Theaster Gates: How to revive a neighborhood: with imagination, beauty and art

Theaster Gates: How to revive a neighborhood: with imagination, beauty and art


I’m a potter, which seems like a fairly humble vocation. I know a lot about pots. I’ve spent about 15 years making them. One of the things that really
excites me in my artistic practice and being trained as a potter is that you very quickly learn
how to make great things out of nothing; that I spent a lot of time at my wheel
with mounds of clay trying stuff; and that the limitations
of my capacity, my ability, was based on my hands and my imagination; that if I wanted to make
a really nice bowl and I didn’t know how to make a foot yet, I would have to learn how to make a foot; that that process of learning
has been very, very helpful to my life. I feel like, as a potter, you also start to learn
how to shape the world. There have been times
in my artistic capacity that I wanted to reflect on other really important moments in the history of the U.S.,
the history of the world where tough things happened, but how do you talk about tough ideas without separating people
from that content? Could I use art like these old,
discontinued firehoses from Alabama, to talk about the complexities of a moment
of civil rights in the ’60s? Is it possible to talk about my father
and I doing labor projects? My dad was a roofer, construction guy,
he owned small businesses, and at 80, he was ready to retire
and his tar kettle was my inheritance. Now, a tar kettle doesn’t sound
like much of an inheritance. It wasn’t. It was stinky and it took up
a lot of space in my studio, but I asked my dad if he would be willing
to make some art with me, if we could reimagine this kind
of nothing material as something very special. And by elevating the material
and my dad’s skill, could we start to think about tar
just like clay, in a new way, shaping it differently,
helping us to imagine what was possible? After clay, I was then kind of turned on
to lots of different kinds of materials, and my studio grew a lot
because I thought, well, it’s not really about the material,
it’s about our capacity to shape things. I became more and more interested in ideas and more and more things that
were happening just outside my studio. Just to give you a little bit of context,
I live in Chicago. I live on the South Side now.
I’m a West Sider. For those of you who are not Chicagoans,
that won’t mean anything, but if I didn’t mention
that I was a West Sider, there would be a lot of people
in the city that would be very upset. The neighborhood that I live in
is Grand Crossing. It’s a neighborhood
that has seen better days. It is not a gated community by far. There is lots of abandonment
in my neighborhood, and while I was kind of busy
making pots and busy making art and having a good art career, there was all of this stuff
that was happening just outside my studio. All of us know about
failing housing markets and the challenges of blight, and I feel like we talk about it
with some of our cities more than others, but I think a lot of our
U.S. cities and beyond have the challenge of blight, abandoned buildings that people
no longer know what to do anything with. And so I thought, is there a way
that I could start to think about these buildings as an extension
or an expansion of my artistic practice? And that if I was thinking
along with other creatives — architects, engineers,
real estate finance people — that us together might be able
to kind of think in more complicated ways
about the reshaping of cities. And so I bought a building. The building was really affordable. We tricked it out. We made it as beautiful as we could
to try to just get some activity happening on my block. Once I bought the building
for about 18,000 dollars, I didn’t have any money left. So I started sweeping the building
as a kind of performance. This is performance art,
and people would come over, and I would start sweeping. Because the broom was free
and sweeping was free. It worked out. (Laughter) But we would use the building, then,
to stage exhibitions, small dinners, and we found that that building
on my block, Dorchester — we now referred to the block
as Dorchester projects — that in a way that building
became a kind of gathering site for lots of different kinds of activity. We turned the building into
what we called now the Archive House. The Archive House would do
all of these amazing things. Very significant people
in the city and beyond would find themselves
in the middle of the hood. And that’s when I felt like maybe there was a relationship
between my history with clay and this new thing that was
starting to develop, that we were slowly starting to reshape how people imagined
the South Side of the city. One house turned into a few houses, and we always tried to suggest that not only is creating
a beautiful vessel important, but the contents of what happens
in those buildings is also very important. So we were not only thinking
about development, but we were thinking about the program, thinking about the kind of connections
that could happen between one house and another,
between one neighbor and another. This building became what we call
the Listening House, and it has a collection of discarded books from the Johnson Publishing Corporation, and other books from an old bookstore
that was going out of business. I was actually just wanting to activate
these buildings as much as I could with whatever and whoever would join me. In Chicago, there’s
amazing building stock. This building, which had been
the former crack house on the block, and when the building became abandoned, it became a great opportunity to really
imagine what else could happen there. So this space we converted into
what we call Black Cinema House. Black Cinema House was an opportunity
in the hood to screen films that were important and relevant
to the folk who lived around me, that if we wanted to show
an old Melvin Van Peebles film, we could. If we wanted to show “Car Wash,” we could. That would be awesome. The building we soon outgrew, and we had to move to a larger space. Black Cinema House, which was made
from just a small piece of clay, had to grow into a much larger
piece of clay, which is now my studio. What I realized was that
for those of you who are zoning junkies, that some of the things that I was doing in these buildings
that had been left behind, they were not the uses by which
the buildings were built, and that there are city policies that say, “Hey, a house that is residential
needs to stay residential.” But what do you do in neighborhoods when
ain’t nobody interested in living there? That the people who have
the means to leave have already left? What do we do with
these abandoned buildings? And so I was trying
to wake them up using culture. We found that that
was so exciting for folk, and people were so responsive to the work,
that we had to then find bigger buildings. By the time we found bigger buildings, there was, in part, the resources
necessary to think about those things. In this bank that we called the Arts Bank,
it was in pretty bad shape. There was about six feet
of standing water. It was a difficult project to finance, because banks weren’t interested
in the neighborhood because people weren’t interested
in the neighborhood because nothing had happened there. It was dirt. It was nothing.
It was nowhere. And so we just started imagining,
what else could happen in this building? (Applause) And so now that the rumor
of my block has spread, and lots of people are starting to visit, we’ve found that the bank
can now be a center for exhibition, archives,
music performance, and that there are people
who are now interested in being adjacent to those buildings
because we brought some heat, that we kind of made a fire. One of the archives that we’ll have there
is this Johnson Publishing Corporation. We’ve also started to collect
memorabilia from American history, from people who live
or have lived in that neighborhood. Some of these images
are degraded images of black people, kind of histories
of very challenging content, and where better than a neighborhood with young people who are constantly
asking themselves about their identity to talk about some of the complexities of race and class? In some ways, the bank represents a hub, that we’re trying to create a pretty
hardcore node of cultural activity, and that if we could start
to make multiple hubs and connect some cool
green stuff around there, that the buildings that we’ve
purchased and rehabbed, which is now around 60 or 70 units, that if we could land
miniature Versailles on top of that, and connect these buildings
by a beautiful greenbelt — (Applause) — that this place where people
never wanted to be would become an important destination for folk from all over
the country and world. In some ways, it feels
very much like I’m a potter, that we tackle the things
that are at our wheel, we try with the skill that we have to think about this next bowl
that I want to make. And it went from a bowl to a singular
house to a block to a neighborhood to a cultural district
to thinking about the city, and at every point, there were things
that I didn’t know that I had to learn. I’ve never learned so much
about zoning law in my life. I never thought I’d have to. But as a result of that, I’m finding
that there’s not just room for my own artistic practice, there’s room for a lot of other
artistic practices. So people started asking us, “Well, Theaster, how are you
going to go to scale?” and, “What’s your sustainability plan?” (Laughter) (Applause) And what I found was that
I couldn’t export myself, that what seems necessary
in cities like Akron, Ohio, and Detroit, Michigan, and Gary, Indiana, is that there are people in those places
who already believe in those places, that are already dying
to make those places beautiful, and that often, those people
who are passionate about a place are disconnected from the resources
necessary to make cool things happen, or disconnected from
a contingency of people that could help make things happen. So now, we’re starting to give advice
around the country on how to start with what you got, how to start with the things
that are in front of you, how to make something out of nothing, how to reshape your world
at a wheel or at your block or at the scale of the city. Thank you so much. (Applause) June Cohen: Thank you. So I think
many people watching this will be asking themselves
the question you just raised at the end: How can they do this in their own city? You can’t export yourself. Give us a few pages out of your playbook
about what someone who is inspired about their city can do
to take on projects like yours? Theaster Gates: One of the things
I’ve found that’s really important is giving thought to not just
the kind of individual project, like an old house, but what’s the relationship
between an old house, a local school, a small bodega, and is there some kind of synergy
between those things? Can you get those folk talking? I’ve found that in cases
where neighborhoods have failed, they still often have a pulse. How do you identify the pulse
in that place, the passionate people, and then how do you get folk
who have been fighting, slogging for 20 years, reenergized
about the place that they live? And so someone has to do that work. If I were a traditional developer,
I would be talking about buildings alone, and then putting
a “For Lease” sign in the window. I think that you actually
have to curate more than that, that there’s a way in which
you have to be mindful about, what are the businesses
that I want to grow here? And then, are there people
who live in this place who want to grow those businesses with me? Because I think it’s not just
a cultural space or housing; there has to be the recreation
of an economic core. So thinking about those things
together feels right. JC: It’s hard to get people
to create the spark again when people have been
slogging for 20 years. Are there any methods you’ve found
that have helped break through? TG: Yeah, I think that now
there are lots of examples of folk who are doing amazing work, but those methods are sometimes like,
when the media is constantly saying that only violent things
happen in a place, then based on your skill set
and the particular context, what are the things that you can do
in your neighborhood to kind of fight some of that? So I’ve found that
if you’re a theater person, you have outdoor street theater festivals. In some cases, we don’t have
the resources in certain neighborhoods to do things that are
a certain kind of splashy, but if we can then find ways
of making sure that people who are local to a place, plus people who could be supportive
of the things that are happening locally, when those people get together, I think really amazing things can happen. JC: So interesting. And how can you make sure
that the projects you’re creating are actually for the disadvantaged and not just for the sort of
vegetarian indie movie crowd that might move in
to take advantage of them. TG: Right on. So I think this is where
it starts to get into the thick weeds. JC: Let’s go there.
TG: Right now, Grand Crossing is 99 percent black, or at least living, and we know that maybe
who owns property in a place is different from who walks
the streets every day. So it’s reasonable to say
that Grand Crossing is already in the process of being something
different than it is today. But are there ways to think about
housing trusts or land trusts or a mission-based development that starts to protect
some of the space that happens, because when you have
7,500 empty lots in a city, you want something to happen there, but you need entities that are not
just interested in the development piece, but entities that are interested
in the stabilization piece, and I feel like often the developer piece
is really motivated, but the other work of a kind
of neighborhood consciousness, that part doesn’t live anymore. So how do you start to grow up
important watchdogs that ensure that the resources
that are made available to new folk that are coming in are also distributed to folk
who have lived in a place for a long time. JC: That makes so much sense.
One more question: You make such a compelling case for beauty
and the importance of beauty and the arts. There would be others who would argue
that funds would be better spent on basic services for the disadvantaged. How do you combat that viewpoint,
or come against it? TG: I believe that beauty
is a basic service. (Applause) Often what I have found is that
when there are resources that have not been made available
to certain under-resourced cities or neighborhoods or communities, that sometimes culture is the thing
that helps to ignite, and that I can’t do everything, but I think that there’s a way in which
if you can start with culture and get people kind of
reinvested in their place, other kinds of adjacent
amenities start to grow, and then people can make a demand
that’s a poetic demand, and the political demands that
are necessary to wake up our cities, they also become very poetic. JC: It makes perfect sense to me. Theaster, thank you so much
for being here with us today. Thank you. Theaster Gates. (Applause)

52 thoughts on “Theaster Gates: How to revive a neighborhood: with imagination, beauty and art”

  • Imagination, beauty, and art? Well, I would have suggested that the ghetto creatures just get jobs and have some self respect, but whatever works, I guess.

  • IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME!

    Congratulations on both your efforts, which are unusual to find any effort in the hood, and your success.
    May it continue to THRIVE!

  • If the "hood" wanted to "un-hood" themselves they have to start with themselves. the "gangsta" thug social/cultural engineering they have so willingly accepted as their self and community destructive self own. Getting all "hippy" arts and craftsy  isnt bad. Even if its not original, why not? The "ghetto" is a shithole only because the inhabitants destroyed it. Now fix it

  • BURNING is the fastest way to cheer up a neighborhood (free fireworks!!) and to bring down abandoned houses.
    And yeah…. I'm from Detroit, the most interesting city in America.

    Jokes aside, reviving the buildings don't matter. It's the people in the neighborhood. When they are poor, they are in no mood of enjoying ART. They are only in the mood of FINDING NEXT MEAL or something they can take for next meal. In fact, if you make your house beautiful in the hood, you just make yourself a target.

  • WHY REVIVE?
    Abandoned neighborhoods are themselves ART, BEAUTY, and HISTORY.
    Imagine visiting an abandoned hood, observing its people, and admiring its glorious past. It's like a living MUSEUM!! 

  • Perhaps Mr. Gates can call his brother, the other Mr. Gates, to drop some hundred dollar bills from the helicopter.
    That will revive the neighborhood instantly.

  • Dr.SmallDongJohnson says:

    As a gay person that didn't watch this video i find it incredibly offensive and religious. This type of behavior can not be tolerated because of the Hitler like message it portrays.

  • What do we do with neighborhoods that people don't want to live in? Listen to Theaster Gates talk about How to Revive a Neighborhood – starting with IMAGINING what else could happen. 

  • Chris Comstock says:

    its all about what we all agree we prefer the way things should be and then working together to make it that way

  • We need to change our society focus from 'growth' to a more balanced one of 'sustainability' and Mr. Gates and his community are addressing this problem the right way.  Bravo!

  • Nihilist Porcupine says:

    Wow! What a great talk… it's truly amazing the things that can be accomplished when people take risks and invest in their communities. Also, props to TED for finally featuring more people of color. I've noticed the recent uptick and, as a long time viewer of color, I'm super happy about it. 🙂

  • If you change the environment then so shall its people. SIMPLE AS THAT. Thank goodness Theaster Gates was able to put the hard work to show us this holds truth

  • Julien Horvath says:

    currently looking at arts class for continuing education, one of them being pottery..  timing of watching this talk tells me that this should be the one!  thanks theaster 🙂

  • One thing he didn't discuss is where they find people with the practical skills to make these renovations.  Apparently a large part of the western world, (due to tech culture) has lost those hands-on abilities.  Maybe a school or two in these projects that concentrated on the building trade skills could be added and in turn would stimulate students to put their newfound skills to good use in the same neighborhood.  Yes, learning on the job is fine, but  can result in disasters unless there is concentrated supervision (I speaketh from experience, just watching my apartment building being renovated).  People need to come at it with some decent training.

  • This is beautiful and how I see societies transform 🙂 Not through some governmental policy but by people taking inspired action, following their hearts.. that's when magic happens.

  • Brilliant. One of TED's presentations that will change the thinking of so many viewers in a good way. Maybe when each neighborhood has its own resident artists, we'll all be better people. Paducah, KY comes to mind.

  • This man is truly a modern day Visionary. The link between things and people most of us take for granted. A city is a remarkable thing which didn't simply appear from out of the ground by itself. We have a responsibility to prevent disuse and decay, which otherwise will be our human legacy.

  • Renate Jakupca says:

    The Science behind Peace and Global Harmony is the "Theory of Iceality on Environmental Arts". Developed in 1987, it is the practical study on the aesthetics of the relationship between Humans and their Environment through Arts and Culture, ultimately promoting an effective sustainable global Culture of Peace between all Living Things ~ Human, Plant and Wildlife  Kingdoms!  

    The incorporation of the rights of flora and fauna in a "Universal Peace Equation" is the first major change in achieving a sustainable global Culture Peace on Earth in over 2000 Years.

  • F. Daniel Hobson says:

    Beautiful talk. I hope that Gary, Indiana takes heed to this as a possible way to rectify a lot of the issues we have with blight there. 

  • Interesting idea. This is another video that has shown me how some laws (like the zoning laws) can hinder progress. Although, some say we need these laws for consumer protection or to preserve our history.

  • This video and this artists outlines the importance of
    collaboration and the skill with which a humble potter 
    can energize the community and build connections
    and alliances to help people to move ideas forward. 
    It inspires hope and is inspirational to all. I challenge
    others to be as brilliant and selfless , compassionate,
    and get this much accomplished in a lifetime.

  • This stuff is supposed to come after people have disposal income. If there is no gainful employment and economic opportunities, you will not fix the problems in any community. Poverty, crime, and blight are only symptoms.

  • This is nice but it's NOT going to solve the problem. Even he admitted almost all the hood is owned by racists whites who seek to gentrify it. So we beautify the tiny scraps of property that we do own and let the racist whites keep the rest of the stolen land? To solve this problem at some point the property rights as it stands based on perpetuating legalized unlawful racist theft and segregation needs to be directly challenged. You can't expect a solution by never confronting the actual problem. But who am I kidding? The good white folks at TED gave him a forum precisely because he 's not the solution. For them it's not a problem and a solutions is their worst nightmare.

  • Absolutely Inspiring Theaster! I’m doing an essay on your wonderful work and passion for community spirit! Thanks for showing us all the great ways to evoke cultural change in our local communities!
    I feel enlightened🙌🏾motivated🙌🏾energised🙌🏾Thankful

  • "So interesting. And how can you make sure that the projects you're creating are actually for the disadvantaged and not just for the sort of **vegetarian indie movie crowd** that might move in to take advantage of them. "
    Why not just say white people..? xD Who are they kidding??

    Vegetarian indie movie crowd = White people who don't and will never care about colored folk.

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