In mid-March, the New York Times published a warm profile of Theaster Gates’s new exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., describing his creations as “monumental structures that echo abstract canvases elsewhere in the institution, but are embedded with unsung stories of black laborers and entrepreneurs.” Part of the piece also detailed how Gates’s Rebuild Foundation, a nonprofit organization that aims at neighborhood and community revitalization through arts-related projects, had acquired the dismantled pieces of the gazebo in Cleveland where twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by a police officer in November 2014. Rebuild would use the pieces, the article said, to create a memorial for Rice later this year at the Stony Island Arts Bank, the organization’s South Shore home and exhibition space.
But behind the glowing newsprint, several Black staff members at Rebuild were reportedly troubled by the nature of the Tamir Rice memorial, and the ways in which their concerns were received by higher-level staff. “They were asking Black workers to provide voices and perspective for the gazebo, because Theaster didn’t know what the fuck he wanted to say about it,” said Darren Wallace, who was, at the time, Rebuild’s cinema education coordinator. Wallace recounted that, during all-staff meetings held from October of last year until the last week of January, employees raised criticisms about the exhibit’s promotion of, as Wallace puts it, “the wanton consumption of Black death and violence.” These criticisms, Wallace said, were then taken up by the steering committee in charge of arranging the exhibit, and incorporated into the language that would be used to program the memorial. Gates declined to comment about criticisms of the gazebo exhibit.
The story about the gazebo is just one example of a work environment described by former employees of Rebuild and Gates’s other organizations as disorganized and marked by troubling power dynamics. In addition to Wallace, the Weekly spoke with Anansi Knowbody, a former gallery coordinator at the Arts Bank, and two former employees, one at Rebuild and one at another of Gates’s organizations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid damaging their connections within Chicago’s art scene. Wallace and the other former employees also expressed concerns about whether Rebuild’s approach to social-practice art has the interests of South Side communities in mind.
Wallace’s own time at Rebuild culminated in the creation of the Black Artists and Artisans Labor Coalition (an alliance between Rebuild employees and a pair of outside arts and organizing groups) and a subsequent attempt to form a union. Both endeavors fell apart after Wallace was laid off in the middle of March. But on April 20, the complaints of Rebuild staff burst onto the public scene when the Rebuild Foundation’s Twitter account suddenly went rogue, sending information about the staff’s concerns and criticisms of Gates’s project across the web before quickly being deleted later that night. One of Rebuild’s top employees, Amy Schachman, resigned for undisclosed reasons shortly after the incident.
Gates, in a phone interview with the Weekly, said that Wallace’s and other employees’ concerns are off base, and that while Rebuild may have struggled to communicate its work to the public, it nevertheless deserves praise for its contributions to the South Side.
While Theaster Gates has long been a darling of the art world, the Chicago political establishment, and the media, Wallace’s story calls into question the foundation on which Gates has built his fame: that his art helps empower Black Chicagoans.
The Black Artists and Artisans Labor Coalition was formed in the aftermath of the February 16 Ethical Redevelopment salon, one in a series of monthly, invitation-only workshops on development bookended by two public convenings in June 2016 and June 2017. The salons are hosted by the Place Lab, a University of Chicago organization headed by Gates and structured around the idea of ethical redevelopment, a development philosophy that “makes the case for mindful city-building,” according to the organization’s website. The guest list at any given salon is a who’s who of civic-minded artists, community organization leaders, and creative development organization leaders from across the country; a few residents of surrounding communities make it in, too. While Wallace wasn’t invited to the February 16 event, he told the Weekly he asked Place Lab COO Lori Berko if it was okay for him and his partner, Shani Akilah—co-founder of Philadelphia-based labor rights organization Black and Brown Workers Collective (BBWC)—to attend the event. According to Wallace, Berko said yes.
At the event, Akilah began a Facebook livestream; the Weekly was able to obtain the video footage. During a breakout discussion group, Akilah began asking questions about the Arts Bank and whether community support was obtained for the project. Most of the other members of the discussion group were from various organizations around the country and couldn’t answer the questions about the Arts Bank. When they didn’t receive answers, Akilah became confrontational. Berko came over and told Akilah that filming was not allowed, and Akilah and Berko engaged in a heated discussion: Berko insisted that the salon was a closed event, and Akilah responded, “It’s a closed event that shouldn’t be a closed event.” Berko then told Akilah and Wallace that they were no longer welcome at the event. Akilah and Wallace left, with Akilah and Berko continuing to argue as Berko ushered them out.
Berko did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
The next day, according to Wallace, Rebuild management—Amy Schachman, Jacqueline Stewart, and Sabrina Craig—called him in and asked him to explain what had happened the night before. “I told them, but I also told them we felt uncomfortable that we were asked to leave, and were asking very genuine questions. And they were totally just unreceptive to that,” said Wallace. “And I told them that what I felt that night, I felt was a part of a pattern of discrimination against specifically Black workers.” Wallace said his supervisors then asked him to compile a list of complaints and send them over. But Wallace decided that, rather than simply pass along his own criticism, he would confer with other employees and draw up a longer set of demands. He also wanted to start the process of forming a union for Black artists at Rebuild and, to that end, began meeting with union representatives and lawyers, as well as the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
Gates declined to comment on the specific events of the February 16 salon or Rebuild’s response to Wallace. However, he said, “Unfortunately for the artists who made these comments, they basically were invited into a private space and treated it as if it were a public space, when in fact they were guests in something that was really just a private meeting.”
On February 19, three days after the salon, Wallace emailed his supervisors a letter that announced the formation of the Black Artists and Artisans Labor Coalition, designed to “stand in complete solidarity with current/previous Rebuild Foundation employees.” It gave point-by-point detail of the alleged mistreatment of Rebuild employees, including unequal and unfair pay for frontline staff, an “assumption of criminality” that affects treatment of Black staff members, retaliatory behavior toward internal critics and whistleblowers, and “the hiring of a white managerial class to oversee black laborers.” The Coalition’s list of demands called for Rebuild to hire a Black community engagement liaison from Greater Grand Crossing, establish a community advisory committee, hold community forums on “anti-gentrification strategies,” and create an independent HR department. After the letter’s initial March 15 deadline was met with no response, the Coalition added another demand, calling for the resignation of Schachman, then the director of programs and development, and Gates.
Wallace, who is also the creator and cofounder of the Kinfolk Collective, a group of Chicago-based artists, spoke with the Weekly about his own experiences with these problems since he came to Rebuild last July. He claims that he was told when he was hired he would be working to find other teaching artists for Rebuild; instead, he said, he mostly ended up shooting promotional spots, or videos for grant applications. He said this was part of a general structure of disorganization. Other ex-employees who spoke with the Weekly also remarked that workplace expectations often shifted, and that communication was sometimes lacking. “I’d be sending emails that were getting unanswered, and just really trying to hold it together,” said a former employee who worked at another of Gates’s organizations, adding, “You just can’t move forward on projects ’cause you can’t get answers.”
According to Wallace, some Black employees also felt tokenized in the space. “I noticed this had been a common theme with a lot of other workers, specifically the Black workers. We felt that we were only in that space working because we were Black; we were supposed to be the face of the community,” Wallace said. “Our job titles and descriptions were switched at a whim.”
One ex-employee, who was let go from their job at Rebuild a couple of years before Wallace arrived and wished to remain anonymous because of their fear that being identified might damage their career, echoed Wallace’s sentiments. “You’re just there for affect,” they said. “You’re not there to be this intelligent Black person. You’re not there to outshine him. You’re not there for that.”
The employee also detailed the circumstances of their own firing, alleging that, without their knowledge, they had trained their own successor, an “old friend” of Gates’s. “I was asked to meet with this [person] far before [they were] even brought in and I didn’t understand why. [They] didn’t really have any knowledge of what I was doing,” they said, later adding “It was like, ‘let me have this [person] teach us everything that [they know] and once we see how [they run] these programs then we don’t need [them] anymore.’”
The feeling that Black employees were only there to serve as expendable frontline symbols was exacerbated by what the letter described as “the hiring of a white managerial class to oversee black laborers.” In person, Wallace was even more blunt, noting that Akilah’s BBWC, which helped found the Coalition, “[uses] this term called a ‘plantation politics,’ which they’ve identified in a few nonprofits, specifically nonprofits that are supposed to engage marginalized communities. That is, they put Black and brown faces on the front line and give them very little job agency.”
In response to these accusations, Gates emphasized the fact that Rebuild and its sister organizations are Black-led and diverse. Of the eleven Rebuild employees, he said, nine are Black; the remaining two include a white secretary and the since-resigned Schachman. “And if you look across Arts + Public Life, the Place Lab, it’s an amazingly and grossly diverse staff that I handpicked,” he said. But when Wallace was at Rebuild, he said, there were five managers, all of whom were white. Some of them were employed through the UofC’s Arts + Public Life initiative—which includes the Place Lab—so they were not all a part of the mostly-Black Rebuild staff that Gates described. Wallace said it was difficult to keep track of which employees were paid by Rebuild and which were paid by the UofC.
A former employee at one of Gates’s organizations, who agreed to speak with the Weekly on condition of anonymity, also said that few of the people in higher-level positions in those organizations were Black. They noted, too, that most of the managerial staff was female. “I know that when I got in I was like, ‘Oh, why is it all pretty white and Hispanic women running every single organization?’” the former employee said, later adding, “You were looking around and you were like, ‘This is like a power situation, not an empowerment situation.’”
On February 20, the day after he sent the letter to management, Wallace was placed on suspension without being told why, he said. Feeling that his rights had been infringed upon, he filed charges against Rebuild with the NLRB. Though Wallace was quickly reinstated, he alleges he subsequently experienced a series of retaliatory actions, such as being asked to log his hours on a timesheet, which he hadn’t had to do before since he was a salaried employee, and then having his pay withheld until the sheet had been reviewed. He said that no other employees were asked to log hours that way. On March 21, he was laid off from Rebuild, shortly after he taught his last class.
According to Gates, investigations into Wallace’s job were unrelated to him voicing his concerns. Instead, he said, Wallace was found not to be doing the hours he had been hired for.
“In the case of Darren, he was the highest paid part-time person on the staff and probably contributed the least,” said Gates. He said that Wallace should have been spending more time working to make change in the community, rather than criticizing Rebuild’s work. He has the same response to most critics—why don’t they build something, too?
“People feel that the only thing they can do is scream and I wish that they would be partners with me in change,” he said.
Meanwhile, after Wallace left Rebuild, the Coalition’s efforts to begin a union faltered, he said. “After I got fired in mid-March, the Coalition was officially over, because the retaliation that took place against me just scared the shit out of all the other workers. They felt like the press wasn’t picking this up, there’s nothing we can do.”
Wallace isn’t the only former Rebuild employee who became disillusioned after a stint spent working at the foundation. In December 2015, Anansi Knowbody, a Chicago-based filmmaker, began a job at Rebuild as a gallery attendant; initially, he said he enjoyed it. “It felt very much like a family. It felt very much inviting and very warm and something that I wanted to be a part of,” he said. “It was great. We started off having team meetings, meeting every day, really being interested in one another’s lives.” To be closer to work, he moved into an apartment building near the Arts Bank that was also owned by Rebuild.
But Knowbody also remembers feeling, much like Wallace, that his position as a Black employee working on the first floor of the Arts Bank sometimes meant taking on different responsibilities than he had expected. “When I came, I didn’t expect that it was going to be all these social initiatives,” he said. “I didn’t know that my presence as a Black face, as an urban Black face, as an educated urban Black face was just solely to promote the company.”
Around August of 2016, Ken Stewart left his post as CEO of Rebuild, according to his LinkedIn, and Gates took over as executive director. Knowbody said that he was enthusiastic about the change, to the point where he wrote Gates a letter expressing his “praise and reverence.” But the leadership change led to other changes in management, like Gates bringing in Schachman to replace Knowbody’s old supervisor, who he said had left a couple of months earlier.
Knowbody said that after Schachman took over as his boss, the tenor of meetings changed, becoming less familial and more businesslike. Ultimately, he thinks he was fired from Rebuild because of a remark that he made in one of these meetings. “I made a comment one day, and I was like, ‘I don’t know why we’re making this change because tomorrow it’s going to be something completely different,’ because that’s kind of the nature of the environment you’re working under,” he said. “And when I made that comment, I was met with a really harsh look and I was asked to step aside and told that if I didn’t want to be there I could leave.”
One Monday shortly after that meeting, Knowbody came to work, and said that Schachman told him that his position had been dissolved, and that he was being let go. “There was no interest in securing me elsewhere. And no reasoning why my position was being dissolved,” he said. “I literally relocated to live around the corner from the Bank because I was invested in it. I was invested. I wanted to be part of the community. I wanted to be part of all the different things.”
Last week, he started a job as a baggage handler at O’Hare; from his home, it’s nearly a two-hour commute. He said that he’ll continue his involvement with art and noted that he doesn’t feel much differently about working at the airport than he did, at the end of his time there, about his work at Rebuild: “I’m not getting any more or less fulfillment working here, moving bags for a corporate conglomerate, than I was for a smaller conglomerate, just coming in on a half-day to present myself.”
In the early evening of April 20 this year, a series of since-deleted messages began to appear on the Twitter account of the Rebuild Foundation. While the tweets partially regurgitated the demands written in the Black Artists and Artisans Labor Coalition document, they also added additional commentary, calling ethical redevelopment a “code word for gentrification” and accusing Gates of “artwashing,” a term used to describe situations in which the presence of artists contributes to the redevelopment of a neighborhood by profit-driven developers and leads to displacement.
The tweets were removed shortly after they went up. Soon after, Rebuild posted a statement from the board of directors to their website, which they tweeted out on April 26. In its public statement, the Rebuild Foundation said that “these demands express misconceptions about the work that we do,” and reiterated the nonprofit’s commitment to “culture-based, artist-led, neighborhood-driven transformation, guided by our core values: black people matter, black spaces matter, and black things matter.”
The statement labeled the incident a hacking, and stated that Rebuild was “working with Twitter, the FBI, and the Chicago Police Department to identify those responsible.” Gates said that he’s not yet sure whether the Twitter account was hacked from the outside or whether it was simply accessed by someone who had Rebuild’s login information. He said that Rebuild is an organization with “a lot of trust in the employees who work with us,” and so there were a variety of people who may have had access to the Twitter account. Gates said he felt that the investigation was progressing well, but that he wanted to speak to people privately before making any public announcements.
According to Wallace, the move to send the tweets was not officially authorized by the Coalition. In fact, he said he still doesn’t know who wrote them.
“They tweeted a lot of sensitive information that really endangered a lot of workers within the space, and a lot of people were really pissed about that, and people pointed fingers, not claiming or owning up to it,” said Wallace. “It created a lot of distrust within the coalition, and at that point we decided just like it’s officially defunct, there’s nothing positive that can come from this.”
Meanwhile, sometime after the tweets appeared, Schachman resigned. Gates would not give a reason why, but he did say that there was a “tremendous amount of pressure” on the Rebuild staff after the accusation was made public. Schachman could not be reached for comment.
Gates said that Rebuild is now taking steps to address some of the concerns about its project. The public statement in response to the tweets mentioned that Rebuild would soon hold a “public forum for a conversation with current and former staff, black artists, and neighbors,” which Gates said would be held in August. He also said that Rebuild was developing a business plan in order to address what he calls the “information gap” between Rebuild’s work and public perceptions of its work.
“We were all scratching our heads like, ‘How is it that the work that we are wanting to do is so grossly misunderstood?’” Gates said.
But critiques of Rebuild, especially those accusing Gates’s projects of causing gentrification, are not new. According to the tweets, “The Rebuild Foundation under Theaster Gates treats community development as an artistic medium to express the artists’ desires rather than a social practice/experimental strategy for neighborhood transformation.” Critics have periodically raised concerns about Gates’s projects and their potential for spurring gentrification, but they’ve mostly been drowned out by widespread and laudatory media attention. For example, a mostly favorable New Yorker profile in 2014 ended with a quote in which Hamza Walker, a former Renaissance Society curator, said Gates “represents a way” to fix problems in struggling neighborhoods. Gates regularly appears on ArtReview’s lists of the most powerful people in the art world.
Other voices, however, have argued that Gates’s work contradicts his very purpose: revitalizing South Side neighborhoods. The tweets referred to a 2014 article in Art Monthly in which Larne Abse Gogarty, an academic at Humboldt University in Germany, argued that Gates’s work operates “in compliance with a system that perpetuates the social issues it attempts to improve” and uses Gates and Rebuild as an example of a troubling trend in social practice art in which wealthier, well-connected artists willing to cooperate with corporate developers and politicians receive the most acclaim. In contrast to Rebuild, Gogarty pointed out, the longstanding South Side Community Art Center operates with a tight budget and a mostly volunteer staff.
Gates views these criticisms as a problem of miscommunication, rather than any fundamental flaw in Rebuild’s strategy. He said he understood that “disempowered communities” might be frustrated when they feel like they don’t have a say in development processes, and chalked this up to Rebuild not having the “full infrastructure yet to be able to message and market all the great things we do,” referring to Rebuild’s free arts and culture programming. Furthermore, he said, critics are taking out their frustrations with “the real oppositions and the real power sources”—though he wouldn’t say who these were—on him, and the solution isn’t to point fingers at individual artists. He’s proud of his work revitalizing Greater Grand Crossing and especially saving the Stony Islands Arts Bank from demolition.
“I’m not the problem. And artists are not the problem of cities,” he said. “And the fact that an artist like any other neighbor might want to clean up their space or take a building that was going to be fucking demolished—really? a 24,000 square foot building that was gonna be demolished?—and use his or her personal resources in order to try to restore that building, where there’s no TIF money, there’s no government incentive, just so that culture can happen. I feel like that should be applauded, not critiqued.”
And most ex-employees the Weekly spoke with agreed that their criticisms weren’t aimed exclusively at Gates himself. Often, they pointed to other frustrations they also had, like the general working environment at Rebuild, or the foundation’s connection to the University of Chicago, which employs Gates as a professor, supports a number of his organizations (the Place Lab is a UofC initiative, as is Gates’s Arts Incubator on Garfield Boulevard), and has long been a major player in urban development on the mid-South Side.
Still, for Wallace, the praise that Gates and his organizations receive across the city serves as a frustrating reminder of a campaign that failed to take hold. Right now, he’s working at the Chicago Home Theater Festival; on the festival’s first night, he listened to an artist talk about their latest creation, a set of wall-sized quilts depicting scenes from the Jim Crow era. The artist said they took inspiration from Edward Williams’s “negrobilia” collection, which is comprised of stereotypical, racist objects, like furniture and signage, and is hosted at the Stony Island Arts Bank. “They were just praising the building and Theaster so much and it’s just like, ‘Oh my God, if people only knew.’ But I felt like nobody really wants to know,” Wallace said, later saying, “Can you imagine that? Like you work in this terrible institution, right, but everywhere you go these other fucking exhibitions and gallery openings—people are praising the fuck out of it.”
The anonymous ex-Rebuild employee had a similar observation: “If you’re not really involved behind the scenes, you don’t know. If you haven’t been brought on board, you don’t know. Because from afar it looks wonderful. It looks great,” they said, adding, “You know what I’m saying? But you don’t get employed by him.”
Wallace can take some solace in the fact that, after being served with the Coalition’s letter of demands, Rebuild has put the Tamir Rice exhibit indefinitely on hold, according to Wallace. But the Coalition itself has dissolved, and the NLRB closed its investigation into Rebuild after determining it didn’t have jurisdiction over the foundation. Wallace himself is moving to Philadelphia in the summer, where he’s going to keep directing movies, and help BBWC figure out how artists can unionize.
“Honestly, I promise when I was applying to work [at Rebuild], everyone within my collective was praying I get the job. I was really excited because I honestly felt this would be like a platform for transformation,” he said, adding, “A lot of people with money are actively invested in seeing this project succeed. It’s just overwhelmingly intimidating to a lot of people who know what the fuck is really happening in that space. It’s just so unfortunate, you know. It just really is. I’m ready to put this shit behind me.”
This piece was updated 5/23 to more accurately reflect the position of Hamza Walker.
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