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University of Chicago Unveils Arts Incubator

By Sam Cholke | March 9, 2013 8:20am | Updated on March 13, 2013 10:23am

WASHINGTON PARK — The University of Chicago celebrated the opening of its new Arts Incubator Friday morning in the Washington Park neighborhood, giving new life to a neglected building and new hope that the community will help fulfill the potential of young people interested in art.

“This is so cool — artists leading the way. Weirdos, bureaucratic weirdos can get so much done,” said a jubilant Theaster Gates, a South Shore artist and the driving force behind the new art center at 301 E. Garfield Blvd.

More than 75 community members, artists and university administrators joined Gates to unveil the renovated building with more than 10,000 square feet of studio space, a woodworking shop and gallery space.

“I’ve driven by here for 30 years. It made me sad to see a building that was not living up to its potential for the community,” said university President Robert Zimmer.

Zimmer said the Arts Incubator with its artists-in-residence and apprenticeship programs for youth is the first step in a broader effort to connect the university to the South Side arts community.

Some were initially skeptical of the university venturing out of Hyde Park to purchase property in Washington Park in 2008.

“I was skeptical because it’s the University of Chicago and it’s the elephant in the room and we’re just the community,” said Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd). “This is the most appropriate way to enter the Washington Park community.”

Gates, who has gained prominence in the art world in the last five years, has used his new fame to usher arts projects into disadvantaged communities in the hope of jump-starting community development. He has other art centers planned for South Shore and Woodlawn through his Rebuild Foundation.

“Sweep your stop, clean your windows, keep your buildings, because reinvestment is going to happen,” Gates said.

Michelle Boone, commissioner of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, said she hopes the arts can do for Washington Park what it’s done for Gates. She described a train trip four years ago to Milwaukee with Gates dressed in a thrift store sweater and ratty jeans.

“This is what art can do for you,” Boone said, playfully pointing out Gates tailored suit. “We want to see this sort of transformation in Washington Park.”