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Bolz Center Speakers Discuss the Role of Art in Building Community and Creating Controversy

by Lavilla Capener, Staff Friday, October 19, 2012

Artist Theaster Gates and Associate Professor Steven J. Tepper gave complementary perspectives Thursday on the role of how art and society interact during the first day of the Bolz Center’s Collegium in Grainger Hall.



Gates is a Chicago-based artist, non-profit leader, and community liaison who on Thursday was named one of the innovators of the year by WSJ Magazine. Other winners include actresses and fashion designers Mary-Kate and Ashley Olson, architect Wang Shu, and educator Eric Eisner.

Gates spoke about his participation in the art exhibit dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, Germany, which resulted in the project 12 Ballads for Huguenot House. The project involved transforming the historic building into a communal and culturally uplifted space for consideration, exploration, talks, and performances.

Gates used pieces from an abandoned building he bought in 2010 on the south side of Chicago to transform the Huguenot. His focus was on restoring both buildings and having a larger conversation about culture and place. He spoke about how the south side of Chicago has few places for its residents to explore new music, art, and film. The project provided a way to showcase the beauty of buildings in Gates’ neighborhood, while adding an international perspective on urban decay. (The Huguenot House was bombed in 1945 and had never been successfully restored.)

“The final piece showed the blight of urban communities, the value of story, the ability of song to wake up a house that’s been dead for a long time,” Gates said.

Throughout the process, the artists and artisans lived in the Huguenot House rather than staying in hotels, a decision made out of necessity rather than choice. However, it became a form of performance art as spectators would tour the house while Gates’ friends and colleagues were going about their daily lives with their families.

“In the limitations of resources, these amazing mash-ups happen,” Gates said.

While Gates focused on the artist’s perspective on creating community and peace through art, Tepper provided the sociologist’s view on why art can be controversial in different communities.

Tepper is an associate professor of sociology and the associate director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. He recently wrote Not Here, Not Now, Not That! - Protest over art and culture in America, which explores a wide range of community controversies over arts and culture, untangling the roots and dynamics behind them.

Tepper gave a brief history of controversy in art across the United States, particularly why certain pieces are controversial in some cities and regions of the country.

After doing a statistical analysis of controversy related to art and other sociological factors, Tepper found that the cities with the most art controversy also had a larger growth in the population of immigrants the decade before. However, Tepper admits, it’s not a faultless model.

“It’s not a perfect predictor, but statistically it’s the best predicator,” he said.

Other factors that correlated with art controversy included larger cities, particularly ones with gay rights ordinances; higher voter turnout; and higher magazine subscription rates of elite magazines (i.e. Vanity Fair, Architectural Digest) and family magazines (i.e. Southern Living, Reader’s Digest).

Tepper tied the findings to issues that those involved in arts administration will likely face, even if they work in the private sector. Institutions that promote art and provide a stage for artists are considered to be community owned, even if they are for profit, he said.

“If you are at odds with the community’s values, issues come forward,” Tepper said.