Theaster Gates: Dorchester Projects, Chicago

Still from "What does it mean for us to be generous with one another?" with Theaster Gates.

In his 2013 essay, 'Complicating Theaster Gates', Andy Horwitz asks: 'does an expanded frame of artistic practice demand expanded frames of critical engagement?'  Gates describes himself as an urban planner and sculptor who has also 'assembled gospel choirs, formed temporary unions and used systems of mass production as a way of underscoring the need that industry has for the body.' Not sure what the last bit means other than something about the de-population of industrial processes in favour of technology, but with the first two, Gates orchestrates normal community practices into what is, critically, called art.  Because Gates is an artist, is everything he does art?  Or is what he does as a community organiser defined as art?  Or does buying property and turning houses and old shops into an extended community arts centre, make the real estate transaction art?  And if not art, then an expanded practice?

Horwitz's essay outlines different, expanded forms of critical evaluation for what has been presented, probably by Gates himself, as an expanded art practice.  The Dorchester Projects involve money, entrepreneurship, real estate, equity or lack of, market, investment, capital – all areas with clear matrices for success and return, and not matrices applied to art practice. Yet, as Horwitz points out, increasingly these are the matrices used by arts funding agencies: how many visitors see each work, what is the projected audience, how much do they pay: i.e. what is the public investment in art and how is it measured? I come up against this (something I am woefully unprepared for) when filling out grant applications for On Site review.  What is a subscription's public impact; what is the community benefit of an architectural journal; is a single copy sale the equivalent of a ticket to a single opera performance?  Increasingly funding agencies are not that interested in content; they are interested in financial viability measured by the financial statement and a diversity of investors.  Can I say, or can Gates say, that each reader or each kid who drops into the arts centre, is an investor? if not in money but in social capital?  How is this quantified?

Horwitz's discussion of Gates, the limits of artistic practice in conventional terms and the unlimited potential of an expanded artistic practice reveals the emphasis put on epistemological categories drawn from a near-archaic critical tradition, while the on-the-street reality of Gates' expanded practice involves everything any small business has to go through: planning permissions, approvals, utilities, etc.  For this, we need to revisit how we talk about art.  

Gates is acting as a developer while calling his Dorchester Projects art.  Fine by me, but it seems to rankle with some that art should be used so instrumentally.  This is, however, the definition of activist art, that it is instrumental.

Stephanie Whiteart, criticism