Chicago Public Library Foundation Honors J. Nicole Brooks and Theaster Gates

The Chicago Public Library Foundation recently held its annual awards ceremony and fundraiser at the iconic Chicago Cultural Center. During this fundraiser, the Foundation, founded in 1988, also recognizes authors and artists who inspire and cultivate learning in the arts and humanities. The recipients of this year’s 21st Century Arts award, which celebrates the power and impact of Chicago’s artistic community, are Chicago natives, J. Nicole Brooks, who received the 21st Century award celebrating writers with close ties to Chicago, and Theaster Gates, who received the arts award, which celebrates the power and impact of Chicago’s artistic community. Previous recipients of the foundation’s various awards include sociologist, poet, and author, Eve Ewing, described by Studio 360 as “The Zora Neale Hurston of her generation,” and the author of several books, including the acclaimed 1919; Mavis Staples, a civil rights icon and inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; and journalist, Isabel Wilkerson, author of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent.

Nicole Brooks

Nicole Brooks is no stranger to Chicago’s artistic community. A talented author, director, writer, and social justice activist, Brooks has worked in both the theater and film industries. She is currently an ensemble member and Mellon Foundation Playwright in Residence at the Tony-award winning Lookingglass Theatre Company. During the Foundation’s ceremony, Brooks recalled as student at Carter Elementary School, she visited a Chicago Public Library located at 45th and Michigan. “The library was huge and beautiful. I walked up to the librarian and asked her, ‘Can you pull all the books I need that will help me to become an actor and a storyteller?’” Her time spent in the Chicago Public Library helped cultivate a career that has brought forth works including Black Diamond: The Years the Locusts Have Eaten, Fedra Queen of Haiti, Black Moon Lilith, and the award-winning Her Honor Jane Byrne, currently performing at Chicago’s Lookingglass Theater. Brooks has also appeared in films and television shows, including The Chi, Chicago Fire, Fargo, and Candyman (Say My Name).

Theaster Gates

Trained in the urban planning and preservation arena, Theaster Gates’ work reflects a desire to reimagine spaces that have been overlooked and abandoned. According to his bio, Gates creates work “that focuses on the possibility of the life within things.” He has exhibited and performed locally and internationally, winning numerous awards for his visionary works. Gates is a professor at the University of Chicago’s Department of Visual Arts. In addition, he is the Director of Artists Initiatives at the Lunder Institute for American Art at Colby College Museum of Art. In response to receiving the foundation’s arts award, Gates reflected on the importance of the arts in education, “Our children need significant and deep intentional support if they are going to be successful players in the world market. Education, or more importantly knowledge consumption – a belief in knowing – is key to this. Our libraries, our schools, our families, and the necessary after-school networks all play significant roles in young peoples’ belief in their own ability and setting them up for a high place in the market in the future.” Gates shared that “As our students are studying science and math it is important to include arts and humanities. If we don’t marry math, science, and the arts, we are doomed to have robots that lack empathy and deep understanding of the human condition. We must take ideas from our heads and put those ideas in our hands.”

The Chicago Public Library Foundation

According to the Chicago Public Library Foundation’s website, it receives over $7 million in private donations to support programming that is above and beyond regular library services. Brenda Langstraat, Executive Director of the Chicago Public Library Foundation, provided that this funding is not “stop gap” funding; it does not fund operations or capital, which makes the Chicago Public Libraries different from other municipal libraries which rely on city budgets for support. In addition, the Chicago Public Library Foundation’s intent is to place libraries at the top high functioning level, serving as a model for other municipal libraries. She provided that the foundation has been instrumental in sustaining early childhood programming, as well as a media program for teens, mural painting, sewing lessons, creating music, and developing podcast content. Programming is intergenerational, interchangeable, and interactive. Langstraat shared that the libraries are more engaged with library users and because of this intentional engagement, “There are no librarians walking around ‘shushing’ library visitors; we want to hear the sounds of learning.” Langstraat noted that the Foundation is considering ways to onboard students. “Synergy is happening with our neighborhood schools; we want every student to have the opportunity to understand and learn the library systems. In the coming year, we are focusing on social and emotional learning, as well as ways we learn in library spaces that are different than what is taught in schools,” she added.


For information about the Chicago Public Library Foundation, visit

For information about J. Nicole Brooks, visit

For information about Theaster Gates, visit


Donna Hammond is a contributing writer and Seminarian. Follow her on Twitter, @DeeLois623 and Facebook, DeeLoisSpeaks.




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