Two years ago, living in Canton, Ohio I stumbled across Theaster Gates speaking via TED Talk. I was instantly less amazed by the simple but potentially transformative nature of his vision. Here was a man in my home town using the Arts and denying conventional wisdom to revitalize communities forgotten by the masses. Every trip home to Chicago I intended to visit his “miniature Versailles in Chicago” but as fate would have it Mondays were the only days I had free. A day of the week the Stoney Island Art Bank has been closed.
Well, I’m back in Chicago full time with more than Monday free. At my first chance I took the drive to 6760 S. Stony Island Ave. and found the doors to the old Stoney Island Savings and Loan open. What was once the decaying lobby of a long shuttered community bank is now home to a striking piece by Glenn Ligon. With kid in a candy store glee, I chatted up a volunteer about what the Rebuild Foundation was doing with the place and he obliged me. I thanked the young man for his insight as I began to explore the building.
The space is mostly untouched except for the Bing bookstore area and what must be the “most often instagramed room in America” that contains the archives of Johnson Publishing. I settled in to watch a performance by Nina Simone playing in a space transplanted from the Black Cinema House. I cannot put into words the emotions that came to mind sitting there surrounded by art, publications and music created by and for people that looked like me. I lingered for a bit exploring the wisdom of the ages archived in the pages of Ebony and Jet magazines housed there. I could have spent a week in the Art Bank and still not taken it all in and that’s before making time for the culturally significant program of events that the space provides free of charge each week.
I’m so thankful for this community gem and urge you to visit when you are able. There are lessons in revitalization and a case study on the transformative power of the Arts that every community in America could benefit from just sitting there for contemplation. Theaster Gates, Rebuild Foundation, its benefactors and proponents have a winner here.