Renowned artist, educator, and urban planner Theaster Gates brings his unique view to Marygrove

Marygrove College's 53-acre campus is currently undergoing a transformation. A $22 million early childhood development center has been built and will open in just over a month, focusing on the development of Detroiters from preschool to 20 years old. We celebrated that accomplishment in April with interviews from the principal of Marygrove's Early Childhood Education Center and The School at Marygrove. 

In addition to those changes, Marygrove's Community Impact Incubator program is helping other leaders and business owners grow and change. A new partnership with Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates is a combination of the two. 

"Marygrove Conservancy is privileged to have Theaster’s thought leadership and experience as a resource to our campus master planning and neighborhood redevelopment efforts," says Racheal Allen, chief operating officer of the Marygrove Conservancy. "This partnership will specifically support the creation of artistic-based, ethical development projects for artists and entrepreneurs of color in the Fitzgerald and Bagley communities."

Last Thursday, Allen invited a small group of community stakeholders to visit the campus to meet Gates. 

The event was held in a courtyard with a beautiful fountain that even I, as an alumna of the college, had never seen. It was just one more of the lovely physical features that the historic campus has to offer the community. Just inside the Madame Cadillac building – named for the wife of Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, who founded our fair city – is the new office of Rochelle Riley, director of Arts, Culture, and Entrepreneurship for the city of Detroit. The veteran journalist chose to leave the usual hub of city government, the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, and relocate to the northwest side. Her office suite was recently painted a glorious turquoise blue. 

The private event highlighted Gates and his contributions to the Conservancy’s and the city’s commitment to growing and supporting Detroit’s artist community. 

Gates’ participation is funded through The Kresge Foundation, which will create a platform for cultural and community developers to spur artist-led, neighborhood-based development and entrepreneurship that reimagines assets on Marygrove’s campus and in the Fitzgerald neighborhood of northwest Detroit.

Additionally, Gates will work with and support artists in transforming a space for art inside Marygrove's storied halls. 

Danielle Eliska, Mario Moore, and Rochelle Riley listen as Theaster Gates speaks.
Gates is the founder and executive director of Rebuild Foundation, a nonprofit platform aimed at strengthening communities through neighborhood regeneration and the development of educational and arts programming and amenities.

The artist is currently in possession of the gazebo where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot by police in Cleveland. It was installed at his Stony Island Arts Bank in 2019. 

"We recognize that because of the history of violent acts against young Black males in cities by the police, this gazebo is a national memorial, a national testament," Gates said at the opening of the reconstructed gazebo in June. "It’s a national call." Just weeks ago, federal officials declined to prosecute the officers for violating Rice’s civil rights. 

Gates' passion for social justice and community building will be a dynamic fit for Detroit and Detroiters. 

"Let me be very clear," Gates said. "Motown happened here because Berry Gordy took kids right from high school after school and turned them into stars. We need to do that same thing with every creative child here. Any kid who wants to be a small business owner, that is a painter, a singer, a musician, a writer should have the ability to do it and do it here in Detroit." 

He says he hopes to support Detroit’s artists to reach the heights that they aspire to. "Black art is not as expensive as it should be, because it’s not treated with worth," he said. "It's not expensive, because of what is deemed worthy. It's not treated with the value it deserves. But that can change." 

In addition to supporting artists, he said that he hopes Detroit audiences will find value in owning art created by members of their community, and there are so many to choose from. Gates cited Tashif Turner, also known as Sheefy McFly, as one of his favorites. 

Gates said that one of the things he has come to appreciate most about Detroit is the sense of collaboration and community. "There's a real ambition to see people be great, and see Detroit be the best city it can be," he said. "There are unlikely partnerships that seem to be evolving. I love that. People want to see good things happening. ... There’s a kind of self-empowerment that I feel here [but] is still something that's emerging in Chicago."

This is part of a series supported by Marygrove Conservancy that will showcase the work the nonprofit organization is doing to preserve the legacy of Marygrove College and how it is serving Northwest Detroit and the city overall.
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Read more articles by Biba Adams.

Biba Adams is a regular contributor and project editor for Model D. Formally Model D's Editor at Large, she is a longtime journalist whose work is fueled by her passion for people and her native Detroit. Find her on all social channels @BibatheDiva.