Internationally Renowned Artist Theaster Gates to Launch Lunder Institute at Colby College

Theaster Gates. Photo Sara Pooley. Courtesy of the artist.

Theaster Gates, an acclaimed social practice installation artist, will hold the first residency at the Lunder Institute for American Art at Colby College, officially opening the institute as its inaugural speaker Sept. 19.

Gates, who revitalizes neighborhoods by combining art and urban planning, will engage with Colby students in their classes. Inspired by Gates’s innovative practice, Colby students will explore partnerships with Waterville community organizations and opportunities for arts-based projects in downtown Waterville. He is known around the world for projects that range from reimagining and transforming vacant buildings into cultural spaces, and his art has been shown at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Whitney Biennial and, more recently, in a solo exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. His upcoming installation at the 95th Street subway terminal in Chicago will be the Chicago Transit Authority’s largest art project in history.

“Theaster Gates is reshaping the field of art and reinvigorating communities through his innovative, creative spirit,” said President David A. Greene “His work, which is being exhibited in the world’s most prestigious galleries, allows us to see everyday and historical objects in new ways, challenging our appreciation of beauty in our lived experiences. And there may be no one more influential working at the intersection of art and community development. He sees possibility where others see despair. His outlook is just what we need right now, and we are thrilled to have him at Colby and in Waterville to launch the Lunder Institute.”

Gates will deliver a free, public lecture Tuesday, Sept. 19 at 6 p.m. in Colby’s Given Auditorium in the Bixler Art and Music Building, which is adjacent to the Colby College Museum of Art.

Gates is the first artist to be invited to the new institute, which was established through a major gift to the College by Peter ’56 and Life Trustee Paula Crane Lunder and has made Colby the only liberal arts college with both an innovative art museum dedicated to cross-disciplinary study and a global research center for American art.

A Chicago-based artist, Gates begins his community-oriented work with raw materials from run-down spaces, such as decommissioned firehouse equipment, or even the space itself, including an abandoned neoclassical bank that he bought from the city of Chicago for $1 and converted into a library of historic black publications. Through these transformations, Gates reimagines buildings and neighborhoods, converting them into vessels of opportunity for the community.

“I cannot afford to just be an artist in this moment,” Gates says. “I have to use my art and my brain to try to imagine solutions.” Gates has been called a “social sculptor” and an “international superstar,” and his work has been featured in the New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, and the PBS NewsHour. In 2012 he was named “Innovator of the Year” by the Wall Street Journal, and he has been included on Chicago Magazine’s Most Powerful People in Chicago list multiple times.

Gates is founder and director of the Rebuild Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on culturally driven redevelopment and affordable space initiatives in under-resourced communities. He is also the director of Arts and Public Life at the University of Chicago and the leader of the Place Lab, a partnership with the Harris School of Public Policy, working to design and implement new approaches to urban development.

In residency the third week of September, Gates will spend time in Colby courses in economics, American studies, African-American studies, sociology, and art, working with students and presenting lectures. For the remainder of the semester, students in an American studies class led by Visiting Assistant Professor Ben Lisle will continue their collaboration with Gates.

Lisle’s course, Art, Community, and Ethical Urban Development, explores how buildings and neighborhoods can be platforms for art, culture, and community and how urban spaces can be ethically redeveloped. Case studies in the class include Chicago’s Washington Park and Waterville, Maine, where Colby has invested significantly in revitalizing the city’s historic downtown.

The launch of the Lunder Institute for American Art both strengthens and expands upon the Colby museum’s mission to best serve the campus and the greater community through the preservation, display, and interpretation of the visual arts, bringing scholars and artists from all around the world to central Maine. These fellows and artists in residence will conduct groundbreaking research in their fields and engage with the community in innovative ways, challenging conventional modes of thought in academic, social, and political spheres.

“Colby is especially interested in bringing together innovative artists and scholars to reflect on the historical and cultural parameters of ‘American art’ as an evolving field of intellectual inquiry and creative practice,” said Sharon Corwin, the Carolyn Muzzy Director and chief curator of the Colby College Museum of Art. “This reflection comes at a moment when the field is calling for more expansive definitions of this term, urging the world to see beyond the borders of the United States and make transnational connections across materials and methodologies.”

Lunder Institute for American Art

The Lunder Institute will be integrated into the academic mission of the College and the museum’s program and is poised to become a preeminent research center for American art. The institute will create a unique space for scholarship, creative works, dialogue, and mentorship among visiting scholars and artists, Colby faculty and students, and the central Maine community; facilitate institutional exchange in the United States and internationally; and train future leaders in the field of American art through the Colby museum and partner institutions around the world.

To advance critical and creative research in American art and related fields, the institute will host a residential program for scholars and artists on campus and in downtown Waterville. Summer and academic-year residencies, ranging from several weeks to a year, will be offered to graduate students, scholars, curators, and emerging and internationally renowned artists who could develop new site-specific works on campus and in the community. These fellows will be a strong part of the intellectual and creative life of the College, working directly with faculty, students, and community members, and inspiring a dialogue between art creation and scholarship. The institute’s activities also will include an exhibition program, a robust publication program, and the organization of major multidisciplinary symposia.

Founded in 1959, the Colby College Museum of Art comprises five wings, more than 9,000 works of art, and more than 38,000 square feet of exhibition space. Admission is always free and open to the public.