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Theaster Gates: “I Love Blackness in All its Forms”

This American artist not only creates beautiful things, but also beautiful communities. Through his groundbreaking installations, performances, and public programs, he preserves the past and translates it into meaningful experiences for the present.

September 27, 2023 By THE GRAND TOURIST
Photo: Rankin


This American artist not only creates beautiful things, but also beautiful communities. Through his groundbreaking installations, sculptures, performances, and public programs, he preserves the past and translates it into meaningful experiences for the present. On this episode, Dan speaks with the Chicago-based visionary on the power of ceramics, his award from New York’s Noguchi Museum, how the Black experience shapes his work, how he came to hold the archive of Frankie Knuckles records, and more.

Listen to this episode


Theaster Gates: In terms of faith, I feel like my faith is a little bit of an amalgam now. That it’s synthesized into a person that understands that faith is something that’s deeply personal. Faith is a driver more than it is a goal. By allowing my faith to drive me, I’ve made decisions that are ambitious and loving decisions that have had significant consequence on the south side of Chicago. Faith should be something that evidences my belief, and the south side is the evidence of my belief.

Dan Rubinstein: Hi, I’m Dan Rubinstein and this is The Grand Tourist. I’ve been a design journalist for nearly 20 years, and this is my personalized guided tour through the worlds of fashion, art, architecture, food, and travel…all the elements of a well-lived life. On today’s episode, we’re going to meet an American artist who not only creates beautiful things, but creates something far more valuable. Beautiful communities and connections between the past, present, and future. Theaster Gates. 

Through his installations, structures, ceramics, archives, and even music, Theaster Gates highlights, translates and brings to life moments in the Black American experience. In other words, polymath is a great way to describe him. And considering the guy is barely 50 years old, he can make any creative person feel downright lazy. He began his career in ceramics using the craft to explore cultural connections. A pivotal work of his, in my mind, called “Cosmology of Yard” for the Whitney Biennial in New York in 2010, is a great example of understanding his work.

The installation piece has various elements like a throne, a shoeshine station, and a video of a Black minister singing, and all the works were created using wooden boards salvaged from the Wrigley’s Chewing Gum factory on the west side of Chicago, a famously challenged part of the city and the heart of the Black community there. Reusing these overlooked elements of Black life are a major part of how he creates his art. He’s also made works using the archives of famed magazines like Ebony and Jet, sometimes using the pictures within and sometimes using the leatherbound archives themselves. And last year, his work took on an architectural event with Black Chapel, a freestanding structure for the Serpentine pavilion in London. There, he created working with architect David Adjaye, a large, literally black building to be used as a musical performance space with a shape referencing traditional African architecture and the bottle kilns of industrial era British potteries.

The work of the Theaster Gates has been collected in museums such as The Tate, The Smithsonian, Whitney, and many others. And this fall, he’s been given the Isamu Noguchi Award given by the Noguchi Museum in New York. More on that later

But all of these accolades and evocative works are only half of the story. He’s also put his thoughts into action in his hometown Chicago, where he’s converted a neoclassical bank building into an art center, he’s created a foundation that supports the arts locally and is involved with projects that transform disused spaces into forces for community enrichment. And he also hosts dance parties and teaches at the University of Chicago. My only question is, does he sleep? I caught up with the Theaster Gates from his office in Chicago to talk about his youth on the city’s south side, how his adventurous career began and continues with ceramics, his thoughts on preserving the Black image, his faith, and his ongoing connection with traditional Japanese culture. 

Doing my research and doing my homework for your work was really a challenge because you had such an incredible career and even for someone who I would consider to be a young guy, you are so unbelievably prolific and it’s so unbelievably impressive. But I want to start at the beginning. You were born and raised in Chicago where a lot of your work is based of course, and you’ve spoken a lot about your father in your career, but I also read that you were the youngest of nine. Is that right?

It’s totally true, Dan. I have eight older sisters, and it feels like being raised on the west side of Chicago was kind of a joy because it was a wild environment. It was the late ’80s, early ’90s, but I always say it, my house was like a house of love and generosity and lots of friends and boyfriends. So, I just felt like I was surrounded by this huge community that was called my family.

You talk a lot about your father, but your mother must have been quite influential in your life. What was she like?

Yeah, I think I talk about my father because my mom told me to. That she was really the saint and he was the laborer. I think that that’s how it falls out. My mom established…She established the order of the house and kept the discipline, but she also demonstrated, I think, what would’ve been for her strong spiritual values and ways of being kind to people and also ways of not taking any crap from people. Knowing how to hold your line. I think my—

With nine kids, you better.

Yeah. My character is probably a good combination of the two of them.

And so, what were you like as a young boy? What fascinated you? What did you spend your time doing?

Oh, yeah. I mean, as a young guy, my favorite pastime was roller-skating. It was between roller-skating on Saturday afternoons and gospel choir on Sunday, I tried to stay out of trouble and there was trouble all around me. And so, skating was one of the things that I did to really be in a safe place a lot of time. But I was pretty good at math and reading, so I also just loved reading all the time. And my dad and I, we would go down to Maxwell Street where we could buy secondhand things and whenever he was working on his buildings, we could go pick up a tub or go pick up light fixtures. And there was this market, this open-air market. And so, I would spend my Saturdays after skating or before skating, we’d go and he’d give me a haircut, we’d go to Maxwell Street, I’d come home and go skating. And it was a real idyllic…It was an idyllic childhood. Really sweet.

And do you still skate, by the way?

Oh, I skate as often as I can get to the rink. Absolutely.

Reminds me of roller rink birthday parties back in the day. And so, I’m fascinated by your studies in college that combined from what I’ve read, urban planning and ceramics. And when you went to school, how did that happen that you decided these two completely, in many people’s minds, maybe not yours, but these completely different topics or how did these two come together?

Sure. I mean, it’s a pretty straightforward story. I started out at Iowa State University as a pre-pharmacy major thinking I would follow my sister Larissa, who was a pharmacy major, and realized pretty quickly that the sciences wasn’t my jam. And in the design department there was a field called community and regional planning. And it felt like when I read the descriptions of the classes, you could study building law and land use law and building codes and landscape, and it was adjacent to the architecture department in the design college. So I changed my major to urban planning, community and regional planning. And in order to graduate in the School of Design, you also had to take art classes. And so, I found myself down in the pottery studio and it seemed like the most compelling place. And the shop was run by a dear friend of mine now, Ingrid Lilligren, and it was Ingrid’s ceramics classes that made me want to minor in ceramics and then continued to make over the years.

And so, when you graduated, in that early career, how did you decide, okay, this is something I want to move into? What was the early career like for you?

A few key things happened. I graduated from Iowa State and that year I also received a scholarship from the Rotary Foundation to study at the University of Cape Town. But there was a gap year between applying for the University of Cape Town and the award starting. So, I moved to Seattle, Washington and my first real job was at a place called Union Gospel Mission on the south end of Seattle, and they allowed me to build a pottery studio that would act like an extension of their youth ministry work. So, I built a pottery studio called The Potter’s House, and we didn’t have the burden of articulating religious dogma so much. Our real job was to help make sure that these Samoan and Black kids had a safe place to come. And so, I was this young potter teaching kids on the south end how to make pots and we’d sometimes talk about Bible stories, sometimes sing music, and it felt like it was the real coming together of all these things that I loved or valued.

What was your early pottery like?

There was a part of me that made functional ware and it was probably already African and Asian inspired. And then there was a part of me that was interested in contemporary…What do we call it? Expressionistic ceramic work. So, heavy, big masks, round forms like blobs and I would just put as many glazes on it as I could and fire it and it would mess up the kiln every time. I was interested in being both a potter and an artist.

When did one take over or slip, to use a ceramics term? When did one win out over the other?

Well, to be honest, they both are still fighting. They still contend. They’re both bedfellows still. I make a lot of functionalware at the studio. We just don’t show it all the time. But I think functional ware is a great way to keep the studio busy and active and we hope one day to share it with everyday people.

Oh, you’ve got a little pot there. A little vase.

They’re all around me. You know what I mean? This is probably a wood-fired yellow salt glaze.

Very pretty.

Very nice glaze. And then we also make large vessels and maybe it feels like a slightly more modernistic approach to ceramics. But I feel like it was the work that I was doing in clay that also had me reading a lot about the histories of makers and the history of places with makers. And ultimately that learning is what led to my contemporary practice.

And at some point, I guess before the more modern era of your work, there was a period where you went to Cape Town and you studied there and you also went to Japan. Is that right? You went to Japan and studied pottery there, which is on a completely different level and a whole world of ceramics. What was that like?

I’m still learning how to talk about my first encounters with Japan, but what I realized immediately was that craft had a different hierarchical place and it was much higher in Japan. That is a person who was a great textile maker or a great woodworker or a great potter, they were an artist, and there wasn’t the same division between art and craft in Japan. In order to be a great artist, it meant you knew your craft very well. So, that was different. Then, it felt like the lives of everyday people were more singularly focused, so people were not like, “Oh, I’m a this and I’m a this. I’m multifaceted.” People are like, “I learned how to make paper and I make paper. My father was a woodworker. I’m a woodworker. My mom was a builder. I am a builder.” And there was a lot of pride in being more single-minded. And it’s not to say that people didn’t have diverse interests and passions, but in terms of vocation or profession, people tended to be much more singular. And that had a big and profound impact on me because I was the most hyphenated person I knew.

And two of your early shows, at least to a novice outsider, in 2009 and 2010, one was called Cosmology of Yard and the other one was Temple Exercises, that to me seemed to be like a turning point where you started to use objects, whether they’re collected objects or archival objects to create spaces and to create environments. Is that right? Were those a turning point for you?

Yeah, both of those were. It was a moment in Chicago when I could no longer afford my ceramics studio. So, I started working with these wooden materials that were available in abundance and Cosmology of Yard and Temple Exercises were both like this foray into using another material besides clay to talk about ceramics or to make a poetics of clay instead of just making pots all the time. And it was a turning point conceptually, and it’s also the thing that led to other opportunities at museums.

And when that happened, did you ever feel like, “Hey, why weren’t you interested in my work before I started doing this?” Or were you excited by that possibility of something totally new that you stumbled onto?

Yeah, I definitely wasn’t angry about anything because I had no ambition at the time to be a contemporary artist. I was happy being a potter. But when I saw the reception, I realized that there were all these other things that I wanted to talk about and dream about that needed other materials and that these museum exhibitions that started to be offered to me at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the Whitney Museum and Documenta, these were opportunities where I could quickly unlock all these ideas that I had had, but I didn’t have a home for them or materials for them. And now I could use the hands my dad gave me and the spiritual fervor that my mom gave me, and I could turn that into community. I could turn that into sculpture. I could make things and I could make happenings.


“Min | Mon” installation view by Theaster Gates at LUMA Arles (2023). Photo: Courtesy the artist

And we talked about your dad being a roofer, and there’s a lot of materiality shows up in your work and there’s a lot of reuse of materials, building materials. I’m wondering, this first piece that included this line of thinking, was that the Temple Exercises area of work and sort, was that kind of the same moment or did that happen earlier?

Yeah, I think that Temple Exercises, which was a show I had in the emerging artist space at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, it was the first time where I had sculptural elements and activation inside the space where we had my newly formed band, The Black Monks of Mississippi, and where there was a destination outside of the museum where I was like, okay, the museum is an interesting institution, but Shine King, which was the shoeshine place that I had grown up going to, this place is where culture lives. And so, we would go to Shine King and sing to the shiners, and it was like that moment where I was starting to say, in addition to the culture that happens in museums, very important culture happens outside of museums. Let’s go be a part of it.

And that brings up my next question is you once mentioned to NPR that the canon of the Black image is sort of an ongoing subject in your work. And so, I’m curious from then ‘til today, what have you come to learn or understand about the Black image that you think maybe you didn’t understand or appreciate when you first started doing things like Shine King and all of that?

It’s a great question. One thing that’s become clear is that when you’re from a poor and somewhat under-resourced place, the thing that you might want to reveal in the Black image is dignity and how well we do when we do well. It’s like an aspirational image. And when you look at the history of Johnson Publishing Company, the Chicago Defender, Essence Magazine, you look at circulars, publications today, they all seem to focus on the aspirational. One of the things that I feel more strongly about today is that I love Blackness in all its forms, which may also include more complex economic situations or more complex social situations or cultural situations. But finding ways to demonstrate the beauty and dignity of people no matter what class situation they happen to be in. So, I think where I used to be really attracted to you look at Ebony and it would be like Muhammad Ali or someone like Nina Simone or Isaac Hayes or the top 10 most important millionaires, and those are important aspirational devices, but the things that I’m more attracted to now is the work of Gordon Parks where it’s like, oh, look at the way Black people were living in Mississippi and with no resources they were still providing for their children going to work every day, living in squalor situations because of the negation of our government or the lack of opportunities to jobs. But still, look at the beauty in their eyes and the fact that they’re just making the best no matter what their situation is. And so, I think I’m now carrying the full range of the cultural and economic sphere of Blackness, and I’m saying it’s all good.

And at some point, you’re back in, let’s say 2009, you’re getting these museum shows, and I guess it was around that time that the first projects that would become the Rebuild Foundation got started. How did that happen and why did you think, yeah, I need to go and do this outside of just focusing on creating work that would be shown in a gallery or be shown in some venue? How did that originally begin?

Well, I think two things happened. I recognized pretty early that the kind of institutions that I wanted to live in Black space, the only way that they were going to happen is if somebody in that community built it. It wasn’t going to be something that landed from outside and there was no external money coming to make the great Black institution. And that individuals would have to come together and think about how best to do it. So, I think Rebuild started as a kind of putting a flag in the ground and saying, this is the community that I live in, and I believe something great should happen here. So, it felt like self-determinism. But I also knew that I couldn’t do it by myself, and I needed the legal structure. I needed a platform whereby I could also invite people to help me build the ambition of this place. So, it was like, all right, I’ll put in what I can, but I know I can’t do it all, so I’m going to build this entity so that others who also believe in the things that I believe in, they can support.

And so, at what point did the archival nature of these things and the ability of these spaces to create these archives, how did that come into play?

Well, initially it feels like archives were almost baked into the birth of Rebuild because, as soon as we started renovating the building, Linda Johnson Rice gave me her 26,000 volume library from Johnson Publishing. And then already the University of Chicago had given me their art history glass lantern slides. And so, we had content in advance of the building being fully renovated. And then as time went on and I was trying to think, what do I want the mission of this place to be, I felt like there were lots of places that were already focused on sports and places focused on the party scene and maybe focused on artists and giving direct support to artists like the Three Arts, which is a small foundation here in Chicago. I thought, oh, maybe I could have a small exhibition space and complimentary to things that I was doing at the University of Chicago, this exhibition space could be anchored by knowledge and knowledge within images and knowledge around sound. And we would be able to say to people, “Hey, the everyday things from your lives have tremendous value because 150 years from now, people will want to know how we lived.”

And did that come from a place from your own research where these archives didn’t exist, or you had a hard time digging up certain parts of the past?

Yeah. I mean, I think that there were definitely moments where when people would say, “Well, I know where your mom is from and where your grandma is from, but where are you from?” Whenever you get that question, I felt like, man, there’s this gap that feels like it is unaccountable because of the horrors of slavery and racial subjugation. But if I’m a good steward today, we will have more to hold onto into the future because we’re going to build a home for it. And I think that that impulse to try to build a home today has everything to do with managing the trauma that I feel from not being able to go so far back.

Did you ever have your own genealogy journey where you tried to trace your own history where you hit that roadblock?

Yeah, and I think I ultimately arrived at a t-shirt where I rode Mississippi is my Africa. That I felt like the Black American experience was such a different experience, that there was something worth celebrating in this transplanted germination of Blackness, and that Mississippi was far enough for me.


And of all the things that you have archived and kept is a collection of Frankie Knuckles records. And I’m curious, first of all, how did that come to you? And I’m also dying to know if you ever looked through those records and found a certain gem that might be your favorite.

Yeah. As you were asking this question, I was thinking to myself, I just never get tired of talking about Frankie Knuckles. I never get tired of certain house songs or disco songs. I got a call from this guy, Freddy, who I didn’t know. He had seen a TV special where I was talking about another collection, Edward J. Williams collection. And he called me and he said, “Hey, I’m the executor of Frankie Knuckles’ estate, and we’re trying to make decisions about what to do with his apartment and his storages. Can you come and look at these things with me?” We spent the morning together, and lo and behold, he had all these albums in a storage room. And after some negotiation, Freddie and I agreed that I would be charged with stewarding the albums and that I would give Freddie a stewardship fee. That I would not own them initially, that I would just be steward of them for 10 years. And with my stewardship fee, Freddie would be able to start the Frankie Knuckles Foundation. And so, he was able to get the Frankie Knuckles Foundation off the ground. I said that I would make the albums public, that I would digitize the albums, and that within the 10 years of having them, that he would have access to the full digital canon. And I think we’re on track to deliver that.

Oh, wow. That’s a lot of digitization.

That’s a lot of digitization.


What I couldn’t have imagined was that along the way, we would also create a cult following around house music day parties and now I think we have one of the hottest revolving venues for free house music in the country.

And so, since the Rebuild Foundation, and we talk about house music and community, and it’s a lot about the public, and I’m wondering what you see the role of the government or the city or the state has or should have when it comes to the arts. Is it not involved enough or do you think it’s better off when it’s generated outside from a nonprofit or from privately?

This is an interesting question, Dan, because I love…When I was a younger guy, I would go to the Taste of Chicago and the Jazz Fest and the Gospel Fest. Chicago is a city of festivals, and I think we do festivals pretty well. And I think a city that has art baked into the bones of its policies is a good city. But I also think that there are moments when the city, in the same way that cities encourage large businesses to move here, and they incentivize those businesses by giving them tax breaks on land and property and regular tax breaks, they give them resources, financial resources, they give them access to really smart people to help relocate those companies and those people. I feel like we’ve never invested in artists at that level. And it’s probably also true that artists have rarely…We’ve probably rarely talked about ourselves as a sector. So, there are moments when I think, man, I would love for…Chicago does pretty well. It makes money available to individual artists, to arts organizations. The city’s been extremely generous these last few years, and public artist is very important. But I think that when our cities see great people doing interesting things, that we should find ways to strongly encourage that.

If you could trap a bunch of politicians in a room and give them a little lesson on what they should be doing about rehabbing underserved communities, what would you want to tell them?

I would probably say that the tools that we use to give large developers the resources to create community and neighborhood change, we should invest equal if not more resources in small community organizations and emerging developers who want to do great things in their neighborhoods and we should invest in the arts and artists because I’ve found that the arts do more to transform and stabilize communities than those large dollars do when they ultimately pull communities apart.

And do you think that in the world of the art world, or the art market is that there’s a lot of energy going towards museums as tourism vehicles rather than then community centers, if that’s maybe a little bit of an oversimplification?

Well, to that question, I would say great museums do both. They recognize the importance of outsiders, and they also say welcome to their neighbors. And I feel like that conversation is one that I’m involved in a lot. But I also think that sometimes museums and our large cultural institutions like our lyric operas and that, they eat up the lion’s share of philanthropic dollars for the arts and culture in our cities. I think that the Ford Foundation is doing a really good job of kind of imagining that there are many cultural institutions that are important, not just the big ones. And how do we move this resource around enough so that great things are happening in every neighborhood in our inner city, not just downtown? Because we tend to concentrate…Or, at least in Chicago, we tend to concentrate the resources toward the big institutions that live downtown. But I’d love to see us do more far north, far west, far south.


“Min | Mon” installation view by Theaster Gates at LUMA Arles (2023). Photo: Courtesy the artist

In a recent show you had at White Chapel, which was a part of a residency at the VNA in London called the Clay Sermon, and it combines pottery and spirituality. And you’ve mentioned your spiritual journey. I’m wondering how you…It might be a weird word, but how do you identify now in spiritual terms as a person?

Yeah. Another good and complicated question.

Thank you.

I think in my heart, Dan, I am a believer. I feel like I want to believe, I want to be an optimist. I want to believe in other people. I want to see interesting things happen. In terms of faith, I feel like my faith is a little bit of an amalgam now, from being raised in not just a Christian household, but a Black Baptist, Black Southern Baptist, missionary Baptist. It’s a very particular religious dominant. Which it couldn’t be any more different from the Catholic Church or the Pentecostal experience. A Black Baptist experience is like the religion of Mississippi. And with it, there’s the music and there’s the culture of that, but there’s also a very sophisticated use of improvisational language.

There’s its adjacency to slavery, so the music emerges out of that. And so, I think that if you combine the missionary Baptist, Black religious experience with knowledge of Buddhism and interest in Shintoism and interest in pantheisms of Asia and the continent, I feel like what’s happened is that it’s synthesized into a person that understands that faith is something that’s deeply personal and that faith is a driver more than it is a goal or a place. And that I feel like by allowing my faith to drive me, I’ve made decisions that are ambitious and loving decisions that have had significant consequence on the south side of Chicago. Faith should be something that evidences my belief, and the south side is the evidence of my belief.

And you brought that belief to London with the Serpentine Pavilion, which is called Black Chapel, which I think was considered a first architectural work or an architectural adjacent work because in that sense that it was a freestanding structure built from scratch. Can you explain what that structure was and the space that you created for performances inside and how that…Just explain it to someone who’s not seen it.

Well, I would say that Black Chapel actually took its cues from my project at the Walker Arts Center, which was a permanent sculpture made from my bricks, and it was a outdoor situation. But Black Chapel was my attempt at creating a kind of sacred altar within this very large park, Kensington Gardens, and a space of convening where the music that I make, the music of my people, where those things could be resonant in a big way. And the pavilion, I was maybe the first non-architect besides someone like Olafur Eliasson. I was the first artist to take on this challenge. And with the support of David Adjaye, I feel like I was able to realize maybe the pavilion of my little dreams, which was it had services inside, you could get a coffee and a tea, but really it was dominantly a sacred place for listening and being quiet and being with others. And I think it’s probably going to be the first of many, many future projects, I hope.

And congratulations on the soon to come 2023 Isamu Noguchi Award in advance, which will happen this fall. And I’m just curious, when you think about Noguchi and his life and his work, obviously on a very surface level you can see parallels. What do you think about his work and how has he inspired you?

It’s really special to be considered a person that gets to live in his tradition because he was of Japanese descent, but then spent time later in his life, in his adult years like me, going to Japan, getting to know himself by being present and having to accept his Americanness as he went there, even though he was of Japanese descent as well. So, that felt very familiar. I think that the ways in which philosophy governed what one makes, I feel like we have that in common. And it was actually Martin Puryear who was talking about Noguchi once and said we all have to go through Brancusi. And so, I think that the part of me that has a sculptural impulse toward minimalism or naturalism, which is maybe in some ways connected to modernism. I feel like Noguchi was able to epitomize this combination of Eastern values, meeting western modernism, meeting someone’s personal identity to try to connect with materials. He was just a good dude. He didn’t separate big parks from individual object sculpture from furniture or appliances or lights. He ran the gamut. And I think as I grow older and I gain confidence, I feel like I also want to traverse those varying ways. So, I feel more and more like our lives are going to be intertwined as I get older.

That’s a good idea, especially if there’s a museum in with your name on it in the future, which I think is pretty much assured. As an educator, you still teach it at the University of Chicago, correct?

I do.

Okay. And you also are an advisor, and I’ve listened to some interviews that you’ve given about arts and the education, and there’s a lot of…When I talk to different artists and designers and people that some studied in school, some didn’t, and it’s changed so much, and there’s such talk about the professionalization of creativity and art and design and all those kinds of things. I’m just curious what your impression is of arts education today, a higher arts education today. Another probably very complicated question. But do you agree or do you think that the world of art has become too professionalized, too … I don’t know. Become too much of a business? And therefore, the universities kind of have to prepare you to be in that industry.

It’s interesting, because I just finished teaching this last quarter a couple months ago, and in my class there were people who obviously wanted to be…They want a turn at the art market and they want to be art stars. Let’s say out of a cohort of 14 people, two or three want to be famous. Other people enter art because it’s what they did as a child. It’s nice and complimentary to other things that they’re interested in, like biomedical things or computer science things or physics. And what I’m finding is that we are in a moment where true hyphenation is happening, where there are students…And this may have always been the case, Dan, that there were students who were great at physics or great in the sciences, but they were also extremely adept at piano or they were virtuosic in an instrument or mathematics and music or the sciences and certain kinds of visual graphing in the arts.

So, I feel like I’m in a position where I can train people to feel less schizophrenic about their dualities and that from a younger age, they can feel as if it’s not that I have to be a neuroscientist by day and a hobby artist by night, but in a way, the arts is fueling my interest in neurosciences and it’s adding value to the way that I think about the sciences and vice versa. That because I have this seemingly linear brain around math, it means that I approach light and color with a different kind of right brain intelligence. And I love when students are given a problem that needs both sides of their brain, but is it true that there are galleries that are identifying people in high school and ushering them through undergrad? It’s almost like a sports team or something where if you’re an undergrad at Yale or an undergrad at Columbia or NYU, there’s already top picks or some shit. And it’s a little bit absurd, but I think that at some point, maybe those values will get challenged more and more.

And I think for my other 11 students who are not interested in being star artists, whatever they’re called, that they are trying to deepen, enrich their lives. They’re trying to deepen and enliven their lives, and I want to help them do that too. Even if you’re not interested in the market part of it, you’re just interested in the catharsis or you’re interested in the self-expression that I want to help produce more and more of those artists who are just saying, “I just want to make better. I want to just do better, be better in the world.”

In terms of doing better in the world, so much of your career is centered on the wellbeing of other people and the creativity of others, even in teaching, of course, as we just kind of went into. And it’s super admirable, but what I’m wondering about is, do you ever worry that you’re giving yourself in your career such a high goal where true progress can seem almost kind of like a fool’s errand? Are you shouting into a void? Do you feel like there are other artists that can be super famous, get a big show, have money, and then they’re happy, they’re famous, it’s over, but because your work is so much about the happiness and fulfillment of others, is that a goal that can never truly be achieved?

I don’t know if I think about it just like that, Dan.

Oh, actually, I hope not.

Maybe I have a little bit of success empathy or survivor’s empathy. I feel like people help me do better. I want to help people do better, and it doesn’t feel like an overwhelming burden most days. It feels like a reasonable part of living a full artistic life is that, if you’re a professor, your students are going to call and ask you for recommendations. It’s part of the thing. If you’re with a gallery, at some point, the gallery’s going to ask you to donate things to an auction. It’s part of the thing. So, maybe it’s just like an extension. Being generous through rebuild or finding ways to support other artists. Maybe that’s just like an extension of the practice. There may come a time when I want my practice to be more heavily laden on the side of making art than giving service, but those things haven’t felt like I would only want to give service, or I would only want to make art.

I like the balance. I mean, as I get a little achy, I think, okay, there’s only so much I can do in a day, and maybe it’s a little bit less than I could do when I was 30. But I feel like the ground that we’ve laid, it’s ground that I’m very proud of. And I feel like we’ve been able to lay a foundation, not when I was 80, but when I was 25, and that I don’t want to be on my deathbed and saying I wish I had done more for other artists. So, I just got started earlier because I saw great artists like Warhol and Joan Mitchell and Rauschenberg. I’m even thinking about artists who are still living who do great things that may not want to be named or to see what’s happening as a result of the Gordon Parks Foundation. And even to think about the legacies of John and Eunice Johnson, I think, wow, what if I started giving now?

What if I started giving when I didn’t have anything to give? What if it was just like a spirit of openness and generosity, and I just live with that openness and generosity all my life? I don’t have a goal of, I want to be able to contribute $26 million, $50 billion. It’s like I want to live a life that’s full, and if I can help bring other artists along or show them an example or let them steal ideas from me or give them ideas that’s for their work and it’s not for me, that those things really, they feel like a pleasure.

And how is your team set up today? Because you’re always adding these archives. I felt like you must have a team of people scouring the country looking for these kinds of things.

Yeah. It’s interesting. On payroll, there’s probably 13 full-time people, so that’s a small team. We’re down from like 65 people when I was managing a university crew and a real estate team and my studio. And I think between the 13 of us, I feel like we get a lot done. And then we have a lot of friends and allies who help us with the heavy lifting. In the business world, you guys would call that outsourcing or something, but it just got to a point where the project was so big that we thought, let’s just have our core team and then let’s get as much help from the outside as we can. And that’s worked out pretty well.

And what’s next for you? I heard that you’re going back to Japan with a project, and how’s that going?

Yeah. This town that I studied in, which is called Tokoname, it’s in central Japan. This town, there was a sewer pipe manufacturing company that went out of business. The family was called [foreign language 00:53:06]. And I’m going back there to reactivate that ceramic pipe factory into a ceramics manufacturing company for tableware, small design things. And I think I’m going to build my brand Dorchester Industries. I’m going to build this little brand that’s like the handmade wares that lives adjacent to my studio practice.

Oh, wow. That’s amazing. And I also hear that you’re working on a former school in Chicago to become an arts incubator that’s I think 40,000 square feet or something quite large.

Yep. It’s called the St. Lawrence Arts Incubator. And our hope is that the lessons that I’ve learned bumping my head for the last 30 years, I can share some of those lessons with younger artists who seem already out the gate way more sophisticated than I’ll ever be. And so, I’m going to just give what I can and hope that it helps. But we’ll at least have a space in Chicago where artists can work. Many of them will be able to work at no cost, and we hope to amplify the careers of artists and designers.

And if you had to describe your aspirations as an artist in three words, I’m wondering what those three words would be.

Do it well.

Thank you to the Theaster Gates, and to Melissa Ulster and Andrey Furmanovich for making this episode happen. The editor of The Grand Tourist is Stan Hall. To keep this going, don’t forget to visit our new website and sign up for our newsletter, The Grand Tourist Curator, at And follow me on Instagram @danrubinstein. And don’t forget to follow The Grand Tourist on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you like to listen and leave us a rating or comment. Every little bit helps. Til next time!


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