#679: The Stony Island Arts Bank

August 29th, 2016

The crumbling plaster of the ceiling has been preserved mid-crumble.

It’s been lovingly repaired, restored, captured in a moment of time as an image of something half-falling, the old textured plaster preserved in decay.

It’s a touching detail, really. A nod to the decades this South Shore bank fell into disuse and disrepair, but one made into something lovely. Its age and wear is the beauty.

It’s as good a symbol as any for the Stony Island Arts Bank on the border of the aged, worn and disrepaired neighborhoods of South Shore.

The bank is, was, what-have-you, a bank. Opened in 1923 as the Stony Island Trust & Savings Bank, it closed in the ‘80s, shuttered stone columns and neoclassic design on a slip of empty lots and strip malls.

In 2013, artist Theaster Gates bought it from the city for $1, then spending $4.5 million to convert it to a gallery, exhibit space and research library of black culture.

It’s still a bank. It’s just one that’s moved on from money to house something valuable.

The main room echoes under the preserved plaster, the tap tap of shoes on floor and the chatter of a bubbly guest and understanding staffer. It’s currently housing an exhibit of the 1950s-1970s street portraits of Ghanaian photographer James Barnor.

Up a floor is the first level of research library. You can still hear the bubbly guest, but now it’s amid a two-story room walled with books from the collections of Ebony and Jet magazines’ publisher. This room is behind glass, a man tinkering with research on a wide-screened Mac desktop computer. Ladders lead to platforms lead to more ladders, the room’s so tall.

On one side is a room of what look like card catalog cases but are filled with glass slides from the University of Chicago’s historical photograph collection. They tempt, but you’re not supposed to pick through them without a prior orientation.

On the other side is a room of black history texts and yearbooks from DuSable High School. This book on jazz was last checked out by a DuSable sophomore in 1979, the card taped to the inside of one book says. A freshman took this civil rights book out in 1978.

Beyond that, the collection requires prior appointments. There’s a collection of historical images and artifacts depicting the black stereotypes of each area. “Negrobilia,” the bank’s website calls it.

The vinyl collection of the “Godfather of House Music,” Frankie Knuckles is upstairs too.

There’s not one story in this recovered bank. There’s every story here, preserved and stored behind thick bank walls and under plaster preserved mid-crumble.

Visit the Stony Island Arts Bank

Learn about a very different cultural archive

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