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The flagship project of the Arts and Public Life Initiative at the University of Chicago will be the Washington Park Arts Incubator—a new mixed-use arts facility located just west of Washington Park slated to open later this year.  Inspired by Theaster Gates’ innovative work with the Rebuild Foundation and Dorchester Project, the University has appointed Gates to spearhead the creative redevelopment of the Washington Park property as a creative facility that will engage local artists, students, and residents in creating a nexus for cultural and community engagement.

ArtPlace recently spoke with Gates about the project.

ARTPLACE :  Is there a new challenge that engaging in creative placemaking presents for you, your organization and the artists who work with you?  Are there new skills required?

GATES:  The new problem is actually quite an old one. As we do the work of placemaking, “How do we continue to do work that considers both the local communities that we work in and the larger context of the city, its cultural nuances and expanded population?” Another way of saying this is, “How do we continue to practice cultural and social redevelopment with the hope of creating a cool set of venues, expanding economic opportunities, developing jobs and places where artists and creative people can live without forgetting about the reality that certain forms of redevelopment displace, build local anxiety and have the potential to produce extreme hostility while constructing new shiny buildings?” It is this need to stay ahead of the development curve and to give real thought to the possibility of cooperation between people of different economic circumstance and cultures. It is this moment that requires culture that can function as the stabilizing mechanism that unifies people by purpose instead of stratifying people by difference.

The University of Chicago’s Washington Park Arts Incubator has the potential to be the catalyst for deep and meaningful friendship on the south side of Chicago between organizations and people who have rarely had reason to want to be friends. These relationships are being nurtured not only by the Incubator, but the work of the Hyde Park Art Center, the Center for the Study of Race Politics and Culture, local organizations like the Washington Park Consortium and Chamber of Commerce, the Minister’s group, etc. “How can physical space help create opportunity for relational space that has not existed in communities of difference?” I am very excited that the Incubator will succeed at being an anchor for these hard conversations.

ARTPLACE:  Are there new skills required?

GATES:  We are noticing that this work begets more work and as a result, constant skill development is necessary. It raises numerous questions: How to communicate better with artists from diverse backgrounds with diverse interests? How to advocate for the importance of culture in a time when culture seems futile to some in the wake of other challenges within our city? How can we love the space we are in but understand the value that being a “cultural hub” in the city will have? We are constantly shape shifting so that we remain sensitive and nimble, ready to think harder about what art is today, but also what is necessary to forge the conditions for creation. Our team at the University is in constant conversation with the community that surrounds us, the deep well of knowledge among the artists and administrators of our city and within the University. At this phase, we are an amazingly adaptable and open partner to the possibility of dynamic cultural growth on the South Side.

Quite practically, the new challenge is learning how to listen.

 

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