Cultural Capital

A NEW PARTNERSHIP between the University of Chicago’s Arts + Public Life initiative and Chicago Harris will bring together artists, policymakers, faculty and students to design and implement new approaches to urban development. Renowned artist and UChicago faculty member Theaster Gates will lead the joint enterprise, which merges Arts + Public Life’s Place Lab with Chicago Harris’ Cultural Policy Center under the Place Lab name.

The partnership was announced at a Feb. 1 event featuring Michelle Boone, commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events; Carol Coletta, vice president of community and national initiatives at the Knight Foundation; Daniel Diermeier, dean of Chicago Harris; and Gates. The new entity unites Harris’ commitment to cultural policy and evidence-based analysis with Place Lab’s work on arts- and culture-led neighborhood transformation. “This partnership will have an enduring impact on urban communities across the United States and abroad,” says Diermeier.

“By combining our strengths, Place Lab and Chicago Harris are uniquely positioned to be a catalyst for change in current cultural policy practices, while training the next generation of policy leaders how to develop more vibrant cities.” Gates, professor of visual arts and director of Arts + Public Life, says the partnership will create new synergies between artists and public policy practitioners. “Through an innovative combination of research and practice, the newly expanded Place Lab will provide local, state, federal and international policy-makers with effective, creative alternatives to current development strategies,” he says.

The expanded Place Lab also will facilitate public convenings, symposia and leadership development for professionals interested in the role arts and culture can play in the transformation of urban neighborhoods. This summer, Place Lab will kick off a monthly social learning network and peer-mentorship program aimed at promoting knowledge exchange among artists, community organizers, and development and planning practitioners from across the nation. The convenings will be used to imagine different types of “city building” that depart from conventional models of development. Discussions and strategy sessions will explore the emerging principle of “ethical redevelopment,” conceived from Gates’ expanded practice, which includes space development, object making, performance and critical engagement with many publics.

Place Lab was established in 2014 by a Knight Foundation grant to Arts + Public Life. Chicago Harris’ Cultural Policy Center, founded in 1999, served the arts and culture sector by researching critical issues, facilitating interdisciplinary conversations and educating a broad range of graduate students about policy issues in the arts.

The merger builds on the success of past collaborations between Place Lab and Chicago Harris, which first began working together in 2015 on “ArtHouse: A Social Kitchen.” That project will transform an underutilized property in Gary, Ind., into a workforce training kitchen, culinary business incubator and cultural site. Place Lab is leading project management, design support, public programs and engagement with artists, while Chicago Harris is developing training programs for culinary entrepreneurs and those engaged in the food service industry.

Going forward, Harris students will also assist with ongoing analysis of “ArtHouse” to evaluate the benefits of integrating cultural and economic redevelopment policies to accelerate local change. The newly expanded Place Lab will provide Harris students and faculty with opportunities to support the development, execution, impact analysis and evaluation of other Place Lab projects, and to help develop innovative cultural policy approaches in other places. 

– Sarah Galer