Isaac Sutton, Johnson Publishing Company Archive, courtesy of Ford Foundation, J. Paul Getty Trust, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and Smithsonian Institution.
Over the last nine years, artist Theaster Gates has been the steward of the Johnson Publishing Company’s ephemera, periodicals, furniture, inventory, and architectural fragments originally housed at the Johnson Publishing Company building on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. The devices for the interrogation of these objects and their permission to be public have created one of the most fascinating mazes of artistic repertoire among contemporary practices. For his Art Design Chicago exhibition, Gates uses his most noted architectural site, The Stony Island Arts Bank, as a space for deep contemplation on the life of Black objects and Black archives. Pulling from his personal archive of Johnson’s architectural fittings and furniture, Gates makes available newly restored objects, everyday office furniture, and works of art owned by John H. Johnson to give insight into the publisher’s artistic practice and one of the most formidable Black companies to have ever existed—the Johnson Publishing Company.
Through this exhibition, the artist hopes to show the responsibility of and urgency for cultural leaders to preserve and create continued access to our cultural treasures. Gates’ reflections on the Johnson legacy are a simple demonstration of what archival and collective care might look like. The Stony Island Arts Bank, the cornerstone of Theaster Gates’s Rebuild Foundation, is temporarily turned to Johnson as a portal for public memory, new conceptual questions, and the archive as a launching pad for new artistic production.