May 23, 2014

Vacant buildings to art spaces: Univ. project awarded $3.5 million

On May 8, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation awarded $3.5 million in support of The Place Project, a University of Chicago Arts and Public Life initiative that seeks to revitalize communities through the arts.

Building on the work of Theaster Gates, an artist and the director of Arts and Public Life at the University of Chicago, the Place Project will seek to reinvent interiors of abandoned buildings in urban communities as spaces for art and cultural programs for residents of these neighborhoods. The project’s goals revolve around stimulating these residents into making positive changes in their communities, while also catalyzing local economic growth and investment.

Gates expressed hope that the grant from the Knight Foundation, an organization that seeks to support transformational ideas that engage communities, will result in positive effects in underinvested neighborhoods. “This grant isn’t about using the arts as a Band-Aid. It’s about investing in culture alongside additional important investments including schools, housing, health, etc. It is a belief that the quality of life should be high for all people, no matter their economic circumstance,” he said.

Gates is the founder and chairman of the Rebuild Foundation, a national non-profit organization that seeks to strengthen neighborhoods through community-driven programs. Through the Rebuild Foundation, Gates and other Foundation staff members have already successfully brought together various artists, designers, and urban planners in cities such as Chicago, Omaha, and St. Louis and revived more than a dozen vacant and neglected buildings. These projects have created new residential and commercial spaces, and serve as models for the Place Project’s future expansion across the country.

On the South Side, the Foundation has already helped to rehabilitate buildings such as the Black Cinema House in the South Shore neighborhood, in which the Foundation holds screenings and discussions of underrated works by black filmmakers and also hosts video classes and workshops. Additionally, they have created the Dorchester Artist Housing Collaborative, which has transformed an unused housing project into a mix of artist housing and community gathering spaces for creation and performance of the arts.

The grant will also be used to help support the creation of the Place Lab in a second floor office space, adjacent to the Arts Incubator in Washington Park. The lab will serve as a space to collaborate about creative strategies regarding neighborhood development through the arts on the South Side and across other Midwestern cities. Renovation of the Lab is set to begin this month and conclude in November.

“The Place Project was born out of a larger need to understand the possibility of cultural growth in Washington Park,” Gates's said. “Artists throughout the South Side struggle with a lack of space opportunities for the performance, display, and continued practice of art. In addition, there are few cultural amenities available at large on the South Side that support the work of individual artists, creative entrepreneurs, and the community. The Place Lab provides an opportunity to work with community partners, the Arts Incubator in Washington Park, the DuSable [Museum of African American History], and other community organizations to strategize and create even more opportunity.”

Carol Coletta, vice president of Community and National Initiatives at the Knight Foundation, praised Gates’ work and expressed optimism for the project.

“Theaster’s work on the South Side of Chicago has created neighborhoods that attract talent, bring people of different backgrounds together, and foster spaces where ideas are exchanged,” she said in a statement. “It is a model that we want to scale, as a remarkable example of how smart and even modest interventions that lead with community engagement can spark new interest in disinvested neighborhoods.”