Theaster Gates makes no small plans for new U. of C. arts incubator

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Theaster Gates

Artist Theaster Gates, left, talks with maintenance worker Harold Brown as they prepare the new University of Chicago-sponsored Arts Incubator. (Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune / March 7, 2013)

Google the corner of East Garfield Boulevard and South Prairie Avenue. Map it, zoom in: If you're using Google Maps, you'll see an old picture of the corner, a long marble building just west of Washington Park, a former Walgreens, boarded-up, decaying, flanked by a fried chicken stand and a former currency exchange.

Walk by right now, and you will see something very different: The University of Chicago's new Arts Incubator, polished, sleek and housed in the same corner space, given a $1.85 million restoration by the university and the stewardship of an art superstar, Chicago's Theaster Gates.

The Arts Incubator, which opens Friday to the public, is 10,000 square feet of studio, performance and gallery space; there's a woodwork shop being used by 10 apprentices (Gates' medium tends to be reclaimed wood); there are five artists-in-residence, using studios still smelling of fresh paint (each of the artists, culled from 150 applicants, was given a $10,000 university grant); and on the second floor, there's a sweeping hall intended for performances and talks that can hold an audience of 150. (Indeed, the Incubator's calendar is already well stocked with record-release parties, artist talks and performance pieces.)

Gates arrived early Thursday morning for a walk-through.

He wore a tweed orange sportscoat and cowboy boots. He paced around the ground-floor exhibition hall. "I have personal ambitions, as do a lot of people, to see this neighborhood alive," he said. "But what does the neighborhood want this block to look like? What does it want it to feel like? Let's have town halls here! The thing I want to do is focus on getting this space as legible to the world as possible, to having this building act as a creative catalyst, both as a home to things happening inside and things radiating outward from it."

It's also the flagship project of Gates' Arts and Public Life initiative at the University of Chicago, started in 2011 as a way of fostering the ambitions and collaborations between the university and South Side artists. Beyond the university-led restoration (and additional operating funds), the center also received a $400,000 grant from ArtPlace, a consortium of national and regional institutions (the National Endowment for the Arts, for instance) and large banks.

Asked how the center plans to stay afloat in the long term, Gates said "we're in the process of identifying additional (funding) sources." A university spokesperson said the university's financial commitment will be ongoing.

He walked through the studios and then bounded up the stairs, two steps at a time. Asked if he's worried about that vagueness of mission that often comes with a new neighborhood art center — that uncertainty of what of broad community interest actually goes on inside it — Gates walked to the tall second-floor windows and put a hand to his face. He looked out on Garfield and its trickle of morning commuters scrambling over melting mountains of snow and into the Garfield CTA station.

"In some ways I think the roll-out has to be slow," he said. "I think you try to get as many events as possible in that exhibition space downstairs, so people see things going on here and it intrigues them — I think we make sure we use that window downstairs, it says as much as possible about what is going on inside here."

Right now in the window are large white letters spelling "FEEDBACK," a reference to the center's first major exhibition (running through April 28), a series of art pieces and programs about collaboration and dialogue.

"But yes, we're also going to have to figure out what it means to be a neighbor and friend here," he said. "It's unquestionably going to look very different for the university to have a big presence like this, in this spot."

On the wall behind him, scribbled in red marker was a child-like drawing of the block, the result of a recent brainstorming session. It was labeled "The Future of 55th Street," and below that an addendum, "The Arts Block." It showed the Arts Incubator on one corner and, on the adjacent corner, where now there is only a vacant lot, a gallery space. In between it showed a cafe, a speakeasy, a black-box theater and storefronts.

Asked what it meant, exactly, Mercedes Zavala, an administrator with the Arts and Public Life program, shrugged coyly and smiled. "That's just one vision," she said, "but then Theaster — he is a visionary."

cborrelli@tribune.com
Twitter @borrelli

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