Chicago Public Library is fighting book ban attempts through public art.
The newly-installed permanent Altar for the Unbanned by Theaster Gates sits in the middle of the third floor of the Harold Washington Library main branch. It features spiral shelves of books that have been banned in different periods of American history — titles like Antelope Woman by Louise Eldirch and The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood are part of the current piece. Atop the stacks of books sits a bright, neon sign that reads “Unbanned” in all capital letters.
“This neon sign has a motor rotator,” Gates said. “So ‘unbanned’ will be kind of calling you out like a drive-in movie or something. I think it will be a lot of fun.”
The American Library Association has tracked a record number of book ban attempts nationwide over the past two years — there were 1,269 demands to ban books in 2022. CPL wants to actively respond to the rise in demand for censorship through public organizing, which is why it partnered with the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) to commission Gates. Library officials hope the public art work will expose everyday citizens to banned titles and encourage them to engage with these works.
“Seventy percent of the bans and challenges we’re seeing are organized efforts,” CPL Commissioner Chris Brown said. “So in this moment of threats, attacks, and challenges, we really need as a field, as a city, to come together and champion the freedom to read.”
DCASE Commissioner Erin Harkey suggested hiring Gates because his artistic history demonstrates a commitment to protecting and archiving. He helped preserve the late House music DJ Frankie Knuckles’ record collection and images from the Johnson Publishing Company, which is known for magazines like Ebony and Jet.
“He just felt like the right intellectual partner, and his body of work felt like it was a good overlap, a good mesh, a good complement to the conversation that we were having,” Harkey said.
Gates said he intentionally made the space feel like a desk.
“I liked the idea that folk might be at this space reading here, and that someone else may have to get around them. That it would be a kind of bustling and engaged site,” Gates said.
Adora Namigadde is a metro reporter for WBEZ. Follow her at @adorakn.