The Chicago School of Theaster Gates
by Chris Dingwall
For the annual Rapp Lecture in Contemporary Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2013, artist Theaster Gates spoke at a lectern and presented a slide show, To Dig Constantly, Mining Myself. Making use of the glass lantern slide collection he had acquired from the University of Chicago – which had deemed it obsolete – Gates performed an art history of blackness, excavating the sediment layers of racial value upon which contemporary art history had been built. As he advanced the slides, he dug deeper within himself, all the while withholding the treasured, authentic black object that his audience might have hoped he would finally uncover. He chanted. He recited folklore. He showed black-and-white slides of Brâncuși sculptures, Japanese landscapes and African artifacts. He read a text by German ethnographer Leo Frobenius about buying art on the West African coast: “the Negro will never really understand why an ancient broken object is more valuable to me than one that was made recently and shows no traces of wear.” While anthropologists collected ancient, broken African arts for ethnographic museums, and while white modernists re-presented those objects for fine art museums, Gates excavated the systems of power that had deemed broken objects valuable and useful ones not, fetishizing an abstract blackness while devaluing black life. At least some in the audience were vexed by Gates’ lesson. During the Q&A, when a white woman asked him to “sing again,” Gates solicited and heeded the advice of the black members of the audience, who told him to “feel your boundaries.” Graciously, but promptly, he offered his thanks and left the stage.1
Gates wields the apparatus of teaching – the slideshows, the podium, the classroom, the archive – no less masterfully than the museum, the school, the library and the state use these tools. Art critics and journalists have devoted their praise and censure to the magic of Gates’ one-man economy: if black art has been valued by markets and museums for seeming to be old and broken, he will sell you that broken object, and use the profit to make something useful and beautiful for actual black communities. Yet the money he makes and distributes has entangled his practice in educational institutions, whether the ones that employ him (the University of Chicago) or the ones he is building – most recently the Stony Island Arts Bank, an abandoned bank whose renovation into an art centre he funded by selling porcelain shards from the urinals as bonds at Art Basel (“In ART we trust”). He raised $500,000.2
When both public funding and private investment are abandoning black communities, there is something unmistakably redemptive about turning a bank into an art centre, and white wealth (and desire) into spaces for “anti-racist, common, communist meditation.”3 Yet these spaces have proliferated into a complex of interlocking educational institutions that span the Greater Grand Crossing, South Shore and Washington Park neighbourhoods of Chicago’s South Side. Through the nonprofit Rebuild Foundation, Gates has built the Dorchester Projects (Archive House, Listening House), Black Cinema House, the Stony Island Arts Bank and the Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative, which provides subsidized housing and common meeting space for artists and community members. As director of Arts + Public Life at the University of Chicago, he has built the Arts Incubator, which hosts residencies and exhibitions, and now Place Lab, an administrative collaboration with the Harris School of Public Policy that has absorbed the old Cultural Policy Center under the motto “Arts + Culture Build Cities.” Under the auspices of art, and his own growing reputation in the art world, Gates has developed a formula for renewing not only black community spaces but also communal autonomy. As he told Romi Crawford in 2014:
The state and the market had use for some of the things that I believed in and not so much use for other things. Fine. What that meant was that we could just have more fun more of the time and that we could ask hard problems and then solve them within our own ways of being.4
Call it the Chicago School of Theaster Gates, a principled approach to engaging the market and the state in order to build the libraries and archives and galleries where the market and state don’t want to.
In many respects, Gates is joining a tradition of black educators that includes Booker T. Wash¬ington, W.E.B. Du Bois and Margaret Taylor-Burroughs who have engaged resources of the market and state to uplift black people. But to see Gates and his school clearly as a “system of power,” as he puts it, means placing him specifically within a history of progressive social reform deeply embedded in Chicago’s institutional landscape, one that has been successful not for its radicalism but for its pragmatism.
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In a recent interview published in Artforum, Gates began to outline his philosophy of art education. It starts with the “metaphysics” of sketching. “I didn’t learn how to sketch; I didn’t learn how to draw,” says Gates, whose formal art training was in pottery, though he never received an MFA. (He has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in ceramics, urban planning, and religious studies.) Nevertheless, in the blank pages of the sketchbook, Gates can begin to redesign seemingly intractable physical structures. “Working it out on paper first makes me believe that I can do it.” From the metaphysics of sketching, however, Gates telescopes quickly to the metaphysics of teaching, and the future of art school. “When I build my school,” he declares, “I’m going to teach people that whatever is taught at the MFA level is akin to elementary school”:
In elementary school students will learn replica, mise-en-scène, and representation. In middle school, they will learn about reflexivity, reproducibility, reaction, and reflection. In high school, students will learn to see the invisible, to understand the philosophies of the invisible, will learn physics and religion. As undergraduates, my future pupils will learn transgression, systems of power, how to be a system of power, and how to harness systems of power. They will learn how to mine for gold, dig for diamonds. They learn how to fish. In graduate school, students will learn how to levitate.5
“How to be a system of power.” You might say that this is a rather gnomic way to describe a course for a career that is already well established in the art school curriculum: arts administration. Gates began his career as a public arts administrator, first at the Chicago Transit Authority and then at the University at Chicago. But as a potter and arts administrator, Gates was stymied in his ambitions. The art world didn’t value pottery highly; schools wouldn’t hire him to teach without an MFA; and, moreover, the city didn’t see the value in investing in black artists. Instead he taught himself “how to make systems.” In his debut at the Hyde Park Art Center, he presented himself as the protégé of an imaginary Japanese pottery master Shoji Yamaguchi, whose work was an unexpected fusion of Japanese and African American dinnerware. This project pushed back against Chicago’s established systems of art and education: Gates welcomed gallery goers to embrace a system of his own invention based on an invented artistic genealogy, which became a hospitable space to talk about race and art.6
In his proposed art school curriculum, Gates will teach his students less about how to administer the arts than how to administer society with art. They will learn to translate their sketches into cities, turning metaphysics into a hard physics of money and power. “I would never make a mural to solve a social problem,” Gates continues, likely alluding to Chicago’s own tradition of community mural painting as a form of vernacular art and protest. “It takes money to solve social problems; it takes hard conversations and political power – artists should also sculpt those things.”7 Behind his metaphysics, then, is a philosophy of social change and an ethics of social engagement. As Fred Moten puts it, Gates’ art practice is an “anti-foundational assertion of an ante-foundational reality,” one premised on the ongoing, dynamic and thus malleable reproduction of social reality, where “we mess and make each other up as we go along.”8 Artists are ideally suited to intervene in this reality and solve its problems, according to Gates, because they have a “vision beyond a kind of practical response.”9
Gates’ metaphysics of art education as a principle of social reform hearkens back to an earlier experiment in progressive education in turn-of-the-century Chicago. Inspired by the pragmatic philosophy of William James and John Dewey, Jane Addams built the Hull House social settlement on the city’s west side in 1889, and Dewey himself built an experimental “Laboratory School” at the University of Chicago in 1896. For Addams and Dewey, industrial capitalism provoked alarming so¬cial problems, particularly in Chicago. The violent suppression of labour protests in the Haymarket massacre in 1886 and the Pullman Strike in 1894 made visible an untenable social divide between the white bourgeoisie and the (increasingly foreign-born) working class. But rather than begin with an ideal theory of social order and progress, Addams and Dewey sough to teach their middle-class students to learn from their working-class neighbours, and thus generate collaborative and practical ideas of order and progress. Not unlike Gates’ art school, Dewey’s Lab School had “absolutely no separation…between the ‘social’ side of the work, its concern with people’s activities and their mu¬tual dependencies, and the ‘science,’ [the] regard for physical facts and forces,” a mode of experience he would later liken to art.10 For Addams, the settlement worker was a kind of artist, her medium the social relations of the community. Rather than “painting, writing and singing,” the settlement resident “is constantly transmitting by means of [her] human activity, [her] notion of life to others,” throwing away her preconceived notions just as “the artist throws away [her] tools” when they fail to solve the problems at hand. In this way, resident and neighbour alike might turn “the economic relation into an ethical relation.” Addams, no less than Gates, built her school so that “religion itself [would] embrace all relations, including the ungodly industrial relation.”11
Addams and Dewey are not the only antecedents for Gates’s pedagogical project: he draws as well from Du Bois’s ideas of cultural leadership, Washington’s harnessing of capitalist donors to fund his Tuskegee Institute, and Burroughs’s cultivation of state funding to consolidate the cultural energy of mid-century black Chicago in the South Side Community Art Center. But pragmatism provides a guide not only to Gates’s model of social engagement but also to its political limitations. The problem with the pragmatic approach to social reform – as its more radical critics argue – is that it can only beautify rather than protest or challenge the ungodly relations of capitalism that create social inequality in the first place. Although Addams’ Hull House and Dewey’s Lab School live on – and in no small way live up to their founders’ ideals of community engagement and experiential learning – they have been thoroughly absorbed by larger host institutions. Now a museum within the University of Illinois in Chicago, Hull House presents its often-daring exhibits in the middle of a once working-class neighbourhood that the university has almost completely gentrified. The Lab School remains part of the University of Chicago as a private school attended mainly by the children of faculty and the city’s (progressive) elite. (Malia and Sasha Obama were both students there.) In different ways, the institutions Addams and Dewey founded accommodated their systems of power to the powers that be, with their socially progressive agendas delivered as cultural programming.
Gates arguably turns this flaw into a feature: he sells his radical agenda to Chicago’s elite under the guise of harmless culture. The ambiguity might be necessary to maintain his hold on the greater systems of power he harnesses. But the political consequences of this ambiguity are difficult toread, especially as the principles of his social art practice become institutionalized as principles of wider-scale community development. In its nine principles of “ethical redevelopment,” drawn from Gates’s “artist-led, neighborhood-based development work,” Place Lab echoes the pragmatic philosophy taken by Hull House and the Lab School toward the future: “Suspend knowing. Em¬brace uncertainty. Accept ambiguity. Allow the work to offer solutions; ask questions in response to ‘problems’ facing a neighborhood or city. Resource inequity can be reduced with imagination.” As it is unclear whether the authorship of the document belongs to Gates or the Lab, so too is it unclear whether the intended audience is the Harris School Board or community members. Indeed the “pedagogical moments” that will be engendered by the artist-led urban development can be read as a means to reinvigorate public life or compensate for the loss of publically funded artistic and vocational education. Whereas Gates hired unemployed workers and teenagers to help build the Dorchester Projects, Place Lab’s redevelopment projects will formalize these mentor-apprentice relationships to effect a “knowledge transfer” that will endow workers with new skills, cultivate an ethic of social responsibility and build “networks of relationships within a community, its ecosys¬tem, and the larger social economy.” The language could have come from Addams or Dewey, or from a PR consultant for a corporate charter school: “Experience is the teacher; exposure is the lab.”12
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Gates returned to the AGO this summer to mount his largest exhibition yet, marking how much the scope of his artistic practice and pedagogical thinking has expanded since the Rapp Lecture nearly three years ago – from lectures and objects and houses to schools and museums. In How to Build a House Museum, Gates will show W. E. B. Du Bois’s statistical reports on “Negro Progress,” along with bricks from a rebuilt Chicago foundry, recording equipment from Frankie Knuckles’ collection, and an extended meditation on how a modest house museum can serve the cause of black liberation. As a display of archives and objects, the exhibit cannily positions Gates within black traditions of uplift, activist collecting and vernacular mass culture, while unsettling the boundaries between them. As a proposition for a future museum, however, How to Build a House Museum shows Gates as a builder of institutions, a sculptor of money and power. Here, the utopian possibilities fostered by this space – its recalibration of black value against white desires, its communion between downtown Toronto and South Side Chicago – must be read as extensions of Gates’ more mundane social practice, where his museums and libraries and archives are taking their places among – and perhaps displacing – the institutionalized Hull House and Lab School, the struggling South Side Community Art Center, Chicago public libraries and Chicago public schools.
As Gates envisions his future art school, his experiments in social practice art have already become significant fixtures in Chicago’s cultural landscape. The Stony Island Arts Bank, for one, is remarkable for how modestly it makes its contribution. Busy staff welcome you and guide you inside the Arts Bank. On the main floor, a gallery with white walls, exposed brick and hardwood floors hosts an exhibit by Ghanaian photographer James Barnor. Upstairs, a librarian teaches high school interns how to find books and care for the glass slides. Every week, there are workshops, readings, and tea ceremonies set to house music. It’s a working educational institution, free and open to the public, somehow surmounting the material limitations faced by any nonprofit with a small staff. Beneath Gates’ often soaring metaphysics of education, the Arts Bank provides space to preserve and reproduce local traditions of creativity and protest. Around the corner from the heralded Johnson Publishing Archive + Collections, a long reading room houses deaccessioned books from DuSable High School, whose students recently protested the dismissal of the school librarian due to budget cuts and persuaded an anonymous donor to provide the funds needed to reinstate her. Gates fa¬mously declared that his labour was his protest; he also accommodates that labour for others for whom protest itself is the more urgent work – or art.
Chris Dingwall is an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Jackman Humanities Institute at the University of Toronto, where he is working on a book about race and the American culture industry, and helping to plan an exhibition about African American commercial designers for the Chicago Cultural Center set to open in 2018