Fall 2018 Undergraduate Commencement Speaker

Honorary Degree Recipient, Doctor of Humane Letters

Theaster Gates, artist and innovator in urban revitalization

Theaster Gates is a distinguished alumnus, acclaimed artist, and innovator in urban revitalization and planning whose intellectual and creative activities represent the ideals of Iowa State University.

Gates, Professor of Visual Arts at the University of Chicago, holds two degrees from Iowa State: a bachelor’s of science in urban planning and ceramics; and a master’s of science in urban planning, ceramics, and religious studies; as well as a master of fine arts, religious studies, from the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

As an artist, Gates creates work that focuses on space theory and land development, sculpture, and performance. Drawing on his interest and training in urban planning and preservation, he redeems spaces that have been left behind, bringing the conversation of space to the forefront of contemporary art practice to bridge the gap between art and life.

Known for his recirculation of art-world capital, Gates’ work explores the possibility of the “life within things.” He smartly upturns art values, land values, and human values. In all aspects of his work, he contends with the notion of Black space as a formal exercise – defined by collective desire, artistic agency, and the tactics of a pragmatist.

In addition to his faculty role, Gates also serves as Senior Advisor for Cultural Innovation and Advisor to the Dean at Harris Public Policy, and is executive director and founder of the Rebuild Foundation, created in 2009 to manage redevelopment and affordable space initiatives in the under-resourced Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood of Chicago. Gates is also the Director of Artists Initiatives for the Lunder Institute for American Art at Colby College.

Gates’ extraordinary achievements as an innovator in the visual arts have placed him among the world’s top living artists. He has exhibited and performed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC (2017); Art Gallery of Ontario, Canada (2016); Fondazione Prada, Milan, Italy (2016); Whitechapel Gallery, London, UK (2013); Punta della Dogana, Venice, Italy (2013); and dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel, Germany (2012).

Gates has also received numerous honors for his work, including the Artes Mundi 6 prize and the Nasher Prize for Sculpture 2018, and in 2017 received the Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest order of merit.

Faculty members from Iowa State’s Department of Art and Visual Culture nominated Gates for the honorary degree, supported by many letters from leaders in art, design, and community planning.