Theaster Gates

When I arrive at 6901 Dorchester Avenue at nine in the morning in August, the house is already buzzing with activity—I can hear the sound of a buzz saw upstairs. The building is due to open later this month as the Black Cinema House, a space for research into and the screening of films about African-American culture and by artists of colour. It is one of the many urban rebuilding projects by the Chicago artist and current art-world favourite Theaster Gates.

During my visit to his South Side neighbourhood, the house looked as though it was nearing completion: the first-floor screening room was mostly finished, with a projector and drop-down screen already installed next to a gleaming, open kitchen covered in stainless steel (the ritual of communal meals is an important element of Gates’s work). The once-abandoned house had been gutted and renovated to create a warm, inviting space, using materials salvaged from this and other buildings. The beautiful, darkly stained redwood around the doors and windows, for example, was rescued from an old water tower, while the slate green walls in an office turned out to be chalkboards from Crispus Attucks Elementary School, named after an African-American slave who was the first casualty of the Revolutionary War.

The Black Cinema House is just one of the latest rebuilding projects that Gates has undertaken in Dorchester Avenue and the surrounding neighbourhood of Grand Crossing. His earlier renovations include a two-storey house that has been turned into an archive and library, and a former candy store that served as an event and performance space, and is currently being re-gutted to take on a new use—perhaps as a further extension of the archives next door. A few streets away, Gates has bought up a whole complex of neglected Chicago Housing Authority apartments, which he plans to turn into mixed-income artist housing with an on-site arts centre. Last month, the news broke that Gates had rescued a long-abandoned bank on Stony Island Avenue from demolition by the City, and he is hoping to transform it into multi-use space to house a cultural centre, a soul-food restaurant and artist studios. He is due to present his plan for the bank to the city council this month.


Helen Stollas
The Art Newspaper