Internationally acclaimed artist and urban planner Theaster Gates, whose rise to prominence began with his use of art and culture to revive underserved neighborhoods in his hometown of Chicago, has been named the 2018 recipient of the Urban Land Institute’s (ULI) J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development.
The Nichols Prize honors the legacy of Kansas City, Missouri, developer J.C. Nichols, a founding ULI member considered to be one of America’s most creative entrepreneurs in land use during the first half of the 20th century. Gates is the 19th recipient of the prize, which recognizes a person, or a person representing an institution, whose work demonstrates a commitment to the creation of thriving, sustainable communities.
Gates’ creative approach to revitalizing neglected urban neighborhoods—including the reuse of building materials and other items to transform vacant properties into usable space—is what earned him the Nichols Prize, which is the Institute’s highest honor. His studies in urban planning and sculpture have informed and inspired his work, which began on Chicago’s South Side, where he founded the Rebuild Foundation to transform neighborhoods and celebrate innovative artistic practices.
Gates and Rebuild Foundation have acquired more than 30 vacant buildings in Chicago for transformation into spaces for affordable housing and community amenities, catalyzing at least $45 million in new investment in the South Side. The foundation hires and trains neighborhood residents to work in construction trades, providing employment opportunities for people to improve the places where they live—infusing a sense community pride that helps residents who might otherwise be disengaged to become involved stakeholders.
In addition to leading Rebuild Foundation, Gates is a professor in the Department of Visual Art and Director of Arts and Senior Advisor for Cultural Innovation and Advisor to the Dean of the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago. He is also the inaugural Distinguished Visiting Artist and Director of Artist Initiatives at the Lunder Institute for American Art at Colby College.
ULI governing trustee and Nichols Prize jury chairman, Michael Spies, senior managing director of Tishman Speyer in New York City, noted that the selection of Gates is a recognition of a way visionaries whose work extends beyond traditional real estate disciplines are influencing the built environment. It also reflects a selection based on the potential, rather than the history, of the recipient’s work, he said.
“Many cities are looking to reinvent themselves, and Theaster’s work represents art and culture as important elements of reinvention. He recognized early on the important role his art could play in building a strong community,” Spies said. “His model of readapting elements, of repurposing ordinary materials for works of art as well as rebuilding, is a model that clearly has huge potential to be replicated in communities around the world. He is at once an artist, an entrepreneur, a community builder and a visionary.”
Gates’ revitalization work started with Dorchester Projects on the South Side, a cluster of mixed-income apartments and art space including the Listening House, a renovated space housing the entire record collection from an iconic Chicago record store that closed years ago. The nearby Stony Island Arts Bank, another of his endeavors, is a nonprofit arts center, art gallery, archive and performance space housed in an old bank building that Gates renovated. It houses four archival collections, including collections of Ebony and Jet magazines donated by the Johnson Publishing Company.
Gates also initiated Place Lab at University of Chicago, a diverse team of professionals representing the fields of law, urban planning, architecture, design, social work, art and gender and cultural studies to document and highlight urban redevelopment strategies initiated through art and culture. Another project he spearheaded, the Arts Incubator at the University of Chicago, received a ULI Chicago Vision Award in 2013.
“My work has always aimed to revitalize forgotten spaces and, in doing so, bring together communities that have felt forgotten,” Gates said. “The incredible thing that happens when you revitalize those spaces, preserving elements of their history and infusing them with new purpose, is that you create a platform for communities to participate in their own revitalization. I’m honored to receive this award from ULI—an organization that understands how spaces can, and should be, empowering.”
In addition to Spies, other 2018 Nichols Prize jury members were ULI trustee Jodie W. McLean, chief executive officer of EDENS in Washington, D.C.; ULI trustee A. Eugene Kohn, founder and chairman, KPF in New York; Ellen Dunham-Jones, professor, School of Architecture, Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and Mark Johnson, president of Civitas in Denver.
“What we as ULI members can learn from Theaster Gates is how to translate our own talents that each one of us has within us to a much broader perspective of community building,” McLean said. “He inspires us to think about how we can use our own talents to bring people together, to inspire one another, and from that experience build economic stability that improves the whole environment of the city.”
“Gates is a strong leader, because he rallies people to work together to make their communities better,” Kohn said. “What he has accomplished is very special, but I think his greatness is yet to come. He still has a lot of room to grow and do amazing things.”
As an artist, Gates practices in sculpture, installation, performance and urban interventions that strive to bridge the gap between art and life. He has exhibited and performed at dozens of international museums and galleries. He was the winner of the Artes Mundi 6 prize and the Nasher Prize for Sculpture 2018 and is the recipient of the Légion d’Honneur, awarded in 2017. Like the buildings he has transformed, his sculptures are often constructed from repurposed materials found in blighted urban neighborhoods.
“If we think about development as just about bricks and mortar, it’s a very short story,” Gates said. “But when developers think of themselves as community partners and allies, and when other people are brought to the table to make neighborhoods better, that’s how we get thriving, healthy, whole communities.”