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Art Break: The Emperor’s New Trench Coat

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On a sunny autumn afternoon in Chicago’s Grand Crossing neighborhood, a stylist for Burberry fitted artist Theaster Gates in a taupe trench coat and floppy hat and a photographer snapped a few pics. The coat came off as quickly as it went on, and the Burberry crew rushed off to meet their next living mannequin in another part of the city. Gates was enlisted to pose for the British luxury brand’s worldwide ad campaign, “Art of the Trench,” which focused particularly on Chicago art mavens to coincide with the grand opening of its Michigan Avenue flagship superstore.

I was originally dismayed to see Chicago’s much beloved new artist/activist compromise his public image by parading a $900 jacket through one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. But, Burberry’s brand campaign doesn’t necessarily negate Gates’ own campaign, in which he has done the important work of transforming this blighted South Side neighborhood, at 69th Street and Dorchester, into an experimental community center for black culture; rather, the Burberry ad announces Gates’ alignment with the private-wealth economic system that originally ruined this neighborhood and makes his revitalization project possible. Ironic, yes, but self-assuredly so.

Theaster Gates at the Armory Show, 2012

Despite the lack of both governmental and philanthropic funds to make Grand Crossing a better, more livable community, Gates has had to raise awareness, and funds, by channeling attention first to luxury ware such as contemporary art and fashion and then to his community projects. It’s a bait and switch. If you’ve ever seen Gates perform, you know that his charisma is most convincing and effective in front of wealthy art collectors at the top art fairs, not on stage during university lectures and panel discussions. Like the best fundraisers, Gates knows how to tap the high society funny bone in the right places to make it believe that it kicks of its own accord.

“I don’t think that I’m engaged in artistic production at all. I am involved in meaning-making,” Gates recently said in an interview, and Gates surely knows the value of an image like this, in spite of his subtly awkward pose and forced smile. The Burberry coat is not, after all, incongruent with Gates’ plan. Does he wish for Grand Crossing residents to be able to afford Burberry? Perhaps yes, for the brand signifies frivolous wealth beyond normal needs, and success, and happiness. If we believe Gates’ activist intentions to be true and honest, then the image of Burberry on his shoulders at 69th and Dorchester reveals his smart strategy, to play the game, to lure money with money. (Jason Foumberg)

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