Theaster Gates: Innovation Through Community, Purpose and Reimagination

The Dorchester Project

Theaster Gates is one of the most innovative people working today, and there is a lot we can learn from what he’s doing.

Gates is an artist. He grew up in a large, working-class family, and after college, began his art career as a potter. Since then, the scope and scale of his work has expanded – dramatically. His profile from the Whitecube Gallery says:

Theaster Gates’ practice includes sculpture, installation, performance and urban interventions that aim to bridge the gap between art and life. Gates works as an artist, curator, urbanist and facilitator and his projects attempt to instigate the creation of cultural communities by acting as catalysts for social engagement that leads to political and spatial change.

Gates trained as both a sculptor and an urban planner and his works are rooted in a social responsibility as well as underpinned by a deep belief system. His installations and sculptures mostly incorporate found materials – often from the neighborhoods where he is engaged and have historical and iconic significance.

Perhaps Gates most ambitious project, however, is the ongoing real estate development, simply known as ‘The Dorchester Project’. In late 2006, Gates purchased an abandoned building on 69th and Dorchester Avenue on Chicago’s South Side, collaborating with a team of architects and designers to gut and refurbish the buildings using various kinds of found materials. The building and, subsequently, several more in its vicinity, have become a hub for cultural activity housing a book and record library and becoming a venue for dinners (choreographed occasions entitled ‘Plate Convergences’), concerts and performances. Gates describes this project as “real-estate art”…

Wait! Real estate??


He describes his evolution in this TED talk:


The Dorchester Project is essentially a lean startup. When Gates got a job at University of Chicago, he moved into the Dorchester neighbourhood. After the Global Financial Crisis, a lot of abandoned homes showed up there:


Clip from Theaster Gates’ TED talk

This had a bad impact on Dorchester. Gates wanted to at least improve the part that he lived in, so he took all the money he had at the time, plus a loan, and bought a house for $18,000. After refurbishing the house, he turned it into a community art centre – the home of many different activities:

The Dorchester Project

Clip from Theaster Gates’ TED talk

The activities generated revenue, which enabled Gates to buy and refurbish another house, which led to another, and then commercial building that became his residence and studio. Then a couple of years ago, for $1 he bought an abandoned bank building that was scheduled to be destroyed. This turned into a $3.5 million project which opened last year.

When you add up all of these projects, the cumulative impact has been the transformation of an entire neighbourhood. This has led to many new jobs, both for people directly employed in the projects, and also in businesses that have sprung up to support the new development.

This is what the area looks like now:

Dorchester now

Clip from Theaster Gates’ TED talk

Gates formed a group called Rebuild, whose

investments in real estate impel neighborhood rejuvenation through empowering individuals, artistic practices and community engagement.  Their model for success is outlined by:

  • Activating underutilized spaces in the community with arts and cultural programming.

  • Providing opportunities and spaces for neighbors to come together and engage in meaningful exchanges that spark collaborative action.

  • Empowering artists and creative individuals to realize their potential as community change agents.

  • Investing in the development of the skills and talents of local residents to catalyze entrepreneurial efforts.

His story tells us a lot about innovation.

Start with what you’ve got

The Dorchester Project didn’t start with the aim to revitalise an entire neighbourhood – Gates just wanted to make one nice building out of an abandoned house. Gates and his friends used the resources available to them, and slowly built this into multiple large projects. He says:

Now we’re giving advice, around the country, on how to start with what you’ve got, how to start with the things that are in front of you, how to make something out of nothing, how to reshape your world at a wheel, or at your block, or at the scale of a city.

This is a great innovation lesson. Often people want to go as big as possible with their new idea. Usually, it’s smarter to start with what you have, and figure out how to make things work. Once you’ve done this, then you can scale. Of course you want to do this rapidly, but the little bet often has the biggest impact.

Build the community

Gates has succeeded because every project he’s done has brought in others. After finishing the first house, he quickly realised that the only way it would succeed was by building a community:

Not only is creating a beautiful vessel important, but the content of what happens inside of those buildings is also very important. So we were not only thinking about development, but we were thinking about the program.

The activities in the first house included workshops, performances, art exhibitions, dinners, readings, lectures and parties. Each subsequent project has been even more community oriented. When Gates works in cities other than Chicago, the first thing he does is dig into the local community – building from the people and groups that already care deeply about the place.

A New Yorker profile of Gates says:

Jeffrey Deitch, the former director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, told me, “His special fusion of art and community activism has made him the kind of artist that people are looking for today. It’s not just addressing issues of art about art, and art about self-identity; it’s a new vocabulary, a new approach. The success of his work is measured by its actual impact on the community.”

This important for innovation as well.  Within our organisations, we innovate more successfully when we have many people involved. We’re even more successful if the people whose needs we serve form a community.

Find the purpose

The impact of Gates’ work increased sharply when he found his purpose. His principles include the importance of community, labour and autonomy. And his purpose became to use the process of art to change the place that he lived. In his TED talk he says:

It’s not really about the material, it’s about our capacity to shape things.

And in a terrific interview with bell hooks and Laurie Anderson, he says:

For me, art, there’s a way in which something got in there that made me think: Oh! This is not about clay, this is not about the painting, this is actually about a set of tactics that would allow me to be effective in the world.

This is a great example of what Umair Haque calls a betterness model.

Reimagine meaning and value

The work that Gates does has such an impact because he consistently makes us re-evaluate the value of things through changing their context. In a monograph on his work by Carol Becker, Lisa Yun Lee and Achim Borchardt-Hume, Becker says:

Let’s end with alchemy, a process I always associate with your work. You’re able to move through different societies and cultures, take something that’s without articulated value in one cultural context and reposition it in a different context, where you’re then able to make its intrinsic value apparent. You know how the art world works, so you can take recycled material and create something that becomes valuable – shoeshine stands, for example. You understand the nuances of what that world will respond to. I see this as alchemizing materiality into other materialities.

He has made meaningful art out of shoeshine stands, roofing tar, and even buildings. In each case, Gates has reimagined the meaning of the object.

This reimagining is at the core of innovation. When we combine community and purpose with this ability to reimagine meaning, we innovate.

And if we do it really well, we might have as much impact as Theaster Gates.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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3 thoughts on “Theaster Gates: Innovation Through Community, Purpose and Reimagination

  1. Hi Tim,

    Great blog. Really inspiring but at the same time really interesting to see the diversity of lean approaches and their applications. Although creative, I see the structured approach he took as being a large part of his success. I like also that it’s clear that things like this don’t happen by magic but by hard work and thinking about the processes.

    Thanks again!