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Theaster Gates

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Theaster Gates
Gates in 2013
Born (1973-08-28) August 28, 1973 (age 50)
Known forInstallation art, Sculpture
Notable workCivil Tapestry series (2011-ongoing)
Black Vessel for a Saint (2017)
MovementSocial practice, Urbanism

Theaster Gates (born August 28, 1973) is an American social practice installation artist and a professor in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Chicago.[1] He was born in Chicago, Illinois, where he still lives and works.[2]

Gates' work has been shown at major museums and galleries internationally and deals with urban planning, religious space, and craft. He works to revitalize underserved neighborhoods by combining urban planning and art practices.[3] Gates' art practice responds to disinvestment in African-American urban communities, particularly in the wake of the financial crisis of 2007–2008, addresses the importance of formal archives for remembering and valuing Black cultural forms, and disrupts artistic canons, especially those of post-painterly abstraction and color field painting.

Early life and education[edit]

Theaster Gates was born and raised in East Garfield Park on the West Side of Chicago.[4] He was the youngest of nine children and the only son.[2] His father was a roofer, and his mother a school teacher. His sisters passed on their interest in civil rights activism, and the family attended a Baptist church where Gates, a choir member, became interested in performance. Gates attended Lane Technical High School.

In 1996, Gates graduated from Iowa State University with a B.S. in urban planning and ceramics.[2] After college, he worked primarily in ceramics and spent a year in Tokoname, Japan, studying pottery. He decided he wanted to explore religion in South Africa, and in 1998 he received an M.A. degree at the University of Cape Town in fine arts and religious studies.[5]


Early work[edit]

Gates' early work centered on his training as a ceramicist and study of comparative religions, and "many of his early projects addressed the shared significance of pottery in Japanese and African-American cultures."[6]

In 2007, Gates organized a conceptual exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center titled Plate Convergence in which he staged a fictional event as an elaborate backstory for ceramic plates he had made. The fiction involved Shoji Yamaguchi, a Japanese-born potter who had emigrated to the United States after WWII and took up residence in Mississippi, where he married a local black woman and civil rights activist and designed a plate especially suitable for the cuisine of black people. The plate became a centerpiece of dinner parties and salons for discussing art and politics. In Gates' words, "As the story went, [Yamaguchi] and his wife died in a car accident in 1991 and their son founded the Yamaguchi Institute to continue their vision of social transformation. I made ceramic plates, videotaped highly curated dinners and found a space for an exhibition of the ceramics and video. We gave a huge Japanese soul-food dinner, made by a Japanese chef and my sister, in honor of the Yamaguchis and their dinners. A young mixed-race artist enacted the role of their son and thanked everyone for coming."[7]

In 2008, Gates created his second fictional institution, with the exhibition "Tea Shacks, Collard Greens and the Preservation of Soul" at a temporary gallery space in Chicago that Gates dubbed the Center for the Proliferation of Afro-Asian Artifacts.[8]

In 2010, Gates created an exhibition responding to and centering around the work of David Drake, titled Theaster Gates: To Speculate Darkly, at the Milwaukee Art Museum. In this exhibition Gates used Drake's work to address issues of craft and race in African American history.[9]

Rebuild Foundation[edit]

Gates is the founder and artist director of the Rebuild Foundation, a non-profit organization focused on cultural-driven redevelopment and affordable space initiatives in under-resourced communities. Under Gates' leadership, the Rebuild Foundation currently manages projects in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood of Chicago. Rebuild gained 501(c)(3) status in December 2010.[10] Program sites include the Stony Island Arts Bank, the Black Cinema House, the Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative, Archive House, and Listening House.[11]

For the Dorchester Projects, Gates restored and converted vacant buildings into cultural institutions with archival collections from the South Side. Gates's Rebuild Foundation has renovated two houses on Dorchester Avenue, now called the Archive House and the Listening House. The Archive House holds 14,000 architecture books from a closed bookshop.[12] The Listening House holds 8,000 records purchased at the closing of Dr. Wax Records.[13]

Stony Island Arts Bank[edit]

In 2013, Gates purchased the Stony Island State Savings Bank from the city of Chicago.[14] The bank, now known as the Stony Island Arts Bank, contains the book collection of John H. Johnson, founder of Ebony and Jet magazines; the record collection of Frankie Knuckles, the godfather of house music; and slides of the collections of the University of Chicago and the Art Institute of Chicago.[15] In 2015, his Stony Island work was included in the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial.[16] The physical location of the Bank has also allowed Gates to host temporary exhibitions of artists, such as Glenn Ligon.[17]

Work with archival collections[edit]

Ground Rules (black line) (2015) at the National Gallery of Art in 2022
In Case of Race Riot Break the Glass (2011) at the National Gallery of Art's showing of Afro-Atlantic Histories in 2022

By working with archival collections centered in African-American history, Gates' work addresses issues of history, memory, and the value ascribed to Black history and cultural production. He cites the influence on his own work of, for example, the Chicago ceramicist Marva Lee Pitchford-Jolly.[18] His 2017 piece "plantation lullabies" involved 4,000 pieces of what Gates describes as "negrobilia."[19] This included: old sheet music, signs, pamphlets, coin banks, figurines - as part of the Edward Williams Collection. Similarly, his Black Image Corporation involved the use of John H. Johnson's photographic archive - with special focus being given to Black image-makers who were prominent during the civil rights era - Moneta Sleet, Jr and Isaac Sutton.[17] Many of his works incorporate archived objects imbued with histories of racism, like his extensive series of works made with decommissioned firehoses, including In Case of Race Riot Break the Glass (2011) and the Civil Tapestry series (2011-ongoing). The use of the hoses gestures to the extensive history of police departments using firehoses to attack protesters during the Civil Rights Movement.[20]

University of Chicago Arts and Public Life initiative[edit]

From 2011 to 2018, Gates was the founding director of Arts + Public Life at the University of Chicago. In this role, he oversaw staff at the Arts Incubator in Washington Park and the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, a wide network of resident and visiting artists (including current and former participants in our residency program), community participants, programmatic partners, and friends.[21] He is also a full professor in the Department of Visual Arts at the University.

Gates was also the leader of the Place Lab, a partnership between Arts + Public Life and the Harris School of Public Policy, which worked to design and implement new approaches to urban development. The Place Lab partnered with the demonstration cities of Gary, Akron, Detroit, and other Knight Foundation communities.[22]

Other exhibitions and performances[edit]

In January 2014 he designed a million-dollar installation for the South Side's 95th Street subway terminal. It is the largest public art project in the history of the Chicago Transit Authority.[14] He was participant at the 2012 DOCUMENTA (13) art show in Kassel, Germany, the 2010 Whitney Biennial in New York,[23] the Milwaukee Art Museum in 2010, the 2010 Art Chicago fair.[24] He was included in "Hand+Made: The Performative Impulse in Art and Craft", at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, and in 2013 had a solo show, 13th Ballad, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.[25] On May 30, 2014, Gates and jazz pianist Jason Moran led a one-time performance entitled Looks of a Lot as part of the "Symphony Center Presents Jazz" series and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's "Truth to Power Festival."

In October 2015, Gates created an installation at Temple Church, Bristol, England. Built in co-operation with its owner English Heritage, "Sanctum" will provide a venue with 24 hours of music and performance over 24 days, in a performance event funded by Arts Council England and developed as part of Bristol 2015 Green Capital.[26]

In October 2020, Gates opened a large scale show at Gagosian Gallery in New York City. The show titled is Black Vessel. The show explores themes of family life, maternal love, and manual labor. Many of the materials he used in the show are roofing materials, an homage to his father who worked as a roofer. The central installation is the main gallery, which Gates lined with bricks fired black at a South Carolina brickworks. Gates cited the COVID-19 pandemic and the time he spent alone as having created an environment within which to incubate his ideas.[27]

His exhibition Future Histories: Theaster Gates and Cauleen Smith, appeared at the SF MOMA from October 2020-May 2021.[28] A Clay Sermon at London’s Whitechapel Gallery went on display from October – January 2021. In addition to a new film work and a series of ceramic vessels, the exhibition included a selection of historic ceramics from private and public collections, including the Victoria and Albert Museum, where he has been Emeritus Fellow at the V&A Research Institute.[29] As part of Gates’s 2021–2022 London take-over, he also mounted an exhibition at White Cube Mason's Yard, Oh, The Wind Oh, The Wind and a display Slight Intervention #5 at Victoria and Albert Museum.[30][31]

Future projects[edit]

Gates designed the 2022 Serpentine Pavilion for Serpentine Galleries.[32] Gates working as a team with architects Asif Khan Studio, Sir David Adjaye, and Mariam Kamara will undertake The Waterfront Transformation: Canning Dock project, which is part of the 10-year plan of National Museums Liverpool to transform the city's waterfront. They will redevelop the site's buildings including the Dr Martin Luther King Jr building, which will sit at the centre of the International Slavery Museum.[33] Gates has described Liverpool's Canning Dock as representing "one of the most important racialised sites in the UK" and that the team wanted to "give emotional heft to the truth of slavery in the UK historically" by "using the tools of monument making and memorialising and commemoration".[34]



Since 2016, Gates has been serving on the board of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.[48] In 2017, he served on the selection committee for the design of the Barack Obama Presidential Center in Chicago.[49]

In 2018, along with David Adjaye and Bono, Gates curated the third (RED) auction in Miami to support the Global Fund's work against AIDS,[50] raising a total $10.5 million including matching funds by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.[51] Since 2019, he has been co-chairing the fashion group Prada's Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council, alongside Ava DuVernay.[52][53]

Notable works in public collections[edit]


  1. ^ "Theaster Gates | Harris Public Policy". harris.uchicago.edu. Retrieved September 8, 2020.
  2. ^ a b c "'Clay feels perverse' – Theaster Gates on working on Obama's library and going back to pottery". TheGuardian.com. October 21, 2021.
  3. ^ Moore, Natalie. "How Theaster Gates Is Revitalizing Chicago's South Side, One Vacant Building at a Time". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved September 8, 2020.
  4. ^ "Theaster Gates's Biography". The HistoryMakers. Retrieved September 8, 2020.
  5. ^ Colapinto, John (January 13, 2014). "The Real-Estate Artist". The New Yorker. Retrieved September 8, 2020.
  6. ^ Anagnost, Adrian (July 11, 2018). "Theaster Gates' Social Formations". Nonsite.
  7. ^ "Theaster Gates". Art in America. Archived from the original on September 30, 2017. Retrieved October 5, 2017.
  8. ^ Anagnost, Adrian (March 20, 2017). "Urban Alchemy: Theaster Gates on Chicago's South Side". Visiting Artist Lecture Series, Texas State University.
  9. ^ "Theaster Gates Speculates Darkly : Chicago Art Magazine". chicagoartmagazine.com. Retrieved May 21, 2017.
  10. ^ "Rebuild's Story". Rebuild Foundation. October 27, 2015. Retrieved February 13, 2016.
  11. ^ "Sites". Rebuild Foundation. Retrieved February 13, 2016.
  12. ^ Crow, Kelly (October 25, 2012). "The Artist Next Door". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved July 13, 2015.
  13. ^ McDonough, Tom (Winter 2015). "Theaster Gates". BOMB Magazine 130. Retrieved July 13, 2015.
  14. ^ a b John Colapinto (January 20, 2014). "The Real-Estate Artist: High-Concept Renewal on the South Side". The New Yorker.
  15. ^ Harris, Melissa (September 4, 2015). "First look inside Theaster Gates' new Stony Island Arts Bank". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved October 16, 2015.
  16. ^ Heyman, Stephen (November 29, 2015). "Inside Chicago's Amazing First Architecture Biennial". Vogue.
  17. ^ a b "Theaster Gates | Interview | Black image Corporation". Gagosian Quarterly. August 24, 2020. Retrieved April 13, 2021.
  18. ^ D’Souza, Aruna (November 10, 2022). "Poetry, Power and Loss in Theaster Gates's Survey". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved September 28, 2023.
  19. ^ "Theaster Gates To Present New Performance "Plantation Lullabies"". Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved April 13, 2021.
  20. ^ Copeland, Huey (October 2013). "DARK MIRRORS: THEASTER GATES AND EBONY". Artforum. Archived from the original on June 17, 2021. Retrieved May 9, 2022.
  21. ^ "Who are we? | UChicago Arts | The University of Chicago". arts.uchicago.edu. Retrieved February 13, 2016.
  22. ^ "About". Place Lab. Retrieved February 13, 2016.
  23. ^ "Whitney Museum of American Art: Theaster Gates". Whitney.org. October 30, 2009. Archived from the original on February 22, 2012. Retrieved February 17, 2012.
  24. ^ Rachel Wolff (May 2010). "Theaster Gates Jr. shakes up his hometown art fair". Chicago magazine. Retrieved February 17, 2012.
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  26. ^ "Temple Church ruins turned in to Bristol's latest 24 hour music venue". Bristol Post. October 29, 2015. Archived from the original on October 30, 2015. Retrieved October 29, 2015.
  27. ^ "Feats of clay". The Economist. No. 10 October 2020. The Economist Newspaper Limited. Retrieved October 9, 2020.
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  29. ^ "Theaster Gates: A Clay Sermon".
  30. ^ "White Cube - Gallery Exhibitions - Oh, the Wind Oh, the Wind".
  31. ^ "V&A · Theaster Gates: Slight Intervention #5".
  32. ^ "Theaster Gates named 2022 Serpentine Pavilion designer". May 19, 2021.
  33. ^ "Asif Khan, Mariam Kamara, David Adjaye and Theaster Gates to redevelop Canning Dock". September 29, 2021.
  34. ^ "Liverpool waterfront: Canning Dock to tell the slave trade story". BBC News. September 29, 2021.
  35. ^ "Theaster Gates". Artadia. April 13, 2016. Retrieved June 11, 2019.
  36. ^ "Theaster Gates – Fello Profile". United States Artists.
  37. ^ Crow, Kelly. "The Artist Next Door". Wall Street Journal. ISSN 0099-9660. Retrieved February 13, 2016.
  38. ^ a b c d e "Theaster Gates". 2022. Retrieved August 23, 2023.
  39. ^ "Theaster Gates". Vera List Center.
  40. ^ "Artes Mundi winner Theaster Gates to share prize money". BBC News. January 23, 2015. Retrieved February 24, 2015.
  41. ^ "2015 American Ingenuity Award Winners". Smithsonian Magazine. Smithsonian. Archived from the original on October 12, 2018. Retrieved October 12, 2018.
  42. ^ Anny Shaw (April 12, 2016), Theaster Gates wins Germany’s Kurt Schwitters Prize, The Art Newspaper.
  43. ^ "Theaster Gates: Légion d'honneur". June 5, 2020.
  44. ^ "2018 Nasher Prize Laureate: Theaster Gates Five Works on ViewFebruary 17, 2018 - April 28, 2018 | Exhibition - Nasher Sculpture Center".
  45. ^ "Artist, Planner Theaster Gates is 2018 Recipient of ULI J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development". October 10, 2018.
  46. ^ "Theaster Gates has been awarded the Frederick Kiesler Prize for Architecture and the Arts". Archinect. Retrieved September 20, 2021.
  47. ^ "2023 Benefit and Isamu Noguchi Award".
  48. ^ Dan Duray (20 September 2016), Interview: David Adjaye and Theaster Gates on working in Washington, DC The Art Newspaper.
  49. ^ Hilarie M. Sheets (14 March 2017), Using Discards to Build Art (and Rebuild a City) New York Times.
  50. ^ Rachel Spence (2 November 2018), Bono, David Adjaye and Theaster Gates discuss their Red auction Financial Times.
  51. ^ (RED) Auction in Miami Raises $10.5 Million for the Fight Against AIDS Sotheby's, press release of 6 December 2018.
  52. ^ Prada announces the Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council Prada, press release of 14 February 2019.
  53. ^ Keziah Weir (1 August 2019), Miuccia Prada, Luxury-Fashion Pioneer Vanity Fair.
  54. ^ "Whyte Painting (KOH0015)". Walker Art. Archived from the original on August 3, 2021. Retrieved June 14, 2022.
  55. ^ "Whyte Painting (NGGRWR 00021)". MCA Chicago. Archived from the original on June 14, 2022. Retrieved June 14, 2022.
  56. ^ "Civil Tapestry 4". Tate. Archived from the original on June 14, 2022. Retrieved June 14, 2022.
  57. ^ "Minority Majority". Whitney. Archived from the original on May 19, 2022. Retrieved June 14, 2022.
  58. ^ "Hose for Fire and Other Tragic Encounters". Menil. Archived from the original on April 23, 2021. Retrieved June 14, 2022.
  59. ^ "Ground Rules (black line)". NGA. National Gallery of Art. Archived from the original on October 31, 2021. Retrieved June 14, 2022.
  60. ^ "Ground rules. Free throw". SAAM. Smithsonian Institution. Archived from the original on March 21, 2021. Retrieved June 14, 2022.
  61. ^ "Progress". Walker Art. Archived from the original on August 3, 2021. Retrieved June 14, 2022.
  62. ^ "Ship of Zion". CCMA. Colby College. Archived from the original on June 14, 2022. Retrieved June 14, 2022.
  63. ^ "Vessel for a Black Saint". Walker Art. Archived from the original on March 29, 2022. Retrieved June 14, 2022.
  64. ^ "Do you hear me calling? (Mama Mamama or What Is Black Power?)". SFMOMA. Archived from the original on June 14, 2022. Retrieved June 14, 2022.
  65. ^ "Do you hear me calling? (Mama Mamama or What is Black Power)". Whitney. Archived from the original on June 14, 2022. Retrieved June 14, 2022.


  • Carol Becker, Lisa Yun Lee, Achim Borchardt-Hume, Theaster Gates, Phaidon, London, 2015.
  • Bill Brown, Fred Moten, Jacqueline Terrassa, Theaster Gates: My Labor Is My Protest, White Cube, London, 2013.
  • Michael Darling, Matthew Day Jackson, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Theaster Gates: 12 Ballads for Huguenot House, Walther König, Cologne, 2012.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]