Theaster Gates, an artist, social activist and community builder, is Brandeis’ 2015-2016 Richman Distinguished Fellow in Public Life. He was welcomed to Brandeis this week and received the award from Interim President Lisa Lynch.
Gates combines art and activism to create community spaces in under-resourced neighborhoods through his organization the Rebuild Foundation, which he discussed in a lecture celebrating his fellowship.
Born and raised in Chicago, Gates is one of the most influential people in the art world, according to The Wall Street Journal. He began his career as a potter and has expanded his skillset to become a musician, a visual artist and a video artist. He is the founder of the Rebuild Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to aiding under-resourced communities in empowering artists to use their craft to help their homes. They provide spaces for community members to come together to brainstorm collaboratively about meaningful action, work with banks to establish low-income housing and community land trusts and save old buildings from demolition by giving them a new purpose within the revitalized community. Lynch described his work as using “his imagination, beauty and love to change the world in relation to the community.”
One of the Rebuild Foundation’s most celebrated projects is its restoration of the Stony Island Savings Bank in Chicago’s South Side. Originally built in 1923, the bank had closed down in the 80s and remained empty for decades. After two years and $6.5 million, the bank has since been renamed the “Stony Island Arts Bank” and serves as a space for members of the community to preserve and access their local history. It currently holds 14,000 books on architecture, 8,000 records rescued when Dr. Wax Records closed down, the book collection of John H. Johnson, the founder of Ebony and Jet Magazine, the record collection of Frankie Knuckles, the “godfather of house music” and slides from the University of Chicago’s and the Art Institute’s collections. Gates is passionate about protecting older styles of architecture because, according to him, “architecture used to hint at the majesty of God.” However, lately, “the architecture of buildings have changed, along with the hearts of men.”
By nature, Gates is an artist, both visually and as an orator. He began his lecture with song, his singing voice rich and sonorous, leaving the room echoing with the lyrics, “None but the wealthy shall see the face of God … none but the wealthy shall see the king.” Throughout his presentation, his tone and voice would jump from that of an operatic singer to a gospel vocalist to a mockery of overly serious white professors, incorporating tasteful humor and passionate discourse that belied the levity of his impressions. As he discussed the imperative necessity of creating spaces for art and for community, Gates commanded the stage, drawing the audience in with his message of social justice and equality through art.
As a Richman Fellow, Gates has been recognized by Brandeis as someone who has had a significant impact on American society, has strengthened democratic institutions, advanced social justice and increased opportunities for all citizens. The award was founded by Dr. Carol Richman Saivetz ’69 and her children, Michael Saivetz ’97 and Aliza Saivetz Glasser ’01, in 2013, in honor of her parents, Fred and Rita Richman. Recipients of the award receive an honorarium of $25,000 and are required to speak with Brandeis students on campus on at least two or three dates.
Before his speech, Gates’ three students—Brontë Velez ’16, Priya DeBerry ’17 and Student Union President Nyah Macklin ’16—performed a short dance and musical piece. The event concluded with an opportunity for the audience to ask Gates about his life and his work.