CHICAGO — Theaster Gates has been referred to as a renaissance man. He’s the person behind the restoration of an architectural gem in the city’s South Shore neighborhood that had been scheduled for the wrecking ball. A building many of you have probably passed by hundreds of times. It’s now a hybrid arts museum and cultural center for all to enjoy.
Gates is not an architect. He is a world renowned artist and urban planner on a mission to bring back the beautiful architecture and culture in our Black community, one building at a time.
Gates grew up on the West Side. And from childhood he started to appreciate architecture and his passion for turning trash into treasure.
His “Dorchester Project” is a series of buildings that had been scheduled to be demolished. Gates bought them and brought them back to life.
Retreat at Currency Exchange is just one of the buildings. It is a reimagined café in Washington Park constructed to be a refuge for artists who either can’t find work, or are escaping the racial inequities of the industry. It’s a place for the community to escape as well.
But crown and glory of the Dorchester Project at present is the Stony Island Arts Bank building.
It’s located at 69th Street and South Stony Island Avenue, a stones throw from the future site of the Obama Library. Its a behemoth of alabaster architecture that looks as if it belongs among the ruins of Ancient Rome.
It sat vacant for generations, until Gates bought the building from then Mayor Rahm Emanuel for one dollar.
A magnificent museum awaits inside. From its carefully preserved ceilings to the historic one of a kind art collections.
A floor-to-ceiling library houses more than 15,000 books from the Johnson Publishing “Ebony” and “Jet” archives, the legendary Black-owned company founded by John and Eunice Johnson in 1942.
And upstairs, the Edward J Williams collection of “Negrobilia” contains 6,500 pieces.
But the collections don’t stop there. The late legendary House Music DJ Frankie Knuckles’ collection of autographed albums and handwritten notes is also on display.
But Gates hasn’t left out exhibits and collections by up-and-coming young Chicago artists. He believes he has a commitment to create a gateway to other artists to achieve greatness.
And hopefully they will respond in kind.
The Stony Island Arts Bank will be open from Thursdays to Sundays all winter long, from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.