This might be the one gallery we don’t want to move downtown. With the number of galleries closing up or moving away from our bedraggled, yearning city center (see our article here), any new blood would be welcome blood. Right? But Mestizo Arts’ strength, its crowning achievement, its raison d’être, even, was that it was our west side gallery. If just barely.
Originally, if only briefly, Mestizo was east of I-15 and the railroad tracks. Artist Ruby Chacon and filmmaker Terry Hurst opened Mestizo Coffeehouse in 2002 in one of the ground-floor retail spaces of the newly-built Artspace Bridge Project. Across the street, The Gateway, also newly built, promised a redevelopment of the whole area between 400 West and I-15. Despite this bright outlook, however, the coffee shop closed within a year. ”It was more driven by passion than by calculation,” Hurst told 15 Bytes in 2008. In the meantime, however, Chacon and Hurst had created the Mestizo Institute of Culture & Arts (MICA), a nonprofit organization founded in 2003. So, when residents from Salt Lake City’s racially and ethnically diverse west side approached the pair several years later about reopening the coffee shop on the other side of the tracks, Chacon and Hurst decided to combine the two.
In the summer of 2008 they announced the reopening of Mestizo. At the Citifront apartment complex; corner of 600 West and North Temple; just west of the tracks (though east of the highway). The coffee house would be a for-profit space, the only sit-down coffee shop on the west side. The gallery space would be run by the nonprofit, offering exhibitions, films, readings and performances. As suggested by the name — mestizo is Spanish for “mixed” and generally refers to someone of both European and Indigenous descent — the gallery would focus on representing ”Chicana/o, Latina/o, indigenous, cross-cultural experiences,” as Chacon told us in 2008. But it would also embrace “those who live in the borderlands (physically, spiritually, or psychologically).” For several years both the coffeeshop and the organization thrived in their roles, offering a gathering space for the community while exhibiting local and regional artists (see some of our reviews here).
In 2018, while the coffee house remained on North Temple (and still remains, though currently besieged by construction), MICA moved into a new, larger home at Sugar Space, a performance-based organization that had moved west when it became priced out of its original Sugar House home. When considering the move, then MICA board chair David Hawkins said, “It was important to remain rooted in our west-side community” (see our article here). Sugar Space’s warehouse, located a few blocks south and west of Citifront, offered room for larger exhibitions and a greater variety of activities; the drawback was that, tucked into a dead end street where 800 West is truncated by the curve of I-80, it would suffer from less foot traffic and — lacking the coffeeshop staff — reduced hours.
In the fall of 2019, Horacio Rodriguez, who had just finished a three-year fellowship at the University of Utah’s College of Fine Arts, was welcomed as MICA’s new curator. But because Covid hit the following year, he didn’t have much time to dig into his role. “We’ve been homeless for a while” says Rodriguez, who now serves as chair of MICA’s board. When everything shut down in the pandemic, including performances at Sugar Space, MICA chose to end their relationship with the organization. MICA has managed some projects in the interim — including a 2020 performance-based project that involved 9 artists creating 26 performances across 10 locations (see the film here), as well as a couple of exhibitions with the short-lived Lost Eden Gallery in the summer of 2022 — but in many respects the organization has been in a holding pattern. Until this week, when MICA lands at their new space at The Gateway.
Just a couple of blocks from where Mestizo Coffeehouse opened in 2002, MICA is poised to open the doors to their new permanent home. The inaugural exhibition, which opens on Saturday, Oct. 21, will be a celebration of the space as well as of the organization’s 20-year history. “Our 20th anniversary isn’t just about looking back,” Rodriguez says. “It’s about propelling forward, about nurturing the roots of resistance and ensuring that the arts remain at the forefront of social change.” The exhibit will feature an art auction fundraiser as well as the presentation of the Ruby Chacón Social Justice Arts Award — which “recognizes and celebrates Salt Lake Valley residents propelling justice and equity through their artistic pursuits.”
Next door to Discover Gateway, MICA’s new home is approximately 1500 square feet, with wood floors and overhead track lighting. Two long walls, about 25-feet each, serve as exhibition space. A third wall and reception area, both with shelving, will provide patrons the opportunity to buy goods from local artists. The center of the space features a sitting area and ample room for pedestals to display three-dimensional work. The exterior windows, which face Rio Grande Street, will also be activated by exhibiting artists.
Rodriguez is excited about curating the space. “We haven’t had a show in a while so there’s a lot of fresh talent out there,” he says of the local community. The plan is to stage 6-week exhibitions. They will be open during gallery strolls, as required by The Gateway, which has turned to the arts as a way to help vitalize the struggling commercial space (their Art Shop Project uses empty store fronts as temporary exhibition spaces, and the Urban Arts Gallery has been a long-time tenant). To help energize the space, Rodriguez plans on inviting guest curators from the community. “MICA needs to adapt and grow with the times and bring on younger voices to grow with the community here,” Rodriguez says.
MICA also plans on using their new home as a place to nurture the career of young artists. “MICA has always been about helping emerging artists,” says board vice-chair Bianca Velasquez, a visual artist and arts writer who recently joined the organization to help galvanize its rebirth. They will hold workshops to help artists prepare their works, craft artist statements and interact with collectors. A rear storage space may also serve as a studio for an artist in residence. MICA also plans to open their doors to other social justice organizations from all over Salt Lake City and Utah. Velasquez is excited about the new location, seeing it as a bridge between the west side and the rest of the city. “We want to uplift the west side. This [move] doesn’t change our mission,” she says.
MICA’s west-side location was always, in some respects, symbolic: MICA’s west-side spaces were as close to its original home at Artspace, east of the tracks, as they were to the Fairgrounds; a resident of Glendale or Rose Park might have to travel as far as two miles to reach the North Temple location. But the symbolism of a west-side art space, however on the margins it might have been, was important. Ever since the west side was separated from the rest of the city, first by the railroad and then by the interstate, it has become a neglected and underdeveloped portion of the capital. With no art spaces, until Mestizo arrived. But that has changed: the coffeehouse still maintains its gallery space (currently you’ll find an exhibit about the 2006 March of Dignity); post-pandemic, Sugar Space is again programming performances; the Utah Arts Alliance is developing The Art Castle on 900 West; and the Sorenson Unity Center in Glendale is developing into a powerful community art center.
While the west side of Salt Lake City remains the most diverse area in the city, not to mention the state, members of the “borderland” communities MICA was created to serve are not only located there; and their Gateway location may prove a better place to bring those communities into the larger town square.
Roots of Resistance: MICA’s 20th Anniversary Celebration, Mestizo Institute of Culture & Arts, (95 S. Rio Grande), Salt Lake City, Saturday, October 21, 6-10 pm. The public is invited but this is a private event and RSPVs are required at mestizoroots.givesmart.com.
The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.