‘The World Is Ripe for Remaking’: Watch Artist Theaster Gates Revitalize Crumbling Buildings Into Bustling Community Centers

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

Production still from the
Production still from the "Art in the Twenty-First Century" Season 8 episode, "Chicago," 2016. © Art21, Inc. 2016.

Everything Chicago-born artist Theaster Gates sees, hears, touches, even imagines, is material just waiting to be transformed into art.

In 2016, in an exclusive interview with Art21 as part of its “Art in the Twenty-first Century” series, Gates explained his circuitous career route.

He began as an urban planner with an interest in religious studies, defecting along the way to try his hand at being a potter.

I stopped making pots and was looking for a thing to do, and remembered that I had good hands,” he says in the interview, recalling how his father, a roofer by profession, had taught him from an early age to build things.

With this realization, the artist began to set his sights on large buildings as the raw materials for his work, transforming crumbling buildings into revitalized community-gathering spaces, balancing art with social responsibility.

The structures, which Gates strips and transforms into sculptures, are sold as bonds or investments to benefit rehabilitation projects, which many banks declined to fund.

Newly restored buildings are turned into repositories for Black culture, and there is even space for artists to live.

“The world is ripe for a making, for a re-making, for a re-shaping,” he says in the Art21 interview.

“Can art and culture change communities?” he asks. “It does all the time… I’m asking questions of what the Black world might look like if we invested in it, if we gave a damn.”

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s series Art in the Twenty-First Century, below. This fall, Gagosian is presenting the artist’s first ever solo show in NYC: “Theaster Gates: Black Vessel.” 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series like New York Close Up and Extended Play and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

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