kresge and Surdna are two of the biggest players in the creative placemaking space.

But Rebuild's creative placemaking efforts do more than creative a passive art experience. Gates hires and trains a growing neighborhood workforce in demolition, masonry and other construction trades. In short, Gates' art projects mean jobs for residents in disadvantaged communities.

This approach reminds me of a project called Arthouse: A Social Kitchen. Led by the University of Chicago and Public Life Initiative, "arts and culinary center" in Gary, Indiana, prepares high school students for careers in the culinary arts. The project was made possible by a grant from the Knight Foundation, which as previously noted, also supports the Rebuild Foundation.  

Then there's the idea of "engagement." Funders like the Wallace Foundation are spending millions to "crack the code," but at its core, engagement can be relative and ephemeral. Gates, however, in his role as an arts ambassador to disadvantaged communities, puts some meat on the bones. 

Last year, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington recruited him to join its board specifically to build a stronger local community around the institution. He initiated a series of four performances collaboration with the musicians the Black Monks of Mississippi, which drew many residents from Washington. “There were visitors who had never been to the Hirshhorn before,” said Director Melissa Chiu.

Lastly, I'd like to flesh out this engagement component a bit further. Gates is African-American and comes from a community that has been plagued by a relative lack of engagement in the arts. Researchers have devoted countless hours to determining the causes of this disconnect, and while there certainly is no one-size-fits-all solution, Gates' approach—curating experiences that speak to the community's shared history—has proven successful.

Gates convinced Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to sell him, for $1, a bank scheduled for demolition, with the stipulation that Mr. Gates raise the funds to renovate it. The property, the Stony Island Bank, is a hybrid exhibition space and community center and the permanent home of, among other things, the 50,000-volume library on black culture collected by John H. Johnson, the publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines.

It drew nearly 60,000 visitors in its first year. 

And so the art world, foundations and arts organizations will remain transfixed on Mr. Gates, whose success stems from a subtle but transformative reexamination of what constitutes art.

"What Theaster’s done in Chicago is shift the center of gravity," said artist Glenn Ligon. "He’s made it clear that art can operate in a variety of different spaces on the same level. In a bank that was abandoned for years, Theaster’s project is about saying there’s value in these things."