“A Cycle of Love and Care:” Theaster Gates on art and placemaking in Akron
by M. Sophie Franchi
Akron Roundtable welcomed Theaster Gates, Chicago-based artist and Founder & Artistic Director at Rebuild Foundation for its September event. Gates is also a Professor in the Department of Visual Art and Director of Arts and Public Life at the University of Chicago. For more information about Gates, his studio art and his development projects, visit theastergates.com.
M. Sophie Franchi: Do you see art as a part of placemaking? Or is placemaking a form of art?
Theaster Gates: I see arts and culture as the foundation of the transformative, place-based work we do. Arts and culture creates platforms, which bring people, which in turn brings investment, which brings even more people and so on. This becomes a cycle of love and care that keeps the community around a place thriving—and art is the spark, the catalyst. So I see art as part of platform creation. These platforms are where new possibilities can be imagined and realized. They create new economic opportunities, places for people to gather and commune, increase access, expand relationships, compound ideas, and propel work forward. I don’t see myself as a place-maker. A place only becomes a place because of people, and my work is about bringing people into a space with the hopes that the community, over time and with love, will flourish. Arts and culture can bring people together to meet one another, exchange ideas, and work together in new ways that build and transform communities.
MSF: When you were in Akron, what opportunities did you see for placemaking?
TG: We heard in our discussions that land-use regulations, zoning, and other municipal and professional codes were significant barriers for Akron, and prevented work from moving forward. These types of barriers are not uncommon in cities across the country. Listening and talking to people doing work, I felt like there was a real opportunity for project leaders, creators, artists, developers to collaborate with the city, with policy makers and planners, on finding ways to scale place-based work so that both small and larger developers can make an impact. Folks doing projects in Akron have demonstrated desire, a capacity to act—they just need room to get things done.
MSF: What do you see in Akron’s future? Could you see yourself working on a future project in Akron?
TG: Akron is full of projects that come from the countless creative people living there who possess the vision and passion to get work done. From the conversations we have had, the sense is that leadership in Akron’s government is ready to try new things. With initiatives like Reimagining the Civic Commons, you can see there’s interest and momentum, and that there is a moment happening in Akron with the potential for significant change to occur. It is not my or my team’s place to ‘do a project’ in Akron. Our role is to elevate the fantastic work Akron is doing for itself. The existing projects, people, and coalitions in Akron that are moving work forward in their own city.