From Theaster Gates to Assemble: is there an art to urban regeneration?

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From Theaster Gates to Assemble: is there an art to urban regeneration?

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From Theaster Gates to Assemble: is there an art to urban regeneration?
It has taken $4.5m in renovations for the Stony Island Arts Bank to become a usable public space. / Photo: Sara Pooley

The Chicago planner-turned-artist’s transformation of Stony Island bank is the latest high-profile example of how the arts can drive a city’s redevelopment. But is this always a good thing?

A pair of octogenarian siblings were two of the first visitors to the recent opening of the former Stony Island State Savings Bank on Chicago’s South Side. They were last inside the building nearly 70 years ago, when their Greek father ran a small food stand in one of its alcoves, back when it was still a bank. Today, the building has awoken from a decades-long slumber of dereliction and abandonment as the Stony Island Arts Bank, an art gallery, community arts space and archival library.

It’s the showpiece of Chicago artist Theaster Gates, who’s parlayed his art world star power to develop a handful of arts-focused community projects that mix art-making with neighbourhood development. Trained as an urban planner, he’s one of a growing group of artists who are turning art into urban regeneration, and urban regeneration into art.

The two siblings wandered through the main gallery space, currently housing a cardboard building frame-like installation by the artist Carlos Bunga. And while they seemed impressed with the building’s renovation, they were even more affected by the changes that had taken place in the neighbourhood outside. “Everything’s been torn down,” one said.

But that’s not quite right. Though there are vacant lots and some of the telltale signs of disinvestment, the neighbourhood is still very much there. It’s just that, like so many parts of so many cities, the heavily African American South Side of Chicago has endured decades of disenfranchisement and discrimination. As Gates recently told Architectural Record, the neighbourhood has “an amazing history of racism, segregation [and] a history of redlining and housing covenants that work against the poor, and against black and brown people.” His projects aim to redirect resources – especially access to the arts – that are typically lacking in these areas. […]

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