The Rebuild Foundation is a cultural preservation and development program founded and led by artist, professor and urban planner Theaster Gates in 2010. Its mission is to “make art matter more” by showing how entrepreneurial art and cultural initiatives can transform a neighborhood.
Gates’ work focuses on the South Side of Chicago, in historically African American neighborhoods which have suffered decades of disinvestment. Like Project Row Houses, here art is used as a means of creating and sustaining community. Gates’ work is informed by three core values: black people matter, black spaces matter, and black things matter.
The Foundation’s work is community-specific, and often programs arise organically out of a perceived need. Case in point is the Ash Project – a combination upcycling/workforce training program that addresses multiple needs in the neighborhood. It was originally developed in response to the City of Chicago’s need to do something with all the trees destroyed by the emerald ash borer beetle. The Ash Project brought this need together with the need for workforce training and art in the community. Residents are hired to train with master carpenters and learn woodworking as a craft. The felled trees are used as source material, to create high quality, hand-crafted products.
The program is part of a larger suite of workforce training initiatives, all of which connect residents with contractors, artists and master craftsmen to promote careers in the trades and creative industries. Trainees are able to work on restoring vacant properties under the Foundation’s aegis.
Gates’ most visible recent project is the Stony Island Arts Bank. The Stony Island Savings & Loan bank building had been abandoned for decades – its roof had collapsed, exposing its interior to rain and snow. Gates was able to purchase the bank from the City of Chicago for one dollar and set about a remarkable transformation. The building – now known as the Stony Island Arts Bank – was lovingly restored to be a ‘bank’ but for arts & culture.
Gates has described the space as “a repository for African American culture and history, a laboratory for the next generation of black artists,” and “a space for neighborhood residents to preserve, access, reimagine and share their heritage, as well as a destination for artists, scholars, curators, and collectors to research and engage with South Side history.”