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Ken Stewart on The Opening of The Stony Island Arts Bank

Over the weekend, the Rebuild Foundation’s Stony Island Arts Bank on the South Side of Chicago officially opened to the public with an event attended by nearly 1400 people. The renovated bank will serve as an exhibition space, research venue, and home for a variety of collections that include: Johnson Publishing archives, 60,000 glass lantern slides from The University of Chicago and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, DJ Frankie Knuckles’ vinyl collection, and a collection of Edward J. Williams featuring “negrobilia” dating from the Civil War era to the present.

A few weeks ago, Whitewall spoke with Rebuild’s CEO Ken Stewart, about the new space and how it fits into the overall vision of the foundation and founding artist Theaster Gates.

WHITEWALL: How would you describe the mission of Rebuild?

KEN STEWART: Our mission is to rebuild the cultural foundations of the neighborhoods where we operate. We are right on the border between two neighborhoods, Greater Grand Crossing and South Shore of Chicago. The idea is fairly simple in principle, and then has kind of these complicated ways of manifesting itself concretely. The populations in these neighborhoods since 1965 or 1970—at the peak of the great migration—have declined by about 50%. The impetus for that was the disappearance of manufacturing jobs, lacking municipal infrastructure, school closings and such, and now there is a tremendous amount of vacant and abandoned buildings and properties.

Tom Harris © Hedrich Blessing
Courtesy of Rebuild Foundation

It also means that there are very few opportunities for people living on the South Side or the mid-South Side to see and experience great art, or if they are a practicing artist to have available resources for their practice. The way that our mission is manifested is to provide platforms for people who want their practice to be supported and to make it possible for people living in these neighborhoods to not have to leave their neighborhoods to see and experience great things. On one hand there’s an effort to bring interesting people and interesting art into these neighborhoods from wherever, and on the other to support the activity that’s already there.

WW: Wow does the Stony Island Arts Bank fit into the other sites that are already make up Rebuild: the Black Cinema House, Dorchester Projects, and Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative?

KS: The Stony Island Arts Bank is the fifth site that we’ll be operating. The first two sites are known as Dorchester Projects. That was really our first project that was intended from the beginning for public programs for public access. It’s also kind of small and we open it up when we can. The Bank is another scale—it’s 70,000 square feet and it will be our first site that has regular operating hours. Anyone who wants to can come visit us and see whatever exhibition we have on the first floor and look through and make use of all the archival materials we’ll have on the second floor.

WW: The collections housed at the Bank seem a bit disparate—how do you see them relating or being used by the community?

Tom Harris © Hedrich Blessing
Courtesy of Rebuild Foundation

KS: There is kind of a theme that runs trough Rebuild’s reactivation of these buildings and all of these materials themselves, which is that for one reason or another, they’ve fallen out of circulation: the buildings are all abandoned and these materials are all analogue. The slides we have are glass lantern slides of art history and architecture from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Univeristy of Chicago. As institutions were digitizing their collections they were disposing of these massive collections of glass slides.

Johnson Publishing didn’t have a use anymore for their reference books and because every issue is now online. But they wanted to give them a good home, so we had taken that on. And the same thing with the Frankie Knuckles collection of records. Frankie was an important figure in the house music scene in Chicago. We don’t actually own his personal archive but we’re giving it a home and doing some care of it.

So there is a digital version of [all these things] somewhere but we have the principle and belief that the object itself has some cultural importance. So while all these things on one hand are a research resources, we are also hoping users, neighbors, artists, art historians, or academics who make use of the collections will help us reimagine a cultural significance to them that is not prevalent right now.

WW: The Bank is also a site for the Chicago Architecture Biennial. Can you tell us about the installation by Carlos Bunga on the first floor?

Tom Harris © Hedrich Blessing
Courtesy of Rebuild Foundation

KS: What’s been great about our partnership with the biennial is that they very much want the programs that we’re doing to be a kick-start to the Bank as an institution. So we consider Carlos’ exhibition to be the first artist installation in the Arts Bank. I can say that it is very much in line with his past projects, which range sometimes from small interventions on a wall to massive architectural volumes that he creates with cardboard. It is one of those kind of grand installations—when you walk in it feels like a holy place.





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