Urban Artists Make Cities Their Canvases

There was a time when “public art” consisted of putting up a statue in a heavily trafficked part of a city to commemorate some often long-gone historical figure. Now the city landscape itself has become an artistic medium, and few artists are more adept at using it than Janet Echelman and Theaster Gates. “Gone are the days when artists had to just be in their studios and paint and sculpt,” declares Gates. “Gone are the days when urban planners and designers could only be tools of the wealthy developer.” In his roles as director of Arts + Public Life at the University of Chicago and director of the Rebuild Foundation, Gates has transformed parts of the South Side of Chicago into a large-scale artists’ workshop where abandoned buildings are restored and renovated into community spaces.

Theaster Gates

Theaster Gates


One example is the Stony Island Arts Bank, a former savings bank in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood, that reopened in 2015 as a gallery, community center, library, and archive that contains, among many other things, the record collection that once belonged to Frankie Knuckles, Chicago’s own godfather of house music, who died in 2014. Gates converted an old Commonwealth Edison powerhouse into a sawmill to turn old trees the city had cut down into timber, which he uses in his own work and donates to other Chicago artists.

“There are hundreds of buildings that are abandoned, underfunded and underknown,” says Gates. “It’s in the place of underknowing where I feel my practice thrives.” It’s especially important to Gates that even though his work is gaining recognition among the international arts community—both the Arts Bank and the University of Chicago’s Arts Incubator in the Washington Park neighborhood have been venues for exhibitions in the Chicago Architecture Biennial, and Gates is currently preparing for an exhibition in Basel, Switzerland, that incorporates images from the Johnson Publishing archives, also stored in the Arts Bank—the buildings remain accessible to members of the community. This means being a neighbor, whether it’s showing movies on the wall of the Arts Bank, hosting barbecues, or sponsoring gospel competitions. “Our friends from around the world will come no matter what,” says Gates. “Family first.” But Gates also believes that art has more of an impact if artists and city planners work together.

“A city without a creative impulse in its bones ends up being a dry city.”

Echelman, who is based in Boston, also uses her work to bring people of a city together, but in a more ephemeral way. She creates enormous multicolored nets and curtains that appear to hover over a cityscape, like a visitation from outer space. Their appearance is highly changeable depending on the light, the wind and the weather. Sometimes she wanders around near the sites of her installations. She has observed people lying on the ground and staring up at them for hours. She has also eavesdropped on people asking complete strangers how to use their cellphones to access a sculpture’s interactive components or simply asking what they think the piece means.

“Public art provides a way for people to come together around a meaningful experience,” she says. “It has to be an authentic experience to do that. The art has to elicit curiosity to discover it. It has to have beauty to draw people in, to make people want to spend time with it.”

Echelman’s sculptures, some of which extend over several blocks, have been suspended above cities all over the world, including Boston, Montreal, Vancouver, Seattle, and Porto, Portugal. Although it takes just a few hours to install them, the planning and preparation can take months or years. Echelman always begins by spending time at the proposed installation site, studying the space and how people use it, and how it fits in with the cityscape and the infrastructure. “I want to lace into the existing architecture and reshape or recreate a place where there was mostly the in-between space and turn it into a positive,” she explains.

One of Janet Echelman's installations over Montreal's Place Émilie-Gamelin

One of Janet Echelman's installations over Montreal's Place Émilie-Gamelin


Then she returns to her studio and builds a computer model of the sculpture that takes into account how the piece will change its form when the wind blows or how the light creates shadows at different times of day. Although the sculptures appear delicate, she uses highly engineered fibers that are 15 times stronger than steel. And then comes the long process of getting permits. Her current piece, Tadarida, will be installed in Austin in the spring—she hopes. The sculpture is inspired by the bats that live under the Congress Street Bridge and will be 360 feet long and 30 feet high. It requires permission not just from the city, but also the airport and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). “It’s almost a social art,” she says. “It requires so many different people to say yes.”

Though both Echelman and Gates have shown their work in museums, they prefer the wider space of the city.

“Making art for a museum is a controlled environment,” Echelman says. “I love that I’m not in control. The beauty unfolds through the hand of nature. It’s better than I could be. The choreography of wind never repeats itself ... I like sort of offering it up. It’s more truthful to the human condition. It’s a moment of contemplation about our coexistence with the forces of nature that are larger than we are.”

Janet Echelman and Theaster Gates both spoke during the Cities Summit at SXSW 2018.

Super Sponsors

Volkswagen logo
Austin Chronicle logo
Porsche logo
C4 logo
Delta logo
U.S. Army logo

Stay Tuned

Sign up to receive the latest announcements, tips, networking invitations and more.