‘It’s Like This Little Time Capsule’: Theaster Gates Explains How His Collecting Obsession Inspires Him in Making New Art

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the Art21 "Extended Play" film, "Theaster Gates: Collecting." © Art21, Inc. 2017.

For artist Theaster Gates, the act of creating artwork doesn’t necessarily start out with making the object itself. Often, it’s an a matter of uniting artifacts, repurposing found materials, and then exhibiting them from a new perspective. Speaking to Art21 in an exclusive interview back in 2017, the artist showed off the troves of historically resonant objects accumulated in his Chicago-based studio.

“I spend a lot of time looking for the personality of people within their collections,” he explained.

Some of the things that have fascinated him: the entirety of an architectural history bookstore in the Downtown area of Chicago; the inventory of an old record store from Hyde Park; the contents of a hardware store; and, most recently, the archives of Jet magazine. In the case of Jet, Gates spent hours poring over the unbound periodicals and then binding and color-coding them by decade.

“[Jet] was making work of the present. It wasn’t attempting to make an archive,” he said. “It’s like this little time capsule.”

A selection of his collections are on view for the first time in a museum context at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis as part of “Theaster Gates: Assembly Hall,” spotlighting the value of African American material culture. Gates’s ultimate goal is to affect his audience’s contemporary understanding by mining objects from past. “I feel really fortunate to have been able to make them present in the world again,” he enthuses.


Watch the full segment, which originally appeared as part of the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” television series on PBS, below. “Theaster Gates: Assembly Hall” is on view at the Walker Art Center through January 12, 2020. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship Art in the Twenty-First Century television is available now on PBS. Watch full episodes and learn about the organization’s education programs at Art21.org.

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