Internationally acclaimed artist and urban planner Theaster Gates, whose rise to prominence began with his use of art and culture to revive underserved neighborhoods in his hometown of Chicago, was named the 2018 recipient of the ULI J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development at the Institute’s 2018 Fall Meeting in Boston.
The Nichols Prize honors the legacy of Kansas City, Missouri, developer J.C. Nichols, a founding ULI member considered to be one of America’s most creative entrepreneurs in land use during the first half of the 20th century. Gates is the 19th recipient of the prize, which recognizes a person, or a person representing an institution, whose work demonstrates a commitment to the creation of thriving, sustainable communities.
Gates’s creative approach to revitalizing neglected urban neighborhoods—including the reuse of building materials and other items to transform vacant properties into usable space—is what earned him the Nichols Prize, which is the Institute’s highest honor. His studies in urban planning and sculpture have informed and inspired his work, which began on Chicago’s South Side, where he founded the Rebuild Foundation to transform neighborhoods and celebrate innovative artistic practices.
“My work has always aimed to revitalize forgotten spaces and, in doing so, bring together communities that have felt forgotten,” Gates says. “The incredible thing that happens when you revitalize those spaces, preserving elements of their history and infusing them with new purpose, is that you create a platform for communities to participate in their own revitalization.”
Gates and his nonprofit Rebuild Foundation have acquired more than 30 vacant buildings in Chicago for transformation into spaces for affordable housing and community amenities, catalyzing at least $45 million in new investment in the South Side. The foundation hires and trains neighborhood residents to work in construction trades, providing employment opportunities for people to improve the places where they live and infusing a sense of community pride that helps residents who might otherwise be disengaged to become involved stakeholders.
ULI Governing Trustee and Nichols Prize Jury Chairman Michael Spies, senior managing director of Tishman Speyer in New York City, noted that the selection of Gates is a recognition of the way that visionaries whose work extends beyond traditional real estate disciplines are influencing the built environment.
“Many cities are looking to reinvent themselves, and Theaster’s work represents art and culture as important elements of reinvention. He recognized early on the important role his art could play in building a strong community. His model of readapting elements, of repurposing ordinary materials for works of art as well as rebuilding, is a model that clearly has huge potential to be replicated in communities around the world,” Spies said. “He is at once an artist, an entrepreneur, a community builder, and a visionary.”