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The 2018 Nasher Prize Laureate is Theaster Gates. The third to receive that honor, Gates was chosen by an international jury meeting in London at Tate Britain. The significant prize of $100,000 goes to an individual who has had a major impact on the understanding of what sculpture can be. Given this April, the award is followed by a series of public programs—the Nasher Prize Dialogues—that take place internationally throughout the year, engaging ideas around sculpture today.
Gates has a singular practice that is committed to community and focused on memory and place. Through his Rebuild Foundation, he has restored buildings and city blocks in Chicago to create spaces like Dorchester Projects and Stony Island Arts Bank, which offer resources for his neighborhood, opportunities for artistic practice, exhibition space, and archival facilities. He has expanded ideas around object-making and art production.
Whitewaller asked Leigh Arnold, the Nasher’s assistant curator, who has worked closely with the 2018 Nasher Prize Laureate Theaster Gates about the new paradigm the artist has created around sculpture.
WHITEWALLER: The Nasher Prize asks, what are the possibilities and limits (if any) of sculpture? How does Theaster Gates’s practice represent that mission?
LEIGH ARNOLD: Theaster Gates has established a new paradigm for sculpture by joining together disparate methods of artistic production—the creation of discrete objects, or what we traditionally describe as “sculpture” and the rezoning, rebuilding, and reterritorializing of architectural spaces.
WW: Gates’s practice explores what constitutes material. How is Gates reimagining raw material in sculpture today?
LA: For Gates, “raw material” includes such traditional sculptural media as clay, wood, and bronze, but can also include abandoned buildings, artifacts, and archives—building-making is no different than ceramic-object-making, in that each results in the transformation of raw materials into something beautiful. Through his multifarious practice, Gates is revolutionizing how makers transcend disciplines by collapsing traditional categories and hierarchies into the singular calling of being an artist.
WW: Gates’s work is not only novel in material, but in the way in which it engages with social activism and issues around community. What recent works by the artist stand out for you in particular in regard to the social-engagement aspect of his practice?
LA: Through the Rebuild Foundation, which Gates has described as an extension of his studio, the artist has purchased and is currently restoring the St. Laurence Catholic Elementary School in the neighborhood of Greater Grand Crossing (within blocks of his studio and Dorchester Projects). The school has been closed and the building left vacant since 2002. Gates’s plans for its future include using the space as an incubator for nonprofits that share a common interest in community development. It will likewise house artists’ studios and creative business offices at subsidized rental costs, providing the neighborhood with an additional hub of cultural activity and community outreach (other hubs initiated by Gates include Dorchester Projects and the Stony Island Arts Bank). As with his other real estate acquisitions and renovations, Gates uses discarded materials from these buildings in the creation of discrete objects that then enter the market and whose proceeds help to fund future real estate acquisitions and future projects.