Theaster Gates has a new project: Bing. The high-powered local artist and developer will open Chicago’s first arts-focused bookstore as the newest addition to his vision for an “arts block” on the stretch of Garfield Boulevard directly west of Washington Park. Bing—the name comes from a broken bingo sign Gates found—is due to open within the next few weeks. As with last year’s opening of its next-door neighbor, Currency Exchange Café, details and specifics have not been disclosed to anyone beyond Gates’s inner circle, and no concrete opening date has been announced.
Gates attributes the inspiration for Bing to his realization that apart from museum-affiliated stores there are no bookstores in Chicago with a specialty in art books. The store is the result of a partnership between Gates and Hamza Walker, the director of education and associate curator at the Renaissance Society. Walker is leading the curatorial side of the project, locating and acquiring the art and books to be sold at the store. “The one part of this project that feels like art is this really deep collaboration with Hamza,” says Gates.
Gates has been a somewhat controversial local figure since becoming the director of the University of Chicago’s Arts and Public Life initiative, a position he’s held since 2011. He’s been developing a cultural hub on the stretch of Garfield between Washington Park and the Dan Ryan, consisting so far of the University-affiliated Arts Incubator and Currency Exchange, which is owned by Gates but held in a space leased from the University. Bing’s building will also be leased from the University. These developments have been criticized as the beginnings of University-led gentrification in Washington Park, and are viewed by many as an attempt by the UofC to expand its cultural influence on the South Side beyond Hyde Park’s borders.
When asked about these criticisms, Gates is quick to point out that his is a black-owned business, and that it is “emerging out of a deep desire for artists on the South Side and around the city to know more about art.” These sentiments echo the arguments of his supporters, who say that Gates is creating spaces for black art on a level that no one else in the city is attempting.
Gates is also critical of the term “gentrification” itself, saying, “We need to develop a more sophisticated vocabulary around the growth in our neighborhoods. The reality is, new resources have come to Washington Park that have not been there before,” he continues, “and new opportunities have to come from somewhere. I’m really honored that the University would take an active role in making something happen that benefits both them and the community that they’re around.”
The University has a recent track record of tense relations with the surrounding communities; residents in surrounding communities have complained about rising rents due to UofC-led development in and around Harper Court on 53rd Street, as well as the continued lack of an adult trauma center at the UofC Medical Center.
Nevertheless, Gates hopes that Bing can help blur some of the rigid lines between Hyde Park and its surrounding neighborhoods. The bookstore will be positioned on the border of what is now considered to be the University’s territory of influence; it will also be adjacent to one of two potential sites for the UofC-led Obama presidential
library. Gates believes Bing’s location puts it in a prime position to bridge the gap between those affiliated with the University and not. His dream is to turn the stretch of Garfield Boulevard into a cultural destination, a place where people can come to spend a whole day, and he views Bing as an important step toward achieving that.
The debate around the gentrifying effect of Gates’s projects in Washington Park quickly brings up the question of Bing’s accessibility to the South Side community. While Gates speculates that the bookstore might have “the burden of a complicated price structure,” that structure seems like one of the most interesting—and potentially successful—parts of the project. As in most art bookstores, there will be some items that are rare and expensive. This is done in the hopes of attracting people who are interested in collecting expensive art books, and bringing their business to a place they might not otherwise frequent. In addition to the pricier items, however, Gates says there will also be “ephemera, overstock, and donated books that can be given out as free copies.”
In this way, the support of wealthier buyers has the potential to let Bing make art accessible to all its customers. The system is an expression of Gates’s ambitious philosophy for the store: “A bookstore has to pay for itself but also has to be generous.” The compatibility of these two ideas remains to be tested.