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Place Lab Tour Teaches Students the Impact of Community Building Through the Arts

By Tate Glover

For our final winter quarter Arts, Public Purpose, and Policy class meeting, Dr. Jennifer Novak-Leonard set up a visit to Washington Park to see the work being done by Place Lab and Theaster Gates. Place Lab is an initiative developed by collaboration within the University of Chicago and led by professor and renowned artist Theaster Gates. We started out our trip by meeting up at the Currency Exchange Cafe, a business started by Theaster Gates and operated in partnership with a nonprofit he founded, Rebuild Foundation, which is located on the developing Arts Block and run and staffed entirely by south side locals. Although serving coffee and food is central to operations, it is not the primary purpose of the cafe. The mission of the cafe is twofold: provide a place for creatives and innovators to meet and to support the local community. These goals were interlaced not only with the cafe’s purpose, but also with the mission of Place Lab.

From the cafe we headed next door to Bing, a small bookstore that requires no purchase in order to spend time there. Here we met up with Place Lab’s team members Lori Berko and Isis Ferguson. Berko and Ferguson led us through Arts Incubator, an educational space and gallery that hosts artists in residence and provides youth classes that encourage community engagement through the arts. From there we passed by the future sites of the Green Line Arts Center and a piece of land that will be turned into an open air community space. We left the Arts Block to see several of Theaster Gates’ earlier creative place-making initiatives, ending at the Stony Island Arts Bank, a renovated bank that is yet another community space, as well as a library and archive. 

All of the spaces we viewed were created with the distinct purpose to build community and foster creation and innovation. Speaking with Berko and Ferguson, we learned about some of the challenges that have faced Place Lab as they have grown and developed their work. One major challenge has been defining themselves as community builders and then focusing specifically on arts and culture. The needs of the neighborhoods they work in are diverse and it would be easy to be caught up trying to put a band-aid on everything, but this would come at the expense of providing high quality arts and culture programming. Place Lab has determined that they aren’t capable of being a one stop shop for all needs, a difficult decision given their primary goal of supporting the local community.

At the end of our fascinating and extensive tour, Berko and Ferguson gave us some parting words of advice, urging us to focus on our values when working in the creative world and reminding us that nothing can replace authenticity.