One might think that an abandoned 1920s bank on Chicago’s South Side, crumbling from top to bottom—the roof long collapsed, exposing the interior to snow and rain for years—would be destined for a wrecking ball. Like so many other decaying structures in the area, that was certainly the fate of the Stony Island Savings & Loan building before artist, urban planner, and Chicago resident Theaster Gates intervened.
Armed with only a vision to carry him through, Gates acquired the 20,000-square-foot bank for $1.00 from the city of Chicago and set about an unbelievable restoration. This month, amidst all the hubbub of Chicago’s Architecture Biennale, the doors were thrown open and the public was given the opportunity to walk through the new Stony Island Arts Bank. While construction is complete, several details of the bank’s history including peeling paint and damaged ceiling tiles have been preserved to physically merge the past and present.
The Stony Island Arts Bank is a place that proudly defies convention. A community savings and loan bank shuttered since the 1980s turned into a world-class arts center in the middle of a greatly under-resourced community most in need of bold ideas. It’s the kind of place that civic leaders propose and residents dream of, but for a thousand reasons it never seems to materialize. And yet here it is.
Gates’ idea has now manifested itself as a platform for site-specific exhibitions and commissions, artist residencies, and as a home for the Rebuild Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded by the artist in 2010 that seeks specifically to foster culture and development in underinvested neighborhoods. In addition, the arts bank houses the vinyl archive of Frankie Knuckles, regarded as the “Godfather of House Music,” as well as 60,000 glass lantern slides from the University of Chicago and the School of the Art Institute. You can also find the personal magazine and book collection of John H. Johnson, founder of Ebony and Jet magazines.
In a press release Gates describes the Arts Bank as “an institution of and for the South Side,” “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.”
The building’s first exhibition is by Portuguese artist Carlos Bunga, whose installation Under the Skin introduces towering cardboard columns to the bank’s towering first-floor gallery. The facility will undoubtedly be used as a place for black artists, community members, and other individuals to experiment with and engage with the South Side, in an environment Gates refers to as a “laboratory.”
“Projects like this require belief more than they require funding,” Gates tells Fast Company. “If there’s not a kind of belief, motivation, and critical aggregation of people who believe with you in a project like this, it cannot happen. The city is starting to realize that there might be other ways of imagining upside beside ‘return on investment’ and financial gain.”