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Banking on Change

An inaugural gala for Theaster Gates’ Rebuild Foundation brings out art royalty for a lively evening of dinner and dancing.

Dinner was served on pottery produced by Gates’ studio.

A lofted library in an old bank might seem like an unlikely place for a dance party. Enter artist, activist, musician, professor, urban planner and founder of Rebuild Foundation Theaster Gates, who ignores such conventional thinking. He’s swaying to vintage vinyl beneath towering bookshelves, surrounded by a crowd of art-world influencers all showing off their best moves—there’s Okwui Enwezor, curator of the Venice Biennale; Sarah Herda, artistic director of the Chicago Architecture Biennial; and the Renaissance Society’s Hamza Walker, to name a few.

The volumes, thousands of them, make up the Johnson Publishing Library, a legacy of founder John Johnson donated by Linda Johnson Rice, and the beats are from the personal collection of “Godfather of House Music” Frankie Knuckles. Both important archives were showcased in their new home, Stony Island Arts Bank, on the evening of the inaugural Build | Rebuild Benefit. Cultural Commissioner Michelle T. Boone and arts supporters, including Larry and Marilyn Fields, Eric and Liz Lefkofsky, and J.B. and M.K. Pritzker, came out for the event, held during EXPO CHICAGO’s art-filled weekend. The joyful evening served as a preview of the Arts Bank and its first site-specific installation by Portuguese artist Carlos Bunga.

The monumental columns and coffered ceilings offered hints at the building’s former life as a palace of commerce on a once-vibrant strip of South Chicago. Vacant since the 1980s, the Prohibition-era structure was purchased by Gates for a single dollar in 2012 and envisioned as a future cultural asset for the underserved neighborhood, akin to Rebuild’s other nearby projects. To help fund the extensive renovations needed, Gates sold “bank bonds,” artworks made from the building’s marble wall slabs and engraved with “In ART We Trust.” Three years and $4.5 million later, the 17,000-square-foot space now serves the community as a platform for exhibitions, performances and scholarly residencies as Rebuild’s largest and first undertaking with regular public hours.

It’s also a great place for a party.

Theaster Gates and Chris Ofili

At the benefit, Gates, along with CEO Ken Stewart, mingled with guests over a family-style dinner by chef Erick Williams of mk, served on tables and pottery designed by the artist’s studio. Major artists Kerry James Marshall, Glenn Ligon and Lorna Simpson, and architect David Adjaye, looked on as Gates began the evening by reading a congratulatory letter sent by none other than Barack and Michelle Obama, which noted that the act of revitalizing the historic building will help to “sculpt a future of expanded progress for residents of the South Side.”

After dinner, guests meandered through the stately bank to hear performances by singer-songwriter Meshell Ndegeocello and jazz pianist (and MacArthur genius) Jason Moran. The evening closed with the library dance party—a high point full of high spirits.

“This is a new cultural beacon,” said artist Nick Cave, on-site for the festivities. “I felt it tonight when the doors swung open. It’s sure to attract creative energies to the South Side and send them back into the world with exponential power.”