Theaster Gates on collecting


By art21. From his Chicago studio, Theaster Gates reflects on the various collections he has acquired and created artworks with, including the Jet magazine archives and the inventory of an entire hardware store. In addition to serving as source material for the artist, the collections provide Gates with insight into how one person or institution sees the world. “It’s like this little time capsule of things that were important to someone,” he says. The majority of the collections come from his immediate surroundings on Chicago’s South Side. “How do you catalog the everyday, especially as the phenomena of the everyday is changing?” Gates asks, “And is this another way of tracking Black space?” The materials function as an archive when shown in their original state, or they can be amalgamated and transformed into a painting or sculpture. “It’s the thing, and it’s the thing that makes the thing,” says the artist. Theaster Gates creates sculptures with clay, tar, and renovated buildings, transforming the raw material of urban neighborhoods into radically reimagined vessels of opportunity for the community. Establishing a virtuous circle between fine art and social progress, Gates strips dilapidated buildings of their components, transforming those elements into sculptures that act as bonds or investments, the proceeds of which are used to finance the rehabilitation of entire city blocks. Many of the artist’s works evoke his African-American identity and the broader struggle for civil rights, from sculptures incorporating fire hoses, to events organized around soul food, and choral performances by the experimental musical ensemble Black Monks of Mississippi, led by Gates himself.

Cite this page as: Art21, "Theaster Gates on collecting," in Smarthistory, January 14, 2021, accessed May 21, 2024,