“It’s a super-interesting moment to be at the National Gallery, where the question of what it means to be an American, and what kind of American are you, has a new kind of resonance,” said Theaster Gates, the sculptor, installation and performance artist and urban interventionist, whose exhibition “The Minor Arts” opened there this month in Washington.
Mr. Gates has taken materials he salvaged from shuttered African-American businesses, schools and churches on the South Side of Chicago, where he is based, into a tower gallery in the museum’s East Building. There, he has reconstituted slate shingles from a roof, wooden planks from a gym floor and bound copies of Ebony magazine into monumental structures that echo abstract canvases elsewhere in the institution, but are embedded with unsung stories of black laborers and entrepreneurs.
This highly visible platform at the National Gallery of Art, which attracts more than five million visitors annually, shines a light on Mr. Gates’s mushrooming grass-roots revitalization project on Chicago’s South Side, which invests in people and places others have written off.
Mr. Gates, a 43-year-old Chicago native, moved to South Dorchester Avenue in that neighborhood in 2006 after taking a job nearby at the University of Chicago (where he is now director of the Arts and Public Life Initiative). He had studied urban planning and ceramics at Iowa State University and earned a master’s degree in fine arts and religious studies from the University of Cape Town, in South Africa.