Merchant Street Art Gallery

Merchant St. Art Gallery is a non-profit exhibition space and art studio dedicated to the creative and professional development of artists on the autism spectrum. They provide the resources, training, and community support needed for our artists to realize their creative potential and make great work.

During his visit to our gallery on May 24th, Senator Durbin stated that Merchant Street Art Gallery was "a remarkable place."

About Merchant St. Art Gallery

We have been open since September 10th, 2015. We are a gallery for autistic artists; we display the work of artists with a diagnosis of autism, and we have artists on both the low and high functioning ends of the spectrum!

The gallery has an art show with a different wild theme every third month. We also offer art classes to improve the skills of our artists, encourage interaction between them and other members of the community, and raise some funds. These art classes are open to all ability levels and cover a wide range of artistic subjects, including:

  • Sensory arts
  • Acrylic painting
  • Comic Jam
  • Art History

We’ve had a gift shop since we opened, and it has provided our artists with an opportunity to make art specifically to sell. Recently, we converted it into a coffee bar to help encourage attendance and community in our gallery, but we still plan to have items for sale once the space makes its full transition from gift shop to coffee bar.

We do a variety of annual fundraisers to support our gallery, including a Shoot for Autism, a Run for Autism, a silent auction of benches painted by our artists and volunteers, and a concert in Grant Park celebrating Artists with Autism in Memory of Jude Whipple.  

Hopes Moving Forward

We have someone teaching 3D printing. He is currently doing an advanced class for some of our higher functioning artists, but soon he’ll be starting beginner level courses for people who are interested in learning. We also teach different art skills like drawing, using different mediums like acrylics and clay.

We’ll be doing more work with the schools around here, teaching some art courses and bringing classes in for fun, creative field trips to our gallery. There are a lot of people working in the school system who feel that the students should have more opportunities to learn art, and our gallery is happy to provide that. These partnerships will also bring more autistic artists our way!

Why Downtown Kankakee

The Smalls wanted an art gallery for their son who has autism. They bought this building in Downtown Kankakee to use as the art gallery for him, but they didn’t know how to get it started.

Janice had been teaching students with autism for 9 years before this and started a Gallery for the Community Arts Council. She also created a couple of fundraisers for them.

Janice was casually job hunting and went to apply for the job as tutor for their son. “When I walked in the door,” she told me, “his mom looked at me and said, ‘We want to start a gallery for our son. Could you do that?’ I accepted.” 

About Our Team

Jenna Varley, Assistant Director of the Merchant St Gallery of Artists with Autism

I started here about 7 years ago (?) as one of the autistic artists. In Sept of 2022, our director Janice Miller hired me for some administrative work. I help with data entry, grant writing, communications, and whenever an extra hand is needed. I’ve taught a few sculpting classes here—one on making your own Pokemon and one on creating and decorating your own 3 dimensional stick figure sculpture—and I plan on teaching another one in the next few months, though the subject of it has yet to be determined.

Phil Wiersma, Assistant Director of the Merchant St Gallery of Artists with Autism

He has been working as a paid assistant to Janice since Feb 2020. He has been helping Janice run this place since then and is now familiar enough with the process that he could probably take over as director if needed.

Janice Miller, Director of the Merchant Street Art Gallery of Artists with Autism, Inc. 

Janice opened this gallery almost 9 years ago. She had taught high school math, worked for the Girl Scouts as an organizer of troops and manager of Girl Scouting in Kankakee County for 7 years. When she had her third child, she could not handle the job in Joliet and 3 children, so she helped her husband open X-Line Gun Club. After a few years, she needed to do something else. After a few jobs grant writing and working with kids with disabilities and a few years sitting on the Community Arts Council board and planning fundraisers, she pursued a career with Easter Seals. She started their job training program and helped the students who had Autism with jobs skills and experiences until she retired 9 years later. Janice has an important member of the Community Arts Council board through all her years working with Easter Seals, and though her contribution has died down a bit after retiring and starting this gallery, she’s still on the board. 

Get Involved

Are you a parent looking to help your child pursue his/her artistic passion? Are you an art teacher willing to donate time? A social media whizz who loves taking photos? Whatever your interest, we would love to work with you.

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