Skip to content

Albuquerque has the ability to determine its future.  

And, at the same time, build up its artistic community.

“It’s clear that the richness of Albuquerque is its people and the spaces,” artist and activist Theaster Gates told a group in Albuquerque last week.

Gates should know.

In 2018, he was awarded the J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development, and he has been at the helm of several successful urban renewal projects in Chicago.

He sees the same potential in the Rail Yards in Downtown Albuquerque, and even pledged $11,000 of his money to kick start a campaign to develop the Rail Yard’s old fire station.

One could say Gates is a modern-day renaissance man.

He is the mastermind behind creating work that focuses on space theory and land development, sculpture and performance.

The Chicago resident was in Albuquerque on Thursday as the guest of the Urban Land Institute.

One of his main interests is training in urban planning and preservation. Which is why he redeems spaces that have been forgotten.

Take, for example, the Stony Island Arts Bank in the South Side of Chicago.

Designed in 1923, the bank was once the pillar of a thriving and vibrant community.

It began to deteriorate – that is until Gates saw life in it.

He purchased and restored it.

Today, it’s a space – 17,000 square feet worth – where innovation in contemporary art and archival practice take place.

Not to be forgotten is the Arts Bank Cinema, which is a free weekly screening and discussion of films by and about black people, housed in the Stony Island Arts Bank.

Gates’ vision not only brings together community, but creates sustainability.

He spent about six hours walking through Albuquerque’s Rail Yards last week with city officials and local cultural corridor artists, such as Michelle Otero, Estavan Rael-Galvez, Juli Hendren, Julia Mandeville, Ellen Babcock, Chrissie Orr, Valerie Martinez, Szu-Han Ho and Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz.

“Part of what I’m interested in is change,” he says. “I have no stake in Albuquerque, except receiving the love I got in the last six hours.”

And he put his money into play despite not being a New Mexico resident.

With the potential in the Rail Yards, he identified the fire station as a good “first start” for the area.

“I was saying the fire station that is immediately adjacent to the Rail Yards,” he says. “It could be a calling card to the rest of the complex. As we’re developing schematics, financial models. … Get to inviting people to the site, gathering and talking to our adjacent neighbors to make sure they are part of the work.”

On Thursday, he pledged $11,000 towards the pre-development process of the fire station, a free-standing building on the north edge of the Rail Yards.

Three local donors chimed in to contribute another $14,000, for a total of $25,000.

Gates wants to get the surrounding community involved by telling stories of the loved ones who have worked on the trains.

“How do we get the party started,” he asked. “How do we initiate a thing that shows that this once dead thing is now living. This has the potential to wake up all new economies that didn’t exist.”

He plans to break the “master vision” for the 27.3 acre property into phases. The first priority after environmental remediation will be the building adjacent to the already updated blacksmith shop, which is home to a large weekly local market that attracts up to 100 vendors. The second building will allow additional event space and market expansion. Keller also envisions possibly turning it into a workspace for the creative economy during the day and not on the weekends.

Gates said his projects are about caring about people and the adjacent spaces. He said the Rail Yard market on weekends is a snippet of the vitality the area could have in the future.

He continued, “Sometimes when we’re creating the excitement and buzz and creating the incentives that will attract new investment. Sometimes the language is good and it’s sweet for the attraction of the dollars. There’s so much more room, for so much more language. I assume the city cares about the people and the question is about what we do with those who feel discarded.”