Theaster Gates: Where to Next?

Since Theaster Gates was announced as the Distinguished Artist and Director of Artist Initiatives in a three-year contract with the Colby Museum of Art’s Lunder Institute in April 2018, he’s been as busy as ever. With new exhibitions in museums and galleries across the globe, from Los Angeles to Minneapolis to London, it seems one can hardly go anywhere without running into the Chicago-based artist’s work. It was only recently that Gates’ exhibition here in the Museum lobby, Facsimile Cabinet of Women’s Origin Stories, was taken down, leaving many students to wonder what exactly is Gates up to in his collaboration with the College now? 

Daisy Desrosiers, Program Director for the Lunder Institute of American Art, has been working closely with Gates since his contract with the College was announced. She says that while Gates’ work might not be visible on campus at the moment, they are still collaborating behind-the-scenes on a variety of projects and initiatives. 

“It develops in different phases, which we’re still exploring with him since the Lunder Institute is quite new and all our roles unprecedented,” Desrosiers said in an interview with the Echo. “We’ve developed a plan with Theaster on different fronts. Sometimes it’s more public facing, in context of the talk or the class visits [during his residency in 2017]. On other occasions, it’s more research— inward facing with collaborators or Maine-based communities.”

One example of such collaboration with Maine communities is Gates’ research on Malaga, an island off the coast of Maine that was home to a mixed-race population until 1912, when local government forced their eviction. He presented his work on Malaga in a talk hosted by the Lunder Institute in Nov. 2018, alongside Maine-based artist Daniel Minter and Bates College Associate Professor of American Studies Myron Beasley. Gates’ research on the island led to the creation of an exhibition called Theaster Gates: Amalgam.

“[The Lunder Institute is] supporting part of the exhibition which is traveling all over the world right now,” Desrosiers said of Amalgam. “It will be opening soon at Tate Liverpool and we are hosting a panel conversation as part of the Lunder Institute Initiative. It’s great that we are able to share with an outside public what we are cultivating here in Maine with him.”

Gates is also working with local Maine artisans to create new work as part of his ongoing research, according to Desrosiers.

“One of the projects that I’m overseeing this semester with him has to do with a few of our Maine communities of makers—actually, woodworkers that are working really closely with Theaster on building a new project. So when I say research, it’s not Theaster in a room reading. If you know him, he’s a very active and engaging person. It’s always in relational perspective. So it’s always meeting people, bringing new groups of people together.”

Desrosiers says that this work ties into a student-led initiative overseen by the Institute that she named a “maker’s map”. The interactive project aims to document the different kinds of makers and artisans that Maine has to offer so that visiting artists can more easily collaborate with them. Desrosiers also mentioned “oral histories”, another student-led project where they will record Gates speaking about his Ship of Zion, which is currently on display in the Museum.

“I think it’s amazing  for students in the arts, for students still trying to find themselves and their creative outlet,” Grace Dodig `21, who worked closely with Gates’ work in her classes, said of the planned projects in an interview with the Echo. “It’s a really amazing opportunity.”  

However, Desrosiers also emphasized that students don’t need to see Gates face-to-face to interact with him, speaking of his Facsimile Cabinet of Women’s Origin Stories as an indirect method of dialogue.

“It is kind of another way to interact with the work of an artist and be in contact with him by extension,” Desrosiers said of the exhibition. “That allows for more in-depth experience for some students.”

Dodig agreed, claiming the hands-on approach of the exhibit allowed her to connect with the artwork in a way she never had before. 

“It allowed Colby students to become the artists,” Dodig said. “While it was his work of art, it was open to interpretation in a way that we haven’t seen before. Not everybody can pick up a paintbrush and make a work of art, but almost everybody can tell a story using the materials in front of them.”

The Lunder Institute is also collaborating with Gates outside of Maine. Perhaps most significantly, they are working with him on the Black Artists retreat, an annual gathering of black artists started by Gates and Chicago-based sculptor Eliza Myrie in 2013. This year’s Retreat will be held at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City. 

“It’s such a special initiative,” Desrosiers said of the event. “When you hear about past participants of Black Artists Retreat, they have such a special and great memory of it because they have the opportunity to just be present, which I think is very rare today. It’s an incredible chance.” 

These are the kinds of community and discourse that Gates brings back with him into his work with the Institute and the Museum. 

“I think [Gates] has had a really positive impact on the Museum, especially in light of his recent exhibit [Facsimile Cabinet of Women’s Origin Stories],” co-chair of the Museum Student Advisory Board Marina Takagi `21 said in an interview with the Echo. “It was in conjunction with Black History Month which I thought was really powerful, especially for a lot of students of color. It was a good way to encourage discussion of race and identity on campus.”

As the nature of Gates’ work is extremely interpersonal and social, he has also given the Institute access to a far-reaching network of fellow artists. This October, for example, the College will be welcoming renowned photographer Carrie Mae Weems, and in the spring, up-and-coming video artist Ja’Tovia Gary, both of who Gates has worked with closely. 

“That’s just one of the ways that Theaster is helping us elevate and share our work,” Desrosiers said. “His platform has such an echo.”

However, all of this is just the tip of the iceberg in Gates’ collaboration with the Lunder Institute, according to Desrosiers. 

“I’m excited for what’s still in development. There’s a lot cooking and there’s a lot that is still in motion, but it’s just exciting to share and be in conversation and witness this all together. That’s the biggest gift of this affiliation.”