I got the chance to speak with Theaster Gates recently to hear more about the project:
Maura Guyote: This project began in 2007 with your purchase of a former candy store in Chicago’s South Side. Now, as part of the DA+HC, there are 32 units that have been redesigned for artists & families to live in! Did you start buying these properties with the vision that the project would grow to this magnitude, or did that emerge organically?
Theaster Gates: I absolutely didn’t imagine that it would be as big as it is today. When I bought my house, it was my house. It was really just trying to buy a house I could afford in a neighborhood I could afford and at the time [Chicago] was very expensive. But I think over the years, something grew in me and I became really frustrated with the lack of opportunity for decent and affordable housing and the lack of venues in Chicago for culture to happen. And it didn’t have to be big culture. It could be modest in its scale and local in its offering. But I just thought there should be more and I decided to try to illustrate what that might look like as an extension of my practice… By 2009 I realized that not only would I live there but I would try to make a substantial impact on the place where I lived. And so it started to feel like a project five years ago.
Maura: It seems significant that these community and living spaces are created by you and members of the community, so it’s a space built by and for the community. Tell me a bit about the team who helped build the DA+HC.
Theaster: In addition to Dorchester Art+Housing, there’s about 20 properties in the neighborhood that we’ve restored over the past five years. What we’ve tried to do is always combine really skilled folks with a lot of ability, from wherever they’re from in the city or the country or the world, with some local opportunity benefits from the resources made available as a result of these large projects… Folks in this community and African Americans in the neighborhood and local folks who have ability should be part of the mix of people who benefit not only from the finished product, but the resources that are spent. So we were really inventive through the non profit I chair, Rebuild Foundation, in working with the developers to ensure that there were lots of opportunities for those resources to stay local as often as possible.
Maura: The DA+HC is the result of a collaboration between Rebuild Foundation, Brinshore Development and Landon Bone Baker Architects. It sounds like they were very sensitive in making sure that the project was about the community. What was your experience like with them?
Theaster: I think the best part was that Brinshore really knows a lot about affordable housing and Landon Bone Baker are great architects. They were already creating a very decent and good affordable housing unit. And what I was able to add with the support of Rebuild was to give a very sharp focus on artists who also need affordable housing and to say that, in addition to the housing piece, there are other things we should be looking at. Folks with affordable housing who are creative people are also going to want to have spaces where they can perform and exhibit and produce and make art. If we think not only about these artist housing units but also start to think about other types of spaces that might grow up over the next couple of years to support artists who live in a larger community, and that larger community that wants culture to be part of it, then not only are we making a good housing project but we are building and transforming a community. So initially my model or approach to things was a little different, but they were generous in the way they listened and the strategies we ended up using to finance this big idea. They’re developers and architects who were willing to think differently about the thing that they do every day so well. They were willing to say, “Maybe more could be done.”
Maura: In refurbishing the communal spaces in the Dorchester Project, you used recycled materials, including timbers from Chicago factories and barns. Were the same types of materials used for the new living spaces?
Theaster: We were able to do some of that work. But it wasn’t really just an ethic of recycling. The buildings had old joists and were in bad shape. But we were able to capture those joists and then they were reclaimed to make shelving, countertops and baseboards, and some of the crawl spaces. So we were really mindful of what materials were available locally that could go back into the building; and even if they can’t be structural members as they had been, how can we use the materials to make these apartments even more special than they were. I think that I’m always seeking an opportunity, and not even as an aesthetic but as a set of values, to use materials that allow me to do amazing things. There’s nothing about these materials when you see them that looks like they’re reconstituted; it just looks like wood. But I’m excited that we were able to use more of the building inside the building. It just feels right.
Maura: And that idea fits in really well with your Creative Capital Project, 12 Ballads for Huguenot House, as well.
Theaster: I think in many ways the work that was started with Dorchester Projects and the work of Huguenot House is imagining that great things could happen in a space that had been overlooked in a way that’s transformative. That’s not only about bricks and mortar, it’s about what we choose to do with the buildings that we have access to.
Maura: I read in your profile in the New York Times last December that you’re starting to plan more converted housing projects like this one in other cities; can you give any details on that yet?
Theaster: The big project I’m working on right now is through my work at University of Chicago in the Office of Arts and Public Life we’ve started to figure out ways that the hard lessons I’ve learned about artist-led redevelopment can have an impact in other cities. We received a grant from the Knight Foundation in Miami to reflect on the work I’ve been doing in the last five years and make a code of it. And then offer what we’re learning about this work on DA+HC to three cities: Gary, IN; Akron, OH; and Detroit, MI. So over the next three years we’ll be working more and more in these three cities particularly to be good listeners of what the multicultural interests are there. And then see if there are ways we can grow the local leadership and participate with the local leadership in the continual cultural reactivation of those spaces in those cities.
Maura: I can’t wait to hear what more comes from the project!
Theaster: Thank you.
Applications for the Dorchester Art+Housing Collaborative in Chicago are being received on an ongoing basis. There is no website dedicated to the project, but interested applicants can contact Nick Lovett at Leasing & Management for more information: firstname.lastname@example.org or 773.324.2270.