An hour south of Chicago’s loop is a unique art gallery. Started in 2015, the Merchant Street Gallery for Artist with Autism, in Kankakee, IL is one of only four such galleries in the USA. It is the only gallery of its kind west of the Eastern Seaboard. The other galleries are in Boston, MA, New York, and Florida.
“Our mission is different from some of the other galleries,” Janice Miller, Executive Director of the Gallery told me in an interview. “We seek to develop art skills with the artists, but our central goal is to get them to a place where they can become employed.”
A lot isn’t known about Autism. Ms. Miller told me, “If you know one person with Autism, then you know one person with Autism.” While each case is unique, there seems to be a common thread with art. The concentration required to create art seems to help the artists perform other tasks. An overall improvement in motor skills and communication skills seems to be two benefits of creating art for those who are on the spectrum.
Autism is not a deficit in intelligence, rather tends to affect motor and communications skills. “We have an artist that is close to venturing out and becoming employed,” Ms. Miller said. Her progress has been dramatic in the past two years she has exhibited at the Gallery.
Originally founded to assist residents in the area with autism, the Gallery now has artists from as far away as Arizona. Ms. Miller has received artist inquiries from all over America.
The artists have quarterly art exhibitions of their work. The art created crosses nearly all mediums. One artist has demonstrated talent in what could become major installation art. Costs of equipment and supplies are constraining factors, but Ms. Miller and her volunteers show their own creativity in getting what is needed.
Supplies are always an issue. For instance, soon the artists will be learning about cut glass. Glass is expensive, but a volunteer saw glass someone had thrown out. The glass was rescued from the trash and now will be used to create art by one of the gallery artists.
The Gallery is having a major fundraiser on November 4th. The building they are in has been donated by the family of one of the artists. Every piece of furniture, most of the art supplies come in the form of gifts. Volunteers help staff the gallery and instructors donate their time teaching skills to the artists.
Despite all the in-kind donations there still is a need for capital. The room in the 1920s era building the Gallery occupies needs sound baffling. In the display gallery on the lower level, additional track lighting is needed for hanging art. The Gallery needs roughly $50,000.00 for facility improvements and supplies. A 501 (C) 3 organization, donations entirely fund the Gallery’s operation. There is a gift shop where visitors to the Gallery can purchase work the artists have created. The shop provides some income for the artists.
The Gallery is open to the public from Noon until 4:00 PM on Thursday and Fridays, and from 10:00 AM until 1:00 PM on Saturdays. The address is 356 East Merchant Street, Kankakee, IL 60901. For a map and directions, click here. You can visit their website by clicking here. On their site, you will find work by the artists as well as ways to help the Gallery to continue their work.
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