Theaster Gates has been thinking about monuments. “Young Lords and Their Traces,” his new survey at New York’s New Museum, is all about the way objects carry memories. It’s a familiar theme in Gates’s work, which often highlights the labor, craft, and life in reclaimed materials. The recent losses of some people who were important to him in different ways—like Gates's former organ teacher and friend Alvin’s mother, Christine Carter, and his longtime colleague at the University of Chicago professor Robert Bird—were weighing on him. So Gates decided to turn the entire show—a collection of sculptures, clay vessels, paintings, repurposed items, and mixed-media works—into a memorial. In tribute to Carter, an organ is the focal point of an entire gallery, flanked on either side by works made from floorboards taken from New York's Park Avenue Armory. Bird’s expansive library of books on film, art, Russian literature, modernism, and media theory is neatly arranged on a set of shelves in the middle of another. There are tar paintings inspired by the craft and discipline of Gates’s late father, Theaster Gates Sr., who was a roofer, as well as the items and works of other artists, like a boot that belonged to the painter Sam Gilliam and a pair of sneakers from Virgil Abloh.
The personal dimension of “Young Lords and Their Traces” is a reflection of many facets of Gates’s life in Chicago, where he was born and raised and continues to make his home and work. But in many ways it’s less about losses than gains—how ideas, practices, friendships, relationships, and passions endure and are kept alive. “I used to think that monuments were about statues of old guys,” Gates explains. “But when I was doing my master’s thesis, I wrote about a synagogue on the West Side of Chicago that had been transformed into a Baptist church, a flea market, and a synagogue again over 80 years. The synagogue is a monument. It is a testament to the truth of many accumulated lives.”
Gates may well have been describing Chicago itself, a city with an extraordinarily rich cultural heritage. Chicago was home to a mid-20th-century literary renaissance; an incubator for blues, jazz, and house music; the land of Archibald Motley and Richard Wright, of Lorraine Hansberry and Gwendolyn Brooks. It was the birthplace of modern sociology and advertising, a locus of the Great Migration. It is a city that was razed by a fire and rebuilt as a forest of skyscrapers. It is also one that has been shaped by decades of segregation and systemic racism, which were not just the results of public policy, urban planning, and discriminatory real estate practices but the very aim of them. As Mies van der Rohes rose in Lakeview and Lincoln Park, neighborhoods on the South and West Sides were decimated by poverty, crumbling infrastructure, school closures, violence, and the exploitation and willful neglect of developers and public officials.
Some, though, like A Raisin in the Sun playwright Hansberry and poet and educator Brooks, believed that artists could help transform those communities because they were a part of them. It was a notion also held by the writer and activist Margaret Taylor Burroughs, who in 1940 helped establish the South Side Community Art Center as a space for Black artists to create and commune. Taylor Burroughs and her husband Charles Burroughs held salons in their Bronzeville home. In 1961, they founded the DuSable Museum (then the Ebony Museum) in their living room. She also taught public school and lobbied for prison reform.
More than two decades later, in 1986, another former public-school teacher, Isobel Neal, opened the Isobel Neal Gallery in River North, championing artists of color such as Phoebe Beasley, William Carter, Elizabeth Catlett, Ed Clark, Norman Lewis, and Charles White, all of whom had previously struggled to get their work shown. Neal and her husband, Earl, an attorney, lived on the South Side and were avid collectors; it was a passion they first began to feed by buying pieces at the local 57th Street Art Fair in Hyde Park. Neal decided to start her own gallery after chairing a juried exhibition on Black creativity at the Museum of Science and Industry and discovering that it was one of the few that did—and then, for the most part, during Black History Month in February.
The Isobel Neal Gallery provided a crucial outlet for these artists and helped cultivate a network for collectors for their work throughout the Midwest. “I was really shocked at the response,” says Neal, who ran the gallery until 1996. “People came out in droves, and I got a lot of press and media attention for showing work by African American artists for the first time. I really think that it was an awakening in the art world.” Nevertheless, the Neals still had to self-fund the gallery for the entire decade it was in business. “It wasn’t a money-making proposition,” Isobel explains. “It was a service and a mission.”
Gates, who grew up in East Garfield Park, bought his first building on the South Side in 2006 on Dorchester Avenue—a former candy store he purchased with a loan and a subprime mortgage. Since then, he has used his own increasing stature as an artist to revitalize the area, undertaking projects through his Rebuild Foundation like the Stony Island Arts Bank, an exhibition and performance venue housed in a neoclassical structure that was abandoned for 30 years and now houses an archive of Jet and Ebony magazines and the legendary house DJ Frankie Knuckles’s record collection. Gates recalls going to the South Side Community Art Center as a young ceramicist in the early 1990s: “I remember cleaning the basement, setting up a potter’s wheel, and wanting to continue to bring energy to that space.”
If there is a great creative tradition in Chicago, it is in that unerring sense of potential and place. It’s in the work today of artists like Gates and Nick Cave, who have cultivated practices and studios that have become part of the fabric of the neighborhoods that surround them. It’s in the plethora of public-art projects that fill the city, like Kerry James Marshall’s mural at the Chicago Cultural Center honoring 20 women who helped shape Chicago’s creative landscape. It’s in the constellation of venues to see and exhibit art, which is now vast and varied: from mainstays like Gray, Kavi Gupta, and Rhona Hoffman; to independents like Mariane Ibrahim, Monique Meloche, Patron, Document, Regards, Volume, Corbett vs. Dempsey, Stephen Daiter, and FLXST Contemporary; to nonprofits like 3Arts, Art on theMART Foundation, Chicago Artists Coalition, ThreeWalls, Woman Made Gallery, the Arts Club of Chicago, and the Hyde Park Art Center; to artist-run spaces like Prairie. And it’s in Jackson Park, on the South Side, where the Obama Presidential Center broke ground in 2021 not far from where Michelle Obama spent her formative years and former president Barack Obama got his start as an organizer. The complex will include a museum, numerous parks, and a branch of the Chicago Public Library, with a sculpture by local luminary Richard Hunt near the entrance, the first of six planned art commissions to be installed throughout the campus.
Even Chicago’s world-class museums, like the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, manage to feel intimate and local, with robust slates of public programming and shows that reflect the changing face of the city, which has a growing Latin population. Among them: “Forecast Form,” a new exhibition at MCA Chicago that explores the art of the Caribbean diaspora. The show’s curator, MCA Chicago’s Carla Acevedo-Yates, was born and raised in Puerto Rico. She first began to formulate the concept for the show in aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017, when she and so many others of Puerto Rican descent in the mainland U.S. watched the devastation unfold in the region from afar as their friends and families on the island struggled to survive, many without food, power, or shelter. “The Puerto Rican diaspora in Chicago was one of the first communities that mobilized to help,” Acevedo-Yates says. “I believe that museums like MCA Chicago have a responsibility to not only reflect these experiences in their programming but actively engage with these communities.”
What’s happening in Chicago isn’t a scene. It’s also not being by driven by brazen youths storming ungentrified territory to enact some mythological version of bohemia or the art market, which continues to maintain its pieds-à-terre in New York and Los Angeles. But it is, in many ways, a series of success stories.
In 2015, Emanuel Aguilar and Julia Fischbach, who had worked together at Kavi Gupta, scraped together their savings to start their own gallery, Patron, as a showcase for emerging and mid-career artists,. Their roster now includes Jennie C. Jones, who had a solo show last year at the Guggenheim in New York, and Bethany Collins, whose multidisciplinary works explore the connections between race and language. After leaving Kavi Gupta, they each contemplated moving away to pursue jobs at international mega-galleries in the traditional art-world capitals. But the desire to build a gallery of their own from the ground up, where they could work closely with artists, not just as dealers but as facilitators and collaborators, won out. “We’re from Chicago, so there was this deep desire to be a part of something here,” says Fischbach. “We want to make sure that our artists’ work is being honored and seen and tended to and cared for and enjoyed. Because we feel that deeply about the value of what they’re doing.”
Last year, Aguilar and Fischbach moved Patron from its original home in River North to a bigger space in the old Alvin Theatre building in West Town. When Aguilar showed the new space to his family, his father recalled going there to see movies when he first arrived in the U.S. from Mexico in the mid-1970s. “He worked at a gas station a couple of blocks away,” says Aguilar. “He didn’t know English yet. They played Spanish-language movies, and so he would come watch movies there because he couldn’t find anywhere else to go.... Talk about the American Dream.” Chicago is that kind of town.
Amanda Williams has warm memories of her childhood on the South Side. “I grew up on a great block,” she tells me. “We had a tight-knit community of neighbors who helped create fun memories of playing games as well as gatherings with families on weekends and holidays. Both my parents are from large families, so we loved getting together.” But Williams was also aware as a kid that their neighborhood was distinct in other ways. “I just knew from a young age that all parts of the city didn’t seem to get the same love. Why did buildings get torn down and nothing came back? Why weren’t potholes fixed or snow not plowed for days in winter? Why did we have to travel out of our neighborhood for grocery stores, certain restaurants, amenities?” she recalls. She didn’t know what to call it, but she could feel it. “I didn’t have language for systemic racism and inequity.”
“I didn’t have language for systemic racism and inequity.”
In 2017, Williams—now an artist with a degree in architecture from Cornell University—embarked on a project on the South Side, where she still lives and works. She and a group of friends and recruits went around the area painting condemned houses in vivid colors with strong cultural associations, like red, yellow, and blue. The series of works, titled “Color(ed) Theory,” was an extension of Williams’s ongoing interest in the ability of color to simultaneously describe race and chroma. “I’m trained as an architect, so problems are always taught to be seen as opportunities,” she says. “However, that single action of shrouding those structures also unlocked a larger recognition about the racist conditions that would create these dilapidated ‘canvases’ in the first place.”
In October, Williams was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, joining the ranks of past Chicago-based MacArthur “geniuses” like Dawoud Bey and Kerry James Marshall. It’s a lineage that Williams is proud to be a part of. “Chicago’s creative community has always been robust,” she says. “Margaret Taylor Burroughs was pivotal for me and so many others. She was an artist, activist, institution builder, civic leader. She told me and every other child who would listen that they were an artist,” Williams offers. “I believed her.”