On Monday, February 3, artist Theaster Gates spoke to a small crowd in St. James’s church, on 93rd and Lafayette. The topic of conversation was the art installations that Gates will be creating for the soon-to-be renovated 95th Street Red Line station, just three blocks from the church. What started as a mild monologue by Gates, however, soon became an electrifying dialogue in which the artist and planner let fly all his complaints and grievances regarding the state of public art, public transportation, and the city in general.

The 95th Street station, which is the southernmost stop on the Red Line, is a critical link to the city’s Far South Side communities. According to the CTA’s website, “there are roughly 300,000 people who live within walking distance of the CTA bus routes serving the 95th/Dan Ryan terminal.” The station is now the subject of a $240 million improvement project by the CTA, which will include a complete redesign of the station’s interior, platforms, and surrounding bus lanes. The project will also include the installation of two pieces of public art, for which the CTA hired Gates.

In order to get community input on the artwork, Gates decided to hold information sessions, like the one at St. James, where members of the community could come to ask questions or make suggestions about the artwork.

His presentation began calmly enough: someone who left after ten minutes might have even thought that Gates was nervous. Gates opened by describing his internal vision for the project, which he said would have to both represent the culture of the community and his own personal background.

“What is the point,” he asked, “where a community’s identity, and its desire to see its identity represented in public space, matches my own sense of identity, and my desire to make a work that I believe in? Maybe this is the problem of the public artist. I gotta listen to you, and I gotta listen to all the me’s in me. I got my momma, my daddy, my art teacher, and Jesus, and they’re all saying something.”

Gates spent half an hour discussing his inspirations for the project, citing in particular sculptor Martin Puryear’s “River Road Ring,” an enormous mahogany ring that has hung for decades in the Rosemont Blue Line station. Gates lamented the demise of Puryear’s ring, which was removed from the Rosemont station in 2013 after the mahogany started to rot. One of Gates’s main ambitions with the art at 95th Street, he claimed, was to pay homage to Puryear by recreating his ring in more durable metal.

Next, Gates went on to discuss his own recent work. Much of this work includes the use of decommissioned fire hoses as an artistic medium, subtly referencing the struggles of the civil rights era. Gates hinted that he might use hoses in the second of the two pieces at 95th Street. When he discussed the civil rights implications of his hose artwork, however, his tone suddenly sharpened.

“People say, ‘Oh, that’s really interesting, you’re like, a fire hose artist,’ ” he said. “Then I’ve graduated from civil rights artist to fire hose artist. People say, ‘very interesting. I like this art. I want one. I get it, Theaster.’ ”

This got a laugh from the audience, but Gates did not seem to think it was funny.

“Until we get to a point where we’re willing to talk about what it means to share space [between classes and races],” said Gates, “and that’s another kind of brotherhood—until we get to that point, things will remain like this. They will sit in a lidded pot and eventually they’ll blow.”

Gates next opened the floor to questions from the audience of around thirty Far South Side residents and CTA officials. Someone asked Gates how much influence he would have beyond the two art installations. They asked if he would really have any control over the design of the station’s architecture and spatial organization, or of anything beyond his artwork. It was then that Gates’s temper started to heat up. He repeated that the CTA had only given him $1 million to spend on the art itself and the gathering of his team of artists, out of the $240 million allotted for the renovations to the station.

“I would like to know,” asked the man further, “how the city, how they’re gonna market your work. This is a black area. How are they gonna get tourists to come out? How can you reach out to the greater community?”

“The project,” said Gates, “is $1.3 million dollars. You wanna do business with the CTA, there are a lot of rules. They’re already tapping me. I will make two works, one in the north station, one in the south station. I will not share it with my white brothers and sisters, although I’m happy to have them come look at it. This is a million of 240 million. Can two works of art—one two-fortieth of the project—be the kind of symbolic work that would make people want to come down to 95th Street? I wish I had, say, four or five million. Maybe I could do more for the city of Chicago if I had a little bit more.”

“This gentleman has a contract for some artwork,” Gates’s questioner continued. “They got $240 million. You know what our community gets? Peanuts. Ten jobs don’t mean nothing. It’s just sad.”

As the man spoke, Gates echoed his comments with interjections of “mm” and “yes.”

“Whatever they sell,” continued the man, “Dunkin Donuts, at these stations, that are gonna generate money, our people are supposed to get it. Are they gonna let this man make suggestions about the rest of the station? No.”

“No,” echoed Gates.

“Are they gonna give us any control? No.”

“No,” shouted Gates.

“You all been hoodwinked again, and again, and again.”

“Situation normal,” said another audience member.

Gates returned to the front of the room and thanked the audience for coming, ending the session half an hour before the scheduled end time. Gates’s closing remarks were met with thunderous applause from the audience. He spoke once more about his ambitions with the project, saying that he aimed to revitalize the station with his art, providing for the creation of “moments that wouldn’t have otherwise been able to happen.”

“Can we predestine space?” he asked. “Can we predetermine a space that’s set aside for that kind of work, that kind of magic, that kind of public story? We need to hear each other, ar-tic-u-late-ly. These conversations lead to other conversations about black people about black leadership, about how we understand money, about what we share with each other.” The audience exploded with applause again.

“And also,” Gates added, “I’m angry.”

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