Theaster Gates creates platforms. In Chicago, Gates’ leadership of artist-led spaces has catalysed an evolution in perceptions of some of the most underserved parts of the city. Beginning with interventions in small-scale residences, now known as Dorchester Projects, Gates’ houses in Greater Grand Crossing became a nexus for globally engaged experiments in structures of individual and collective living, working, and art-making. Launched into the international art world as 12 Ballads for Huguenot House at dOCUMENTA13, the houses embodied a new system of values not only in the austere-yet-inviting atmosphere that incorporates once-discarded materials as design elements, but in the ongoing, flexible use of the spaces and the creation of new relationships and opportunities among artists, visitors, and students.
As evident in the synergistic design process of his mindful building practices and persistent challenging of organizational structures, Gates’ development projects function as an extension of his studio work. Gates takes on the problem of Black space as a formal exercise, reminiscent of Joseph Beuys' concept of social sculpture. The latest example of this work is the Stony Island Arts Bank, owned and envisioned by Gates, and opened in conjunction with the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial in October 2015.
At the University of Chicago, Gates is a Professor in the Department of Visual Arts and the College, and Director of Arts + Public Life, which is housed at the Arts Incubator in Washington Park. He also leads an urban research initiative known as Place Lab—a team of social scientists, architects, creative professionals, and business leaders. With support from the Knight Foundation, Gates and his team will create frameworks for reimagining the role that culture plays in the redevelopment of transforming African American communities over the next three years. Gates is helping to define the future of artistic place-based efforts, in research and practice.
Gates is also the founder and Artistic Director of Rebuild Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that endeavours to rebuild the cultural foundations of neighbourhoods and incite movements of community revitalization that are culture based, artist led, and neighbourhood driven.
Lori Berko, Esq., Chief Operations Officer
Lori Berko is an attorney and social worker. She currently serves as Chief Operations Officer of Place Lab. Berko directs, administers, and coordinates the operational and administrative activities of Place Lab’s team of professionals working to document and demonstrate urban ethical redevelopment strategies initiated through arts and culture. In addition, she is responsible for the design and implementation of Place Lab’s strategies, systems, and procedures.
Prior to joining Place Lab, Berko represented clients with respect to multi-million dollar residential and commercial real estate transactions, including acquisitions and dispositions, commercial leasing, real estate finance, development, and condominium law. She also worked with Chicago Volunteer Legal Services where she represented community members to avoid foreclosure and repossession of their homes and continues to provide legal advocacy relating to housing inequity in underinvested communities. Berko holds both a BSW and MSW from the University of South Florida in Tampa and a JD from the John Marshall Law School, Chicago, Illinois.
Nootan Bharani, AIA, Lead Design Manager
Nootan Bharani is a licensed architect and Lead Design Manager of Place Lab. Bharani oversees the physical transformation of buildings, as envisioned by Theaster Gates. From vacant and idle to repurposed and celebrated, Bharani guides the team’s processes involving space use strategy, design, policy, regulation, and construction. With nearly 18 years of experience and an extensive background in environmental sustainability, Bharani adeptly addresses complex problems and is seasoned in challenging business as usual to reach nimble and creative solutions. Bharani heralds the role that buildings have in shaping and defining communities as Place Lab works to foster a new paradigm for arts and culture to catalyze development in Chicago.
Previously, Bharani was was Managing Director for CB&I Sustainable Design Solutions of Illinois and, in 2014, she was named the Dubin Family Chicago Young Architect of the Year. Additionally, she co-founded the Community Interface Committee at the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and received the 2012 AIA Chicago President’s Recognition acknowledging her work and leadership in the Chicago community. Bharani received her Bachelor of Architecture professional degree from Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Isis Ferguson, Associate Director of City + Community Strategy
Isis Ferguson is a cultural worker in Chicago. She serves as Associate Director of City and Community Strategy for Place Lab. In this role, Isis translates her academic and activist background into the creation and implementation of artists-led, culture-focused urban ethical redevelopment strategies. Ferguson develops process, language, and narrative, and directs projects for Place Lab that exist at the unique nexus of community development, urban planning, and the expanded art and space practice of Theaster Gates.
Previously, Ferguson was the Program Coordinator at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), managing public programming and community engagement. She has worked for 12 years in education, social service, and arts administration in Chicago at community, city, and state agencies. Ferguson participated in UIC’s Great Cities Institute Civic Leadership Training Program. She has served on the Advisory Committee for the Social Justice Initiative at UIC and is currently on the Advisory Committee for the Institute on Research for Race and Public Policy at UIC. Ferguson holds a master’s degree in Gender and Cultural Studies from Simmons College in Boston, Massachussetts, and a bachelor's degree in Women’s Studies and Black Studies from Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois.
Mejay Gula, Building Strategist + Construction Manager
Mejay Gula applies her knowledge of design and construction to ongoing building projects, including the recently opened Stony Island Arts Bank, which was part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial. She has designed and managed construction of arts-focused projects with Theaster Gates and Rebuild Foundation since 2011: the rehabilitated, 32-unit, mixed-income public housing project Dorchester Arts + Housing Collaborative; the 25,000-square-foot former warehouse that is now Theaster Gates Studio; Currency Exchange Café; and the multiple sites that house Black Cinema House.
Throughout her years of experience as an architect, Gula has focused her practice on the adaptive reuse of forgotten buildings in Chicago. She previously was a project architect for Landon Bone Baker Architects, which honed her skills and knowledge of affordable housing development projects and renovations of historic buildings in Chicago communities. Gula attained a Bachelor of Architecture degree through the Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago.
Naomi Miller, Operations + Administrative Manager
As the administrative engine behind Place Lab, Miller facilitates the logistics of the work done by Place Lab’s team, spanning University systems, finances, communication, technology, staffing, special events, and grant deliverables. She has been part of formulating the concepts behind Ethical Redevelopment, including engaging academic resources, and implementing the year-long event series and national discussion. Miller runs support for numerous projects for the various teams and entities.
Miller has worked as an arts administrator while maintaining an art practice since 2004. Previously, she was Programs Manager at the Vera List Center, The New School, New York; Program Coordinator for Artadia, New York; administrative and studio assistant to several artists and writers; freelance copy editor; and photographer at the Acadia Summer Arts Program, Bar Harbor, Maine. Miller’s art projects often assume the form of established infrastructures that she shifts to reimagine cultural interactions. She also explores performance and is most invested in working with other artists in both her professional and artistic lives. Miller received her MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in Cailfornia and her BA from Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts.
Carson Poole, Project Specialist
Carson Poole is a planner and community development practitioner. At Place Lab, Poole supports the planning and implementation of new projects, conducts community and civic engagement, and assists with the production of public programs. Poole is an advocate for public participation in the planning and development processes as a means to create more equitable places and spaces.
Prior to Place Lab, Poole worked with Openlands and the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. He was previously a coordinator with the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Windy City Harvest Program. Poole also currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Illinois Farmers Market Association, an organization that promotes farmers markets in Illinois through outreach, education, and advocacy. He received his Master of Urban Planning and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Bachelor of Science from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
Shirin Shahin, Project Management Coordinator
Shirin Shahin oversees the construction logistics and materials management that move building and resource projects forward. She supports construction, maintenance, and operations at all sites. Shahin has worked with Theaster Gates in various capacities, beginning as an artist-in-residence, then as a Project Manager at his studio and Rebuild Foundation.
Born in Iran, Shahin is an artist and taught painting for three years before attending school in the United States. Using detailed collage, large-scale paper installation, and painting, Shahin’s artwork incorporates industrialized and organic forms to explore the destructive effect of the former on the latter—the consequences of modernism on nature and human beings and their psychology. The underpinning concepts of her work address problems faced by people of all backgrounds. Shahin earned her BFA from Shiraz University, Iran, and completed her MFA at Memphis College of Art in Tennessee.