What can you buy for a dollar these days? Maybe a pack of gum, or a single doughnut. In Chicago, it can buy an entire building. Okay, said building is a 1920s-era former bank on the city’s south side. Long-abandoned and crumbling from one end to the other, it’s the type of structure where the best residents are birds and rats. Artist Theaster Gates, however, saw something else: a world class arts center. The Chicago native, an urban planner with a gallery of prestigious art awards and even more creative vision, literally purchased the 20,000-square-foot edifice for a single U.S. dollar in 2013 from the city and began transforming it into a conclave for exhibitions, artist residencies and the headquarters for the Rebuild Foundation, a nonprofit organization he established in 2010 to foster cultural and artistic development in forgotten and underprivileged neighborhoods. Earlier this month the former Stony Island State Savings Bank was reintroduced as the Stony Island Arts Bank. Among other artifacts, it contains the book collection of John H. Johnson, founder of “Ebony” and “Jet” magazines; the record collection of Frankie Knuckles, the “Godfather of House Music”; and slides of art collections from the University of Chicago and the Art Institute of Chicago.
Gates described the center as a “a repository for African American culture and history, a laboratory for the next generation of black artists,” and “a space for neighborhood residents to preserve, access, reimagine and share their heritage, as well as a destination for artists, scholars, curators, and collectors to research and engage with South Side history.”
As a writer, I’m naturally attracted to the slew of books the place houses. But it’s obviously much more than a glorified library. It’s a people’s center; far removed from the ranks of high society cocktail parties and stuffy art museums. Gates has connected the beauty of art and literature – hallmarks of a progressive nation – with communities that some thought worthless. In this volatile election season, where self-proclaimed saviors of the masses regurgitate their ideas of revolution and the future, that’s simply extraordinary.