A Cursory Sermon on Art and the City: Theaster Gates at Brandeis

Last week, LOEB alumnus Theaster Gates (LF ’11) joined the Brandeis University community as this year’s Fred and Rita Richman Distinguished Fellow in Public Life. Fellows are selected based on their demonstrated impact in “improving American society, strengthening democratic institutions, advancing social justice or increasing opportunities for all citizens to realize and share in the benefits of this nation.” Past Richman fellows have include Angela Glover Blackwell and Julian Bond. In her introduction, interim Brandeis president Lisa Lynch noted that, while it is rare for a fellow to fulfill all the characteristics, Gates’s work has demonstrated excellence in all of them.

Gates has applied his faith in art as a stimulant for investment and cultural regeneration to cities around the Midwest and influenced projects across the US as founder of the Rebuild Foundation, University of Chicago’s Department of Arts and Public Life, and the PlaceLab. Most of his current work is based on the South Side of Chicago, including the recent reincarnation of the Stony Island State Savings Bank as the Stony Island Arts Bank. The bank is now home to the Frankie Knuckles (father of house music) record collection, the Johnson Publishing Company Library, the UChicago glass lantern slide collection, and rotating art exhibitions. Consistent with Theaster and Rebuild’s other programming, the bank keeps close ties with the local Grand Crossing community, hosting frequent video screenings, library orientations, and writers workshops.

The evening’s events started on a high note with a gospel hymn and dance performance by three talented students, Brontë Velez, Nyah Macklin and Priya DeBerry, who had done much of the legwork to bring Gates to town. Gates followed their performance (which received a standing ovation) with his own voice, modifying the original song’s refrain “None but the wealthy (shall see God),” and launching into a meditation on art, history, and community. With a jazz cadence, he challenged the audience to think about issues at a variety of scales: the community networks that unravel when the neighborhood hardware store is replaced by Home Depot, how a new class of bricklayers on Chicago’s South Side could restore indigenous craft and skills to the Black community, and why presenters feel the need to talk about exactly what can be seen on the slides they are displaying.

“Do you know what’s the problem with this world? We don’t slow dance no more.”

As he often (and skillfully) does, Gates injected his sermon with sharp humor to tackle issues of race, class, and implicit bias that are so often overlooked in the academic and art audiences he addresses. At one point, he reflected on establishing the Stony Island Arts Bank. “Theaster, what makes you think you can own a Black bank?” he was asked. “I make 200 dollars every time I have people over,” Gates rebutted, describing the 20th century caricature of a black man that doubles as a mechanical bank and sits inside his home. The figurine throws change into its mouth when you place a quarter on the its hand: “Guests empty their change every time because they want to see the little n*****’s eyes roll back.”

Listening to Gates speak is never less than a thoroughly engaging experience. He has you on your toes, constantly. He oscilates between melodic hymn and prose, preaching and chatting with you like you’re a childhood friend. He code switches all the way, challenging his wealthier white audiences, in particular, to understand what it is like to occupy such diverse spaces as a Black man. His lecture leaped from narrow–making a perfect brick–to broad–cultural movements for justice and power. “It is difficult to see things for the accumulation,” said Gates at the beginning of his sermon. As a man known for his monumental achievements, he definitely succeeded in calling out the many moments, acts of protest and labor, that have contributed to the accumulation.

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