The formal arrival of Theaster Gates took place on the final day of January in the large and art-filled main dining room on the second floor of the Union League Club, where he was honored as a Distinguished Artist.
The club crowd was the largest in the history of these awards, which began in 1998, later adding Distinguished Musicians (in 2002 and now numbering 10, including Ramsey Lewis, Rachel Barton Pine and Kurt Elling) and Distinguished Writers (also begun in 2002 with the induction of Studs Terkel and now numbering five, including myself).
Some 450 people ordered drinks at four — or was it five? — bars, and nibbled on all manner of sophisticated items that included corn and rice pasta shells, Porcini Sachetti, antipasto and sliced charcuterie, and mini short rib, pulled pork and pesto chicken sandwiches.
Though most of the crowd was made up of club members who knew little about Gates, there was a considerable number of people from the local arts community who were friends, colleagues and admirers, and all could have argued that Gates had already arrived.
At 40, he is the youngest recipient of the club's honor and has already made a bold mark on the art scene, having had his sculpture, pottery and other works exhibited in London, Venice, Italy, and cities around the world and across the country. (His work is in many private collections, including that of the mayor's younger brother, Hollywood-based talent agent Ari Emanuel.)
But his most profound impact, which has been getting a great deal of attention lately and is wonderfully ambitious and ongoing, has been on the face of Chicago, the city of his birth.
The youngest of nine children and the only boy, he is a child of Chicago Public Schools, graduating from Lane Tech and attending Iowa State University, where he received degrees in urban planning and ceramics. He then got master's degrees in fine arts and religious studies at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. The following year he returned to Chicago and a job with the Chicago Transit Authority, charged with overseeing public art for the system.
He has since been inexhaustible, and his resume is long and his accomplishments many. You can get a further taste at theastergates.com or read a couple of lengthy and detailed recent magazine stories on Gates in The New York Times magazine (Dec. 20) or in The New Yorker (Jan. 20).
In short, he has been director of arts and public life at the University of Chicago; created the Rebuild Foundation, a not-for-profit that reclaims bedraggled housing on South Dorchester Avenue; and is a gospel singer with his Black Monks of Mississippi. He has recently been commissioned to design the artwork for the 95th Street CTA terminal as part of its planned renovation. He is busy bringing back to life the abandoned Stony Island State Savings Bank. He is pals with Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
This artist, developer, entrepreneur and musician also seems like a pleasant guy, smiling and chatty as he handled dozens of hugs and other personal congratulations with charm before the ceremony.
And soon as it did, with club President Guy Maras leading the Pledge of Allegiance, such a novelty these days that it prompted one older woman to comment, "I haven't done this since grammar school. … Amazing, but I still remember all the words."
Being inducted with Gates was, posthumously, Ellen Lanyon. They were the 17th and 18th members, and some of the previous recipients — Barbara Crane, John David Mooney, Dawoud Bey, just to name a few — were sitting on the stage smiling as Lanyon's brother Richard accepted her award.
She died in October at 86 and for more than six decades created beautiful paintings and prints, a great many of them cityscapes of Chicago, that gave her an international reputation. (You can get a look at some of her work under Lake Shore Drive on the south bank of the Chicago River, where her "Riverwalk Gateway" brings the river's story to life in a series of ceramic tile murals).
"Ellen loved Chicago," her brother told the crowd.
Then Gates walked to the podium, dressed in a beige sport coat with red pocket square, rust-colored pants, black shirt buttoned at the collar and no tie.
"What's happening?" he began.
Few in the crowd offered an answer but for a handful who said, "You are."
"I don't know if the Union League knows what it has done," Gates said.
Yes it does. The club has always been a home for art, its collection at 800 and growing — mostly American works accumulated with great taste for more than a century, and carefully displayed. (The public can take tours at 10 a.m. on the first Friday of every month.)
On the wall outside the main lounge is the club's most famous piece, an 1872 painting by Claude Monet ("Pommiers en fleurs" or "Apple Trees in Blossom"). Purchased by the club for $500 in the late 1890s, it is considered today, as the club's art curator, Elizabeth Whiting, happily says, "priceless."
During his acceptance speech, Gates talked of his father, also named Theaster, a roofer who also explored various business ventures, for instilling in him not only a strong work ethic but a sense of entrepreneurship. Then he said, "I ask myself all the time what it means to be an artist."
It is a tradition that each of the Distinguished Artists contributes a work to the club's private art collection. True to his collaborative and community-centric nature, Gates had something else in mind, and has requested that Elizabeth Wigfield, the club's painting conservator, bring back to vivid life a work from the permanent collection of the DuSable Museum of African American History, where it will return when all spruced up.
After Gates finished his remarks, he was greeted with enthusiastic applause, and the crowd moved to the sixth floor for dessert and coffee, with some drifting off to accompany docents on tours of the club's collection.