February 17, 2018

Stony Island Arts Bank Library and Cultural Center Hopes To Reinterpret Chicago’s Landscape

Stony Island Arts Bank Photo credit: Tom Harris

Stony Island Arts Bank
Photo credit: Tom Harris

Three years ago, internationally acclaimed urban installation artist Theaster Gates decided that a decayed, hulking, once iconic three-story South Side Chicago building deserved to be brought back to life. His vision, with encouragement and advice from friends, resulted in the Stony Island Arts Bank—a hybrid gallery, research library, media archive, and community center dedicated to African American culture and history—which opened to the public in early October.

The 22,635-square-foot building, built in 1923, was once the Stony Island State Savings Bank, whose customers comprised some of the city’s most well-to-do African Americans. In the early 1970s the neighborhood at 68th Street and Stony Island began to experience a relentless surge of gang activity that that drove away residents and businesses. Massive demolition in the name of urban renewal left the bank standing, but not much else. But Gates, who purchased the building from the city of Chicago for $1 in 2012, believed he could give it a new life. Initially, he said, he was not sure what shape this rebirth would take, but knew it would involve culture, the African American community, and “22nd-century thinking.”

Gates, professor of visual arts and director of the Arts + Public Life program at the nearby University of Chicago, is the founder of the Rebuild Foundation, a local nonprofit community revitalization organization. Gates brought international attention to the area in 2009 when he launched the Dorchester Projects, a cluster of formerly abandoned buildings repurposed to house local archival collections, just four blocks from the Arts Bank.


Gates described his fundraising process as “Lots of prayer. I often say that belief funded the [Arts] Bank.” Half of the $4.5 million in estimated renovation costs came from his personal savings, with additional money from the Chicago Community Loan Fund and support from local patrons of the arts who bought 100 engraved marble “bank bonds,” made from the former bank’s demolished bathroom partitions, for $5,000 each. “An act of belief, a work of art, and an extremely complicated set of economic factors…collided to make the financing work,” Gates told LJ.

Initially, said Gates, “We thought…that there might be more small, autonomous organizations that would rent space in the building; but it became evident after cleaning the space up a bit, in advance of the major reconstruction, that the building would work best if it was left open and if the program respected the generosity of the spatial configuration. For this, I have my dear friend, Hamza Walker to thank for his thoughtful advice and constant admonishing to not close the space up.”


Johnson Publishing Photo credit: Tom Harris

Johnson Library at Stony Island Arts Center
Photo credit: Tom Harris

One of the results of “cleaning the space up” is an eye-popping two-story library. It holds the Johnson Publishing Archive, a 15,000-book collection donated by the Johnson Publishing Company—books the publisher of Negro Digest, Ebony, and Jet magazines didn’t have space for when it moved from its South Michigan Avenue headquarters three years ago, according to Kate Toftness, public engagement manager at the Arts Bank. In addition to books from the personal collection of the company’s founder, the late John H. Johnson—including a signed copy of Langston Hughes’s Montage of a Dream Deferred—the library holds bound runs of the publisher’s iconic magazines.

Gates also was able to acquire the 5,000-album collection of Frankie Knuckles, another legendary Chicagoan. Knuckles, known as the “godfather of house music,” died in March 2014. In securing the Knuckles collection, the Arts Bank, Toftness said, had to agree to digitize it. That work is still in progress, so the collection is only available to the public during one of the Arts Bank’s supervised Saturday tours.

The transgenerational appeal of the Arts Bank is evidenced in another collection of what Gates described as “Negrobilia”: an eclectic collection of memorabilia, advertisements, and art produced in the 19th and 20th centuries depicting blacks in unflattering and often racist ways. To take such items out of circulation, Chicago banker Edward J. Williams and his wife Ana bought and kept them in a personal collection. When he needed a home for the 4,000-plus pieces he had amassed, Williams turned to Gates. “They have found their home,” Gates said of that collection, as well as the Knuckles and Johnson items.

More than 60,000 glass lantern slides donated by the University of Chicago and School of the Art Institute of Chicago, housed in library card cabinets, round out the permanent collection. Visitors, required to wear gloves to handle the slides, can view a range of subjects from Paleolithic artifacts to Modernist art.


Frankie Knuckles collection at Stony Island Arts Bank Photo credit: Tom Harris

Frankie Knuckles collection at Stony Island Arts Bank
Photo credit: Tom Harris

The Arts Bank has been an immediate success. Between October 3 and November 4, the bank attracted 1,000 visitors. “It is already an international tourist destination,” said Gates. “It is also a local tourist destination because many of us Chicagoans barely leave our comfortable circles. The Arts Bank is definitely making new friends with the people of Chicago.”

Gates said that individuals regularly approach the Arts Bank offering to donate items they see as relevant to the new institution’s mission. ”People are offering, but we are still making sense of the things we have. Maybe one day, when we grow in capacity, we will be able to receive all of the amazing things available in our communities. In the meantime, we welcome people who have important things to share them with us. If nothing else, we can help them learn to care for their things,” Gates added.

Along with the library and a commitment to maintain the ground floor open area as an exhibit space, Gates has plans for a bookstore, bar, and event space. The Arts Bank will offer residencies for scholars and artists nationwide to work with the collection.

While the library has yet to become affiliated with any of Chicago’s public libraries or other archival collections, Gates said, “I hope that the fields of library science, archiving, art history, etc, will make use of the experimental nature of the space’s engagement. I hope we grow in our ability to make great art happen.”

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