Theaster Gates' new Stony Island Arts Bank is a library, community center, and event space all in one. It’s a study in beautiful South Shore neighborhood architecture and important civic history.
Originally built in 1923 as the Stony Island Trust & Savings Bank, the building sat vacant for three decades before the Rebuild Foundation took it over in 2012. The organization is working feverishly to complete the final touches on the 17,000-square-foot building to prepare it for its grand opening on Saturday, October 3 during the kickoff of the Chicago Architecture Biennial.
The building was once part of a long stretch of buildings on a thriving commercial corridor, but now it stands surrounded by strip malls and fast food restaurants. To Gates, the idea was to not only build a new cultural center, but to also change the notion of what an artist-run space can be. "One question I'm always asking myself is who has the right to amazing culture?" Gates said, "It's important for cultural producers, like black people who create jazz, and go to church and dance, to have that space."
Gates has already completed a handful of developments throughout the South Side, including a joint effort with the Chicago Housing Authority that transformed a shuttered public housing project into a new arts center and affordable housing development called the Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative. But unlike Gates' other arts projects, the new Stony Island Arts Banks will have regular operating hours.
Another theme that Gates discussed was the correlation between arts and policy. Gates says that various forms of policy, be it housing or economic, can be molded like paint. "If we understood policy like we understand painting," Gates states, "then we can form policy like we form art." But at the end of the day, Gates believes that the space should also just be a place for people to hang out in and enjoy. "I think about Jay Z in Brooklyn with his big arena, and in some cases all you have to do is build the space that you want to rock in."