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Have you ever rifled through your attic? Like most people, you probably dig through what’s up there for just a few minutes, and once you’ve found what you needed, back down to the main floor you go. But have you ever stopped to think about what’s actually up there? How what’s hidden underneath boxes and layers of dust are a reminder of forgotten, old stories and memories.

In a new exhibition in at the National Gallery of Art, what was once old is transformed into something new. The Minor Arts by cross-disciplinary American artist Theaster Gates tests those old and new boundaries, and pushes museum-goers to transform their own ideas about what is truly considered old and discarded material.

According to Gates, the exhibit itself is about, “celebrating the minor.” His pieces highlight the relationship between craft and art, simultaneously telling the story of social change in urban communities.

Throughout the gallery, Gates takes otherwise discarded items and transforms and re-purposes them to have a more meaningful existence. He’s taken what’s been left out and left behind in society and makes something meaningful out of it. He takes the floor of an old gym, hangs it on it’s side and suddenly what was once a floor that people didn’t think twice about becomes reminiscent of a Piet Mondrian painting, complete with carefully placed blocks of color amidst the wood.

Theaster Gates, Ground Rules (more black than red but it’s okay), 2015, wood flooring. ©Theaster Gates. Photo ©White Cube (Clare Britt)

What would have otherwise been the roof of a demolished Chicago church is transformed into a massive wall installation in a national gallery. Its sheer size and vertical placement tell the story of Gates working on rooftops with his father, who was a roofer.

It’s his unique approach of taking otherwise mundane materials into thoughtful, meaningful pieces that make the exhibit worthwhile. The exhibit itself is a transformative experience, encouraging museum-goers to interpret the items and materials they interact with daily in a new way. It’s a pleasant reminder that although we often don’t think twice about the materials in our every day life, like the floor of a gymnasium or marble pieces found in a demolished urban church, those materials tell a story of the people and communities that interact with them on a daily basis.

Gates’ exhibit tells the story of past communities and people. He brings attention to the decline of various urban institutions. Through visual story telling, he establishes a relationship between the art world and social change, reminding us that social history can be communicated through the most commonly forgotten or discarded items.

The Minor Arts is part of a larger Tower installment series at the NGA, where the museum showcases modern and contemporary exhibits in the recently re-opened East Building Tower 3. Gates’ exhibit will be on display from March 5 to September 4, giving visitors enough time to explore their own attics.