My love affair with the art galleries of San Francisco’s Mission District, especially Artists' Television Access, blossomed into a gallery space of my very own in 1996—El Mercado.
This non-profit gallery was born from a need for an alternative exhibition space in DeKalb, IL, which, at the time, only had institutionally backed galleries. In those days, my roommates and I were having shows in our apartment, and we knew plenty of local artists looking for a less-traditional venue to display their work.
El Mercado’s home was a large storefront under a dance studio that was freezing in the winter and stifling hot in the summer. I lived in a small room in the back, eating mainly rice and beans and working on a master’s degree in computer music.
The storefront was in a section of DeKalb that had once been home to several markets/stores (aptly named Market St.), though the last market that operated there was the Duck Soup Coop in the 80’s. The neighborhood was a mix of middle-to-low-income residents, many Spanish-speaking.
The decision to name the gallery El Mercado (the market) felt like an obvious choice, especially since I was interested in having members of the local community participate in shows.
At first, many of my neighbors assumed my "mercado" was a food market specializing in Hispanic foods. In retrospect, that would have been an equally interesting “art” endeavor.
Anyone who wanted a show had to submit a portfolio, but everyone was accepted to show at no charge and netted one hundred percent of earnings from sales. The majority of artists who participated in shows were students from Northern Illinois University, though some of the most remarkable shows were by local artists.
Throughout the 1998-99 season the NIU Art Museum was under renovation. This gave rise to the Museum Without Walls program, where there were art walks that included a visit to El Mercado.
By far one of the most memorable shows I hosted saw Val Valgardson wrap the interior of El Mercado with cardboard in addition to having fabulous wall-mounted electronic noisemakers nestled in cardboard boxes (pictured).
While I attempted to keep a record of every artist and show at El Mercado, much of that information has been lost in the mists of time…and cardboard.
El Mercado closed in fall of 1999 when I took a position of Visiting Assistant Professor at NIU.