By GINNY VAN ALYEA
In a city known for bars that offer everything from dry ice in your martini to two dozen TV screens on at the same time, The Stony Island Arts Bank may soon manage to be the most socially relevant, and appealing, of them all.
The Arts Bank, opened three years ago when the Chicago Architecture Biennial debuted in the fall of 2015, began as an ambitious and multifaceted endeavor of the internationally renowned, Chicago-based artist and community developer Theaster Gates. The Arts Bank’s mission and influence was quickly and widely recognized for the many connections and collaborations it has fostered within the local arts community as well as the neighborhood. Now Gates is moving the project, which is part art space, part architectural treasure and more than a little social mission, into an ambitious, much more public and lively second phase of his original vision, increasing the pace of his plans for the many ways the art center can impact the surrounding South Shore neighborhood. As he said on a late spring day during a tour of the Arts Bank before it reopened after four months of renovations, “We’ve learned a few things.”
Housed in an imposing, abandoned stone structure on Stony Island Boulevard, far on the city’s South Side and miles from traditional art centers, The Bank, as it’s commonly referred to, gets its name from its home, the former Stony Island State Savings Bank, a classic structure built in the 1920s, which eventually fell into disrepair. In a building pretty much left for dead, Gates saw an opportunity to invest in something that would continually pay creative dividends. Just as a real bank accepts deposits from customers, raises capital and then makes loans and provides support for its clients, the Stony Island Arts Bank seeks to be a rock solid institution that can compound interest in order to benefit a range of community members long term.
For many, Stony Island used to mean a connector to the Chicago Skyway on your way in or out of town. It was a section of town seen only in passing on the way elsewhere. When Gates wanted to build an arts center, he knew a location off the beaten path would be critical.
Gates says, “The goal was to let the city see, and the world see, that there is beautiful architecture on the South Side.” He wanted to bring art to people living in the community as much as he also wanted to draw people to a neighborhood they were unfamiliar with. The building would be a lure that would draw people to a place where they would realize, as he explains, “that there was this work happening that was about capturing these moments of architectural beauty, so that beautiful things could happen on the South Side to black people by black people.”
He goes on, “It was a demonstration work for me, that South Siders didn’t have to go somewhere else in order to have a well-built, intimate space; those spaces were all around us, they just needed some care. And maybe we had some of the best architectural stock in the country, or definitely in the city.”
The original bank is a mimic of one on the North Side at the intersection of Damen, Milwaukee and North Avenues, and its classic design is representative of what was in style at the time. Gates says now that using a structure like the bank was an experiment at the start, and he knew he’d have to try a range of programming to see what would attract locals as well as the art community. What at first seemed like the perfect expansive venue – it’s 20,000 square feet – for hosting exhibitions, performances, residencies and film screenings, sometimes simultaneously, was actually intimidating. The formidable, protective structure originally intended to safeguard money, seemed in its present form meant to keep certain people out, exactly the opposite of Gates’ welcoming vision.
He realized, “We learned that the building itself has the potential to be uninviting for folk who live locally. It’s so big, that it had a way of making our neighbors feel more like it was made for someone else.”
He came to see that while the beauty of the building can help draw people to a new destination, it’s more important to get people in the door and to make them feel as if they should be there. He says, “The building by itself isn’t a calling card for everyone. Another kind of invitation also needs to happen.”
Essentially, Gates discovered that the best way to make friends with your neighbors is to invite them to your party.
He shares, “Last summer we opened up the yard and began having movies and barbecues out there. We had food trucks coming through, and all of a sudden, the yard became its own little pocket park. Kids would bring their little dogs and they would stroll in the yard. It was amazing.”
This maturing vision for the Arts Bank could not have been known at the start, and Gates acknowledges that being able to see such changes over the past three years has been remarkable, though he’s not entirely surprised that it’s taken time. He says, “We knew that we had a couple of amazing aspects right away – we had the Johnson Publishing collection, we had the Frankie Knuckles [house music] albums, and the [60,000] glass lantern slides from the [Department of Art History at] the University of Chicago, but we didn’t have a mechanism, yet, of making those things as accessible as we wanted.”
As Gates points out, that accessibility required resources, which were very limited, to hire a librarian, a set of archivists, docents, and managers of the collection. They did have pride and excitement for what they had prepared to share. So they got creative, for instance starting a book club based on the Johnson Collection and inviting those who had a connection to Johnson to participate. In order to overcome limits, such as physically accessing the hundreds of books and albums stacked up to the library ceiling, Gates and his team decided they needed a kind of catwalk, which would allow staff to use the entire soaring space.
Next they devised a sound system that allows a DJ working from the catwalk to pump music through the building. For Gates, he says, “The building can function as a kind of resonator, allowing albums we have to both be digitized and also become a basic program in the Bank. If nothing else is happening, you’re going to hear good music – some house, some soul, gospel, you might hear comedy – whatever we have in this collection, because the music has to be felt.”
The many, and sometimes unconventional, ways the collection can be experienced goes to the heart of what Gates is trying to use the space in the Arts Bank for at this time, as he is very interested in activating a place or material and engaging people on a relatable level. Gates refers to a fellowship he did at Harvard a few years ago, when he spent time thinking about something he calls ‘critical preservation.’ When considering the Arts Bank he asks out loud, “Are there ways adjacent to conventional preservation, where things are restored to their original hand? Is there an alternative to that, where you actually allow some of the truth of the history of the building to be evident? I felt if we let people see the truth of our buildings, then they can feel good about their own buildings, which is like, ‘Yeah, there was some rain damage, and I can’t afford to re-do it all, but I need a new kitchen.’”
When the plan to build the Arts Bank first came up, the city gave Gates and his Rebuild Foundation the building for $1, but as Gates explains, the building had a negative value at the time of $500,000 (there was a hole in the ceiling almost as big as the roof, and extensive water damage from deteriorating skylights). To fund the initial $6.2 million restoration of a space suitable for art, Gates raised private funds from many supporters. He recalls, “The bones of the building were in great shape, but it needed a new envelope and a lot of care.” Even the architectural artifacts that give so much character to the building, he points out, have their own history of trauma, which then creates an opportunity for dialogue between space and art. The completion of the initial restoration, for Gates, and even this second phase of development, where they have installed walls in the atrium space, is proof that the City of Chicago and the arts community helped to build the bank. Says Gates, “It feels really good. Projects can happen on the South Side, and they’re not city-incentivized; they’re just because a lot of people believe in them.”
That belief drives Gates in his quest to preserve history while, as he says, at the same time, retrofitting a place so it fulfills a new purpose, in this case as a space for artists, scholars, for symposium, conferences, and music. Gates has built the house, while the art, artists and neighbors within it are making it a home.
The Bank, even with its new walls, is not intended to be a white cube, and after the efforts to invite more members of the public in, especially not just art viewers but neighbors, Gates emphasizes that he wants people to feel at ease when they are there. He explains, “These are normal people’s lives, everyday folk. They don’t want an audience of journalists visiting when they’re trying to have a meditation class. So the challenge that we had with rebuilding the Arts Bank is that, as excited as we are to shine a light and share with the public the things that we do, we also want to protect people’s privacy.”
The way to do this is a programmatic split that on the one hand allows the Bank to host ambitious, public events but also, for instance, allows space for neighbors and those who live in and around Dorchester Art Housing [mixed income housing that features an even distribution of artist, public, affordable rate, and market rate homes]. For Gates it’s key to say to the public, “Not everything is show and tell with the spectacle of a public event. Some things need to be just at the neighborhood, grassroots level and to just mature in their own time.”
Back to the Arts Bank as an antidote to Chicago’s sports-centric bar scene.
Gates’ theory behind a split that serves various needs extends to the business of the Bank too. He shares, “One of the ongoing jokes that I have with my alderman is I need to be able to sell a good drink here. However, even though not every space needs to be a bar, or a pop-up yoga studio, we do need some spaces that make money, so that the other spaces can be free.” When Gates thinks about future opportunities, he wants to be able to offer what some people want and others need, “We want people to say, ‘Yeah, a chicken sandwich costs $5, a good drink costs $10,’ and not apologize for having both programs. Hey, a person can go get a $10 Negroni then go do some free yoga and work it off.”
Money is not the only reason to offer food and drinks at the Bank. It also creates an ongoing reason for coming to South Shore and being able to stay there. Says Gates, “People go downtown to have a good meal, and they go to Pilsen, or farther North to have a reasonable drink. We don’t want people to have to travel. We just want to have more amenities that say ‘yes’ to the people who live close.”
Within the Bank’s 20,000 square feet there is ample space for casual gatherings that may have nothing to do with art or yoga. Gates explains, “Sometimes I’m building with ambition toward the future.” Pointing to a large, Victorian looking curved structure, backed by a wall-length mirror, he says, “This bar’s about 30 years older than the architectural promenades of the building – it’s from the 1890s – but the size was right, so we built the bar space into the building with the understanding that we would grow into it.” By thinking ahead architecturally, Gates says there’s room for growth. Plans are underway at the Bank to start a food program that will also invest in local entrepreneurs, as well as a beverage program. For Gates, “If there is good music and an espresso, we want to be a contender to Starbucks.” At the end of the day, that big, beautiful bar, with a backdrop of live music, will draw people looking to connect or unwind.
So much of Gates’ time and practice is thoughtfully planned, but he says he’s also found himself as of late serving as a steward called to help in the aftermath of a tragedy. He got a call from Samira Rice, whose son Tamir was killed in Cleveland by a police officer in 2016. Recalls Gates, “She said, ‘I need help deinstalling the gazebo where my son was killed,’ and at that point, my job was to just help manage this moment. It wasn’t an art move; there was no personal ambition. She just needed someone who could have the logistical wherewithal to handle this object.”
Gates and his team didn’t know what to do with the gazebo, but he says they knew they needed to remove it in its entirety or the City of Cleveland was going to raze it. Gates explains, “People were mourning, and these teddy bears are kind of part of the altar. People would remember others killed by police.” Samira asked if we would care for the gazebo for awhile, which became an opportunity to ask a national question, ‘What does it mean that all of these deaths happened?’ and ‘How do we grapple with this around the country.’” Gates began to see that the gazebo had one function in Cleveland and another at the Bank that would allow for reflection on peace, and questions about violence. He began to envision something adjacent to the gazebo with swings, a little park, a place, he thinks, “where young people can come and actually be safe. As we’re continuing to work on the violence in this neighborhood, could this be a space of peace, even temporarily?”
This spring the gazebo’s parts were neatly organized and stacked up in a room at the Arts Bank not much bigger than the structure itself. Gates imagines, “Next, we clean up the parts, and we offer the gazebo back to the city of Cleveland, when they’ve had a moment to reflect on their own defensive reaction to this complicated moment. In this room, that gives us a chance to say, ‘Yeah, there’s Aunt Jemima, there are negative stereotypes, but there are also things that are too close to talk about – they just happened.' I see value in being the steward of those things. To number the roofing deck, to care for the steel – artists are well equipped to do that. Artists are probably more sensitive and more equipped to do it than the City of Cleveland could ever do it, because it’s part heart, and it’s part logistics. That’s art."
The Stony Island Arts Bank is located at 6760 S Stony Island Ave., Chicago, IL. For more info visit the Bank's website
Top image: The Stony Island Arts Bank was formerly the Stony Island State Savings Bank, built in the South Shore neighborhood in the 1920s. Photo: Tom Harris