Artist Theaster Gates Feted by Serralves Foundation

Courtesy of Sara Pooley

“No one’s talking about the failure of white towns full of poor white people ’cause white people don’t want to see that shit. They love seeing it in black and brown despondency”

Last weekend, the Serralves Foundation, Portugal’s leading center for contemporary art, celebrated its 25th anniversary with a gala fundraiser and performance by the Black Monks of Mississippi, an experimental music ensemble led by Chicago artist Theaster Gates, who spent most of September on retreat with the Monks enjoying the foundation’s manicured 45-acre plot surrounding a breathtaking art deco villa and a contemporary art museum designed by Pritzker Award-winner Alvaro Siza, concurrently celebrating its 15th anniversary.

Gates’ work with the Monks usually involves music, but the residency at Serralves includes sermons, readings, meditation, and audio and film recording all under the rubric of The Black Monastic, a response to history and space within the context of politics and race. It all sounds a little vague if you’re not familiar with Gates’ work, but spaces, politics and race are constant themes for the Chicago-born artist who was walking through his neighborhood one day and noticed its glorious old buildings falling into disrepair, taken over by vagrants and eventually demolished by the city.

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Armed with two degrees in urban planning, he went to work for the Chicago Transit Authority overseeing public art for the subways. Finding there was little concern with African-American neighborhoods, he soon quit and went back to school and got a master’s degree in urban planning, religion and ceramics and was soon working as an arts programmer at the University of Chicago.

Dorchester Projects is his effort to change the ghetto he calls home by purchasing abandoned storefronts and turning them into facilities like an audio library, and the University of Chicago’s Arts Incubator, a space for artist residencies, galleries and film programming. Gates is currently working on an abandoned subway tunnel, a massive space that will be transformed into a hall for amplified music as well as an audio history bank of Chicago’s South Side.

“It’s amazing what cleaning up a building will do in terms of creating a kind of invitation to the city to look differently at the things that we write off as having no value, being extremely violent when in fact some of the most amazing things are happening alongside your stereotypical things,” Gates tells The Hollywood Reporter about his current projects. “So I think being really focused on choosing to see beauty in all of the ways that it manifests itself and then try to amplify that beauty so others can see it, it’s a big part of what I’m doing.”

What he’s doing is becoming one of the South Side’s leading landowners, which doesn’t come cheap. To finance his purchases, he sells his art and some other art-like pieces, including a chunk of marble from a urinal he might hammer free from an abandoned building, put his name on and sell to an art collector for up to $5,000. It’s part of what prompted him to tell The New Yorker, “I’m not really an artist. I’m probably first a hustler.”

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“There’s a way in the absence of excess you got to figure things out,” observes Gates. “I think the hustle, there’s much more reverence in that term than just some wheeling-dealing side hustle that is actually one’s capacity to create in a failed system. That’s hustle I admire.”

Gates began his artistic career in clay because he found poetry in taking the Earth’s basest material and transforming it into something beautiful. Obviously the same principle applies to Dorchester Projects as well as the neighborhood residents he employs there. “I don’t even think it’s about black ghetto,” says Gates. “No one’s talking about the failure of post-industrial white towns full of poor white people ’cause white people don’t want to see that shit. They love seeing it in black and brown despondency.”

Gates doesn’t love it and will hire pretty much anyone, skilled or unskilled, young or old, though under-aged workers get paid in pizza. “I feel like this is just the way art should be or this is just the way good business should happen. It should think about creating jobs,” he says. “At the end of the project, that’s what I want to see is that everybody got paid, everybody has a little bit more, everybody makes something beautiful happen.”