This semester the students of the KU + el dorado studio have embarked on a new project that, in the spirit of Charles Dickens, is a tale of two cities. The project includes a collaboration with Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates, his non-profit Rebuild Foundation, and the Omaha-based Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts.
Theaster Gates, raised in West Chicago and now a rising star in the international art world, has built his practice around the creation of “new economies” in blighted neighborhoods in Chicago and St. Louis. These new economies assign equal value to the exchange of cultural and financial currencies.
With one foot in the world of high art, Theaster has the other firmly placed in the Rebuild Foundation, a complex urban experiment that leverages art-making to dissolve longstanding boundaries between art, race and class.
Theaster’s Rebuild Foundation, along with the Bemis Center, recently launched an initiative to reconstitute the historic Carver Bank Building as a new cultural center. Located in disenfranchised and highly segregated North Omaha, the Carver Bank Building will foster art-based activities that draw largely from the surrounding neighborhood.
Last week, our studio set off on a week-long road trip to Chicago and Omaha. In Chicago, Charlie Vinz led a vintage Southside tour of the Rebuild Foundation’s current projects in Dorchester. We explored an unlikely art and design book collection in the Dorchester Project Library and Archive, and witnessed construction progress for the Black Cinema Space. We also visited the Hyde Park Art Center and Three Walls, two community-driven art spaces.
Later in the evening, Theaster shared his expansive studio with us. It quickly became evident that a dense array salvaged materials from blighted neighborhoods was the actual medium of Theaster’s art practice. The tour ended with a large table of good eats, and plenty to digest.
The second phase of our journey took us to Omaha and included, in no particular order: a tour of the current exhibition at Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts; bowling; an interview with Othello Meadows, director of 75 North; an interview with Jim Beatty, director of the Great Plains Black History Museum; late night dancing on an oversized twister board; visits with Bemis Residents, multiple visits to North Omaha; a tour of the Union; and a day-stopping lunch at Big Mama’s. Finally, we spent several frigid hours documenting the site surrounding the Carver Bank Building in North Omaha.
As part of our collaboration with Rebuild Foundation and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, we’ll be proposing artist residences, mixed-income housing, and mixed use facilities for the western half of the block surrounding the Carver Bank.
Through our explorations, we hope to reestablish the idea of “banking” as a local investment strategy, an activity that creatively leverages the shared resources of a neighborhood to realize a higher cultural and economic standing.