In October 2012, Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates bought a 17,000-square-foot building from the City of Chicago. Constructed in 1923, the building was previously Stony Island Trust & Savings Bank, located between Chicago’s Greater Grand Crossing and South Shore neighborhoods. The city was ready to demolish it; Gates couldn’t let it go. The cost for this fixer-upper, with its grand, fluted columns and brick exterior: $1.
Gates wasn’t totally sure what he wanted to do with the bank initially. “When he acquired the building, it was much more about preserving this emblem of the middle-class black community in these neighborhoods—this symbol of the middle class and the Great Migration of the African American community that grew in these neighborhoods,” Ken Stewart, the CEO of Gates’s nonprofit organization Rebuild, said. “It was over a few years from the time that he acquired the building to now that a final concept came into view.”
The final concept would ultimately be the Stony Island Bank Arts Bank, which will open to the public on October 3, the same day that the Chicago Architecture Biennial begins. (On September 19, during the middle of the Expo Chicago art fair, a Build | Rebuild benefit will be held in the bank.) In one of Rebuild and Gates’s most ambitious projects to date, the Stony Island Arts Bank will host site-specific art installations, performance, artist and scholar residencies, and several archives.
The archives are far from what might expect to find at an arts center. Among them are 60,000 lantern slides from the University of Chicago and the School of the Art Institute of the Chicago; the libraries of the Johnson Publishing Archive, featuring magazines like Jet and Ebony; the vinyl collection of Chicagoan house d.j. Frankie Knuckles; and Edward J. and Ana J. Williams’ collection of what Gates has termed “negrobilia,” or racist objects that the Williamses own because they wanted to take them off the market.
“This is a new kind of cultural amenity, a new kind of institution—a hybrid gallery, media archive and library, and community center,” Gates said in a statement. “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.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering Gates’s reputation for politically-minded work, the archives have in common a connection to African-American culture. As Stewart explained, the connections run deeper than this, though. “The one thing they have in common, and then the buildings that Theaster and Rebuild have reopened, is that they are all objects of analogue form or structures that have fallen out of circulation,” Stewart said. So in the case of the buildings, they’ve all been vacant. And in the case of these archives, manuscripts, and records, none of them are digital.”
Stony Island Arts Bank’s residencies, Stewart said, will allow scholars and artists from across the U.S. to work with these archives. “The residencies that we’ll be having will be to support the artists and academics whose work we’re interested in and want to support, but also to ask them to help us re-imagine these things that we think have great cultural significance and get them back into cultural circulation,” Stewart added.
The same could be said of the bank itself, which nobody had been in since around 1978 (Stewart was unsure) and which will now become home to a new work by Carlos Bunga, a Portuguese artist whose installations often resemble temporary housing. The courtyard, meanwhile, will get a makeover from Mexican architect Frida Escobedo as part of the architecture biennial.
Exhibitions and projects like these don’t present themselves often in Chicago’s South Side, and Stewart said that the Stony Island Arts Bank will hopefully begin to remedy that. “There are very few opportunities for someone to see and experience great contemporary art,” Stewart said. “There are also few opportunities to take some kind of workshop in some art form. If you’re an artist on the South Side, there are few opportunities to get support for your practice. Through our residency program, workshops, and a variety of community programs that we’re planning, there’s exposure to great artists from outside the city and outside the country that we are going to bring to neighbors, and then there’s educational component to it as well.”
“It’s a fluid project,” he added, “but things are coming together as we are prepared to open.”