EBONY Books, a Theaster Gates Collection

Four years ago, Chicago artist Theaster Gates received a donation from the Johnson Publishing Corporation that included fiction and non-fiction books, texts, and a series of historical EBONY magazines. The magazines were bound into volumes that are currently housed and displayed at The Stony Island Arts Bank, an iconic building located in Chicago’s South Side that Gates purchased for The Rebuild Foundation in 2012. The Rebuild Foundation is a not-for-profit that focuses on redevelopment and neighborhood revitalization to engage artistic practice within the community, and The Stony Island Arts Bank offers a beautifully renovated 1920’s playground for The Foundation’s initiatives, exhibitions, and expansive reading room.

The collection of EBONY magazines is available for public viewing at The Foundation Tuesday through Saturday, and when three of the volumes came to The Conservation Center for care they were visibly worn from years of display and use. Our conservators examined the selected volumes and created a stabilization strategy that will allow more sustainable access to these materials for years to come. 

The main concerns noted by The Center's book conservator were small tears to the outer hinges of the bound volumes, along with brittle and acidic pages. Additionally, select pages had loosened and detached from the textblocks.

Treatment of these delicate volumes began by repairing torn pages with Asian tissue. Next, the loose pages were reattached and individual EBONY magazines were resewn into the textblocks. A new hardcover binding now houses the magazines, while the original covers and spines have been retained for historical reference and documentation.  The creation of custom clamshell boxes for each of the volumes contributed to preservation measures.

The three volumes of EBONY displayed in The Conservation Center’s EXPO CHICAGO booth #143 represent a just small fraction of the over 450 volumes in Theaster's personal collection. On each spine of the bound EBONY volumes, Gates embossed fragments of a poem, uniting each individual volume into an overall work of art. Using the donated collection as a springboard, Gates took the project one step further by creating a series of his own. Covered in pink snakeskin, Gates’ volumes include issues of EBONY with a mass of blank pages implanted into the center of the textblock. The blank pages punctuate the EBONY volumes, allowing Gates to insert space into the magazine’s narrative.

Other collections from the Johnson Publishing Library have been featured in installations of Theaster Gates' work, including his debut show at the White Cube Gallery in London, “My Labor is My Protest”. In this exhibition, the library was installed as a public reading room before returning to its permanent home in Chicago. Currently installed at the Arts Bank in a three-sided enclosure on the second floor, the entire collection contains original library bound volumes of the magazines EBONY and JET, spanning the 1940s to the early 2000s, as well as 15,000 books for research. Described by Gates as "a space for neighborhood residents to preserve access, reimagine and share their heritage, as well as a destination for artists, scholars, curators, and collectors to research and engage with South Side history," the collection's presence greatly furthers Gates' mission for the Arts Bank.

The Stony Island Arts Bank, a venue and artwork by Theaster Gates for South Chicago. (Tom Harris/Hedrich Blessing; courtesy of Rebuild Foundation)

Internationally recognized as one of the most transformative contemporary artists at work today, we are incredibly honored to have had the opportunity to work with Theaster Gates and The Rebuild Foundation on sustaining this project for public display and use for years to come.