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September 23, 2021

A Major Gift of Work by Theaster Gates

Theaster Gates (born in 1973), Ground Rules (Red Line, Green Line), 2015, wood flooring, 183.9 x 243.8 x 7 cm. MMFA, gift of Lillian and Billy Mauer. Photo Christopher Burke, courtesy of Art Speaks

Thanks to the incredible generosity of Lillian and Billy Mauer, the MMFA has acquired Ground Rules (Red Line, Green Line) by renowned African American artist Theaster Gates. This is the first work by this artist to enter the Museum’s collection and the only one from the Ground Rules series in a public institution in Canada.

Mary Dailey Desmarais. Photo Stéphanie Badini

Mary-Dailey Desmarais

Chief Curator

Born in Chicago in 1973, Gates is undoubtedly one of the most important artists of his generation. Drawing on a vast array of mediums and methodologies, including sculpture, performance and archival research, he has developed new models of artistic creation and social transformation, exploring concepts of value and economy, as well as spiritual and material exchange. His work has helped to shape how we think about art and art history.

Describing his practice as “critique through collaboration,” Gates often partners with architects, researchers and performers to create works that stretch the idea of what we understand visual-based practices to be. At the heart of his endeavour is a deep engagement with African American culture and history. More specifically, Gates’s work compels conversation on racial inequality in the United States.

Dorchester Projects

Among his most ambitious creative endeavours, and the project for which he is best known, is the ongoing real estate development known as the Dorchester Projects. In late 2006, the artist purchased an abandoned property near the corner of 69th and Dorchester avenues on Chicago’s South Side, collaborating with a team of architects and designers to gut and refurbish it. The building and, subsequently, several more in its vicinity, have been transformed into a hub for cultural activity, housing a book and record library and a venue for dinners, concerts and performances. This initiative has grown into the Rebuild Foundation (2010), a non-profit platform targeting neighbourhood regeneration, community arts programming and cultural development in Chicago. Gates has described this project as “real estate art,” part of a circular ecological system in which the renovations of the properties are financed largely by the sale of artworks that were created from the materials salvaged from the buildings’ interiors.

Dorchester Projects, Chicago, 2014. Image Sara Pooley. Courtesy Rebuild Foundation

Ground Rules

The Museum’s acquisition, Ground Rules (Red Line, Green Line), is both conceptually linked to Gates’s urban renewal project and part of one of his most important object-based bodies of work. In his Ground Rules series, the artist repurposes salvaged remains of gymnasium floors taken from high schools that have been decommissioned by the City of Chicago. For Gates, the rules represented by the athletic markings on a gym floor are among the ways in which children come to understand a larger social order. Lack of access to gyms is a lack of access to privilege, and a lack of access to learning the “rules,” both big and small, that structure society.1 Merging art history, social history, and community, the Ground Rules works exemplify the driving forces of Gates’s practice.

In Ground Rules (Red Line, Green Line), the wood planks and red, green and black markings of a decommissioned gymnasium floor are reconfigured to create a rhythmic geometric abstraction that sets the work in dialogue with the history of art, creates new visibility for Black artistry within that history, and retains deep resonance with a South Side Chicago community. We are deeply grateful for this major gift.

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