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Stony Island Arts Bank: Reclaiming community and black history, through the arts

Artist Theaster Gates shares the journey of the historic South Side Arts Bank, which re-opened this summer after a second phase of its $6.5 million renovation. His Rebuild Foundation took the nearly 100-year-old architectural gem off the demolition rolls and turned it into a hybrid community center, library and art gallery, with preserving black history as a focus. | Maudlyne Ihejirika/Chicago Sun-Times

Sitting on the back of a leather armchair that once occupied the offices of Johnson Publishing Co., artist Theaster Gates gestures toward a two-story wall of books that also belonged to the Ebony/Jet publisher.

Sharing the journey of the historic South Side Arts Bank, Gates couldn’t be prouder of the $6.5 million salvaging of the 95-year-old architectural gem, and what it represents in Greater Grand Crossing.

“It was a kind of demonstration work for me, that South Siders didn’t have to go somewhere else in order to have a beautiful, well-built intimate space, in that those spaces were all around us, they just needed some care,” said Gates, 44, founder of the nonprofit Rebuild Foundation.

The city gave the then-crumbling Stony Island Trust and Savings Bank Building at 6760 S. Stony Island to Gates for $1 in 2013. Designed by architect William Gibbons Uffendell, the 17,000-square-foot, neo-classical structure today is a hybrid community center, library and art gallery, with preserving black history its focus.

Maudlyne Ihejirika

“For the city, this was a teardown, so I’m really proud the city and arts community worked together to save this building. It feels really good that projects can happen on the South Side and they’re not city incentivized, they’re just because a lot of people believe in them,” said the arts entrepreneur, who privately financed the project.

A repository for several historical collections acquired by the seven-year-old nonprofit, the center now offers access to:

  • A 15,000-item collection of books, periodicals and art owned by Ebony/Jet founder John H. Johnson;
  • The record collection of famed disc jockey and godfather of house music Frankie Knuckles;
  • Negrobilia, or racist collectibles, owned by Harris Bank executive Edward Williams, who sought to remove them from circulation;
  • Glass lantern slide images of the art collections of University of Chicago and the Art Institute of Chicago.

It took $4.5 million of renovations to bring the building to code in time for the first Chicago Architecture Biennial in 2015.

“We opened it with the understanding that the bank wasn’t fully baked yet, but we were excited to show off its architecture,” Gates said.

A $6.5 million renovation of the historic South Side Arts Bank by the Rebuild Foundation salvaged as much of its elaborate interior architecture as possible, like this intricate ceiling work. The nearly 100-year-old architectural gem re-opened this summer as a hybrid community center, library and art gallery. | Maudlyne Ihejirika/Chicago Sun-Times

“The primary goal was to let the world see there was this work happening that was about capturing these moments of architectural beauty so that beautiful things could happen on the South Side — for black people, by black people,” added Gates, born and raised on the West Side.

In fall 2016, the foundation became repository for a collection uniquely poignant and tragic: the gazebo outside a Cleveland recreation center, where 12-year-old Tamir Rice, playing with a pellet gun, was shot and killed by police officer Timothy Loehmann.

Gates gently stepped across its wooden beams in a room titled, “Objects of Care: Material Memorial for Tamir Rice.”

The center intends to reassemble the gazebo on its back lawn by September, as a site of reflection. Rice’s mother had called Gates –– a University of Chicago professor whose work focuses on arts-driven space reclamation in disinvested communities –– to help save it from demolition.

“The city’s goal was removal so that it as a site of emotional mourning would go away,” he said, next to a pile of teddy bears left by mourners.

“The presence of Tamir Rice in the building kind of means a lot to me. We’re honored to host and contemplate with the public what it means to have this thing here,” said Gates, himself the only son of his parents’ nine children.

Artist Theaster Gates tells how the South Side Arts Bank became repository for the gazebo outside the Cudell Recreation Center in Cleveland, where 12-year-old Tamir Rice, playing with a pellet gun, was shot and killed by Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann. The gazebo will be reassembled on the bank’s back lawn by this September. | Maudlyne Ihejirika/Chicago Sun-Times

“We’re working with Samaria Rice to figure out how best to give it back to Cleveland,” Gates said.

The building closed for a second phase of renovations last fall, re-opening April 28 with “Out of Easy Reach,” an art exhibition highlighting women of color; followed by “A Johnson Publishing Story,” running June 28 thru Sept. 30, a tribute to the publisher’s influence in defining black identity through dissemination of positive black imagery.

Also running is a free, 10-week program aimed at bolstering South Side artist entrepreneurs.

“I knew if we were going to be successful, we should just try things, have exhibitions, musicians in the space, try residencies, have our film program move here, just see what works relative to the architecture,” said Gates.

“We learned the building has the potential to be uninviting for folk who live locally. So last summer, we opened up the yard. We started having movies on the yard, barbecues, food trucks. All of a sudden, the yard became like its own little park. Having two or three years to just watch the building unfold has been really awesome.”