Inside Stony Island Bank, Chicago. Photography: Sarah Pooley, courtesy of the Rebuild Foundation
Photography: Sarah Pooley, courtesy of the Rebuild Foundation

Artist Theaster Gates will open the doors of Stony Island Bank – the Chicago landmark he purchased for $1 – to the public as an arts and community centre on 3 October.

Gates ‘bought’ the derelict Neoclassical landmark from the city in 2012 on the condition he would find the funds for its restoration and adaptive reuse. Working with his not-for-profit organisation The Rebuild Foundation, he has rescued the building from the wrecking ball, turning it into a platform for site-specific installations and exhibitions, artist residencies, and archival collections dedicated to black culture.

‘This is a new kind of cultural amenity, a new kind of institution—a hybrid gallery, media archive and library, and community center,’ says Gates.

Stony Island Arts Bank – as it is now dubbed – will be a primary venue for the inaugural Chicago Architect Biennale, also opening on 3 October. A special preview benefit, BUILD I REBUILD, will take place 19 September 19th, during Expo Chicago.

Photography: WayOutWardell

Designed by William Gibbons Uffendell and built in 1923, the bank has had ‘a charged economic history, with lots of different characters who have been the owners,’ says Gates. Vacated in the 1980s, the building sits at 68th Street and Stony Island Avenue in Chicago’s South Side.

It is not far from here that the self-titled ‘social practice installation artist’ has spent the past nine years working on a series of urban rebuilding initiatives called the Dorchester Projects. After setting up home in a former storefront on South Dorchester Avenue, Gates purchased the neighbouring vacant house and began a design project to restore and reactivate it as a space for community interaction.

This soon led to the acquisition of another derelict building, which he transformed into the Listening Room, equipped with 8,000 LPs from Dr Wax Records. And before long a whole cluster of empty buildings were being reactivated by Gates’ Rebuild Foundation.

To help fund the Stony Island Arts Bank renovations, Gates repurposed marble salvaged from the building and carved them into 100 rectangular ‘bank bonds’. These works were sold at Art Basel in 2013, not only filling the coffers for the bank’s rehabilitation but also raising awareness among key players in the international art world.

Come October, the bank will open to the public with an installation by Portuguese artist Carlos Bunga and a new courtyard designed by Mexican architect Frida Escobedo. It will also play host to the vinyl collection of the ‘godfather of house music’, Frankie Knuckles, as well as the Johnson Publishing Archive – featuring titles like Jet, Ebony and Negro Digest – and 1990s ‘Negrobilia’ from collectors Edward J and Ana J Williams.

Says Gates: ‘It is an institution of and for the South Side – a repository for African American culture and history, a laboratory for the next generation of black artists and culture-interested people; a platform to showcase future leaders – be they painters, educators, scholars, or curators.’

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