12/23/2013 01:18 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Chicago's Opportunity Artist

Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Six blocks from where I grew up, on Chicago’s South Side, the artist Theaster Gates showed me a neo-Classical ruin, a Prohibition-era bank shuttered for 33 years that I only ever registered vaguely as a part of the area’s enduring blight. “That’s my bank,” he announced with a flourish, pointing proudly to its glazed terra cotta and its ornamental eaves. Maybe it requires an artist to picture the possibilities in such a wreck, or a real estate developer to envision its promise. Gates, 40, is both at the same time, an enormous dreamer canny enough to make his outlandish ideas for the neighborhood a reality. When the bank was days from demolition, Gates spoke with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose brother, Ari, owns several Gates pieces; the city agreed to sell the abandoned building to Gates for $1, with the stipulation that he come up with the $3.7 million necessary for its renovation. A portion of that money, Gates devised, would be made from the bank’s original marble, which he cut into individual “bond certificates” engraved with an image of the building, his signature and the words “In ART We Trust.” He created 100 tablet-size bonds, selling them for $5,000 apiece; larger slabs, as weighty as tombstones, went for $50,000. Because they’re works of art, Gates told me, the marble will actually increase in value, functioning like real bonds. “So, yeah, it’s a bank! The bank should continue to make currency. I want it to have a banking function.”

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