Theaster Gates Is Cultivating the Next Generation of Creatives

Five years after saving a school from the wrecking ball on Chicago’s South Side, the artist’s Rebuild Foundation has broken ground on transforming the dilapidated structure into a community-centric arts incubator.

Rendering of the transformed St. Laurence Elementary School by Rebuild Foundation

In 2002, the St. Laurence Elementary School and St. Laurence Church on Chicago’s South Side were both shuttered and slated for demolition. For locals, it continued an insidious cycle of abandonment that has hindered social and economic development throughout Black and Brown communities in the city. Though the church was razed in 2014, the elementary school was spared when artist Theaster Gates and his Rebuild Foundation purchased the property two years later and raised more than $7.6 million to renovate the building into a community arts incubator. 

After years of preparation, construction finally broke ground earlier this week. The formerly abandoned school will be converted into more than 40,000 square feet of artist studios, classrooms for creative entrepreneurship courses, co-working floors, a laboratory for archival research, and more. Gates aims for St. Laurence to increase access to creative resources and amenities for underserved communities, while establishing a think tank and maker-space for people to engage with the Rebuild Foundation’s collections and archives. When programming kicks off, in fall 2023, the incubator may cement the South Side as a destination for art and design intelligence.

Rendering of the transformed St. Laurence Elementary School by Rebuild Foundation

“As an emerging artist navigating the creative industries and my own curiosity about process and making, access to resources, space, and programs in my own neighborhood would have been vital to developing and refining my practice,” Gates says. “This project strengthens our ability to support artists and artisans with the tools, training, and resources that will enable them to experiment and create innovative projects in their own community. St. Laurence is as much about preserving Black space as it is about giving new life to creative possibilities on the South Side.”

The long-awaited groundbreaking is only the latest initiative spearheaded by Gates, a restless art-world force whose current projects are leaving a wide-ranging impact around the world. This past fall, the Rebuild Foundation joined forces with Prada Group to launch Dorchester Industries Experimental Design Lab, a three-year incubator for emerging designers of color that will host public programming in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. He’s also gearing up to unveil the 2022 Serpentine Pavilion, a sanctuary-like setting called Black Chapel inspired by the giant, bottle-shaped pottery kilns in Stoke-on-Trent, England. The pavilion will host live music, poetry readings, and dance performances when it opens in London’s Kensington Gardens this June. 

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