In 2010, as a parallel project to his studio practice, Gates founded the Rebuild Foundation, a cultural preservation and development program. Its mission is to demonstrate the impact of innovative, ambitious and entrepreneurial arts and cultural initiatives and it leverages the power and potential of communities, buildings and objects that others have discarded. The Foundation’s work focuses on African American neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago that have suffered decades of disinvestment. Art is used to create and sustain community, and the work is informed by three core values: black people matter, black spaces matter and black things matter.
Gates’ most visible project through the Foundation is the Stony Island Arts Bank, built in a bank building had been abandoned for decades. Gates purchased the bank from the City of Chicago for one dollar and through a combination of fundraising and the sales of his own work, raised funds to make a remarkable transformation. The building was restored to be a ‘bank,’ but for arts and culture.
Re-opened in 2015, the Bank is now a hybrid gallery, media archive, library and community center. Gates has described the space as “a repository for African American culture and history; a laboratory for the next generation of black artists,” and “a space for neighborhood residents to preserve, access, reimagine and share their heritage, as well as a destination for artists, scholars, curators, and collectors to research and engage with South Side history.”
Recently the Arts Bank persuaded Samira Rice, the mother of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, shot by police while playing in a Cleveland park, to let it take the dismantled playground gazebo where the shooting took place. The Arts Bank will create a memorial incorporating parts of the gazebo. “The gazebo could never be rebuilt fully because Tamir will never come back,” Mr. Gates told the New York Times in 2017. “It’s a reflection space where people can talk together about the challenges they’ve had in their lives.”
Other Foundation programs have arisen organically out of a perceived need. For example, the Ash Project – a combination of upcycling and workforce training. The city of Chicago needed to do something with trees destroyed by the Emerald Ash Borer Beetle. The Ash Project brought this together with the need for workforce training and art in the community. Residents are hired to train with master carpenters and learn woodworking as a craft. The felled trees are used as source material, to create high-quality, hand-crafted products.
The Foundation also operates an art and housing collaborative, a public, mixed housing project comprised of 32 townhomes that house community members and artists with the intent of fostering dialog between the two. Another project, a black movie house, hosts screenings of films by and about black people and offers community filmmaking classes for youth and adults. The goal is to encourage community members to tell their stories and explore their own creativity.
Beyond the Foundation, Gates continues his studio art practice, which he feels is where he can reflect quietly on issues of concern. Studio art becomes a “redemptive moment,” as he told the New York Times in 2017. Recently his work has been exhibited at the National Gallery in Washington DC and the gallery Regan Projects gallery in Los Angeles. He is also active as a curator and teacher.