January

The flagship project of the Arts and Public Life Initiative at the University of Chicago will be the Washington Park Arts Incubator—a new arts facility located just west of Washington Park slated to open in early 2013. Inspired by Theaster Gates’ innovative work with the Rebuild Foundation and Dorchester Projects, the University has appointed Gates to spearhead the reactivation of an abandoned Washington Park property as a creativity hub that will engage local artists, students, and residents in creating a nexus for cultural programming and artistic production.

ArtPlace recently spoke with Gates, Director of Arts and Public Life:

ARTPLACE: What is the biggest risk you’ve taken in your efforts? How did you get burned, or how did you prevail?

GATES: The risk: The University of Chicago Arts and Public Life Initiative in partnership with the Office of Civic Engagement and the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture along with other community partners choose to believe that artists and the creation of cultural space can change the world and Washington Park!

I believe we are in the middle of our biggest risk and the challenges are many, although I would not call them burns. First of all, there is palpable skepticism as to whether or not the intentions of the Washington Park Arts Incubator are sincere toward the surrounding community. Will it actually deliver arts and cultural programs to people in the neighborhood? Will it create new economic opportunities? Is it the right and useful catalyst for redevelopment, emerging and resurgent culture and will it deliver culture in a way that is meaningful to the people who are around the space?

These are hard questions when you are faced with the role of large cultural, educational and corporate institutions in struggling communities. These are questions of spatial equity and institutional ethic. The big risk is that with other possibilities on the docket, University of Chicago chose to believe that the arts matter and our neighbors matter. It is true that culture is a driver of other forms of development, but it is also true that culture simply matters in a world faced with so many other complicated negotiations. To sing, and dance, design, or create- these are the humanistic experiences that are so often shut down. I am excited, both in my personal and institutional practices to be aligned with institutions and individuals who believe that art has the capacity to transform.

The burn: what if this is successful! What if redevelopment happens? Who will be the victor, victim, hero, transgressor, political scape goat, or bully? How will cultural equity be achieved? By whose terms will we define the success of the Washington Park Arts Incubator? I know that if artists are at the center of our growth and if the narratives and opportunities that emanate out of the space benefit folk who walk by everyday on the bus as much as the downtown cultural leaders, then I’d say we’ve had some growth. If we can share with our neighbors the cultural excess that some of us have access to, in a way that begets more excess, then we’re prevailing!

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