The Mestizo Institute of Culture and Arts, a Salt Lake City organization that promotes marginalized artists, aims to revitalize its mission with a new exhibition space centered on community-based programming.
SALT LAKE CITY—The area west of Salt Lake City’s downtown has long been one of the most ethnically diverse in the region—and also one of the most historically and intentionally marginalized.
A train line and a freeway, which divides downtown from Salt Lake’s “Westside,” symbolize a differentiation between the affluent and the “other” living in neighborhoods such as Rose Park and Fairpark. These days, sprawling real estate conglomerates have recognized the geographic proximity of such areas to downtown Salt Lake, and developers are capitalizing on the market potential lying in plain sight. However, for years, important artists, thought leaders, and activists have performed groundbreaking work in this area and beyond.
Among these initiatives is the Mestizo Institute of Culture and Arts. Founded in 2003 by artists and activists Ruby Chacón and Terry Hurst, MICA has set out to elevate marginalized artists living and working in Salt Lake City’s Westside. On Saturday, October 21, MICA celebrates its twentieth anniversary in an event that praises the organization’s impressive past while garnering enthusiasm for its future, which includes a brand-new location and fresh leadership.
MICA’s first iteration was located in the Mestizo Coffee House, a community site of cultural activity and conversation. For several years, the grassroots organization, through the directive of its board and staff, curated art exhibitions in the Westside space and conducted a slate of original programming. In 2018, MICA created the Ruby Chacón Social Justice Arts Award, which “recognizes and celebrates Salt Lake Valley residents propelling justice and equity through their artistic pursuits,” reads a recent press release.
Mestizo refers to a person with mixed European and Indigenous heritage. MICA’s founders hoped to “celebrate and honor our indigeneity and our ancestors, but also [acknowledge] the historical traumas that stem from colonization,” according to the organization’s site.
Throughout its twenty-year tenure, MICA has propelled some of Salt Lake City’s most talented artistic and curatorial voices, such as curators Jendar Morales-Collazo and Salt Lake City’s public art program manager Renato Olmedo-González.
“For twenty years, Mestizo Institute of Culture and Arts has been a cornerstone for those Salt Lake City artists that don’t quite fit in,” says Olmedo-González. “Although it is now quite common, and expected, to see art and cultural organizations honor diverse cultures, voices, and perspectives, MICA was born out of the necessity to provide a platform for these artists—people of color, queer individuals, Indigenous relatives, and many, many others who’ve been institutionally excluded—to represent themselves.”
In 2018, MICA moved from its longtime residence inside the Mestizo Coffee House to Sugar Space Arts Warehouse. The organization’s mission continued through the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, MICA granted SLC Mural Makers, the anonymous collective responsible for the spontaneous portraits of persons killed by police, with the Ruby Chacón Social Justice Award.
Earlier this year, a fruitful collaboration between local artist Horacio Rodriguez and artist and arts journalist Bianca Velasquez, a regular contributor to Southwest Contemporary, shaped MICA’s future.
Velasquez, who first interacted with MICA in 2018 while writing a profile for local arts publication SLUG Magazine, interviewed Rodriguez for an episode of Localmotive, the arts and culture podcast she hosts with her partner, fellow arts writer Parker Mortensen. At the time, she learned that Rodriguez, who had previously performed curatorial work with MICA, was on MICA’s board and saw an opportunity to expand her opportunities in the Salt Lake City arts community. Rodriguez, who’s now board chair at MICA, and Velasquez, MICA’s vice chair, quickly got to work envisioning new curatorial opportunities in addition to programming that would reinvigorate MICA post-pandemic.
After joining the MICA board, Rodriguez was enthusiastic about growing operations and ensuring the organization was continuing to innovate. He says this stems from the remarkable connections he made in Salt Lake City after moving to Utah in 2016.
“I wanted to make sure those opportunities were available to other artists without those connections and the privilege of traditional art education,” says Rodriguez. “The mission of MICA has always been to uplift artists from the Westside of Salt Lake that wouldn’t normally have the access or institutional knowledge to succeed in the art world here.”
For Velasquez’s part, she considers arts journalism as one way of investing in the local art scene. She’s eager to dive into the programming and curatorial projects that MICA has in store in the coming months, which include programs aimed at helping artists write statements, navigating important relationships with collectors, and honing the art of talking about their work. Additionally, MICA leadership hopes the work of local creatives and artisans will work in concert with visual artists for a dynamic presentation of local talent.
Velasquez and Rodriguez emphasize that MICA’s mission isn’t limited to Mexican American artists. Instead, the organization is designed to uplift marginalized communities at large.
“We see this not just as a gallery or an events space or even a gift shop, but a Swiss army knife for the arts community,” Velasquez says. “One thing we are dreaming about is offering a residency, a space in the back that could be used as a studio.”
This weekend’s twentieth-anniversary event takes place in MICA’s new 1,500-square-foot space at The Gateway at 95 South Rio Grande Street, a former social hub all but abandoned once the centrally located City Creek Center mall emerged in downtown Salt Lake City in 2012.
MICA’s gallery unveiling and anniversary celebration from 6 pm to 10 pm this Saturday also acts as the opening reception for Roots of Resistance, a group exhibition showcasing the work of nearly thirty artists including Andrew Alba, Emily Larsen, Lunares, and Alexis Rausch, who’s also a MICA board member. In addition to food and refreshments, the event will feature an art auction fundraiser, the proceeds of which will go directly toward MICA’s programming goals. MICA has also invited artists whom the organization has previously worked with in a gesture of celebrating the past while looking ahead to the future.
While Utah’s residential real estate market is the least affordable in recorded history, the outlook for commercial and community-led spaces is equally bleak. As the Salt Lake Tribune reported in a recent examination of how rising rent costs have pushed artists further from the city center, MICA’s new venue presents a unique opportunity to anchor critical voices downtown.
“Since its founding, MICA has existed as a place where artists and their communities of origin see themselves reflected, celebrated, and honored,” says Olmedo-González, Salt Lake City’s public art program manager. “Today, twenty years later, its mission and role in Salt Lake City is as critical as ever. MICA’s resilience and power as an organization is something for all of us to be proud of.”