Small free art galleries are popping up everywhere, spreading their little charm all over the country

On Capitol Hill, a neighborhood known for its architecture that draws your gaze to the formal and grand, a new Art Gallery features art so casual and tiny you can hold it in your hand.

From East Capitol Street between 3rd and 4th Street NE, the white box along the north side of the sidewalk could be mistaken for an oddly placed birdhouse or an oversized mailbox. But look inside for its white walls, miniature bench, small easel, and artwork ranging from Cris Clapp LoganDC street scenes in Brian Miller‘s floral oil paintings, and you’ll have no doubt – it’s an art gallery. Although, one size more for mice than for people.

If anything, this smallness has drawn viewers and performers inside its walls. Megan Pena Arieta local artist, says it elicits feelings of “cute aggression“, a term that describes how our mind copes with the onslaught of positive feelings brought on by something adorable – you just want to crush/squeeze/eat it.

Luckily no one has tried it, but part of the popularity might come from feeling like you can. Artists and small gallery owners say bite-sized art is less intimidating. It lowers the barrier to entry for amateur artists who might never show their work in a formal space and reaches people who might not encounter the local art scene.

“It’s physically and psychologically accessible,” says Stacy Milranyfounder of Seattle’s Little Free Art Gallery. “The art world can become elitist, superficial, alienating, otherwise inaccessible to some people. It is the opposite in every way. »

The idea has spread to dozens of cities and neighborhoods across the country. Atlanta, Oakland, California., Phoenixand Hyattsville, Maryland, all have their own little galleries. FLAGs, as they call themselves, are close cousins ​​of Small free library. Some have criticized small libraries as evidence of gentrification and say they are nothing more than stocks of unwanted bad books. But the small art gallery, where anyone from neighborhood kids to retired artists to working professionals can swap fun-sized works of art, is much more personal and, ideally, more intentional. Books come and go from small libraries with relative anonymity. Here, there is a fingertip exchange from one artist to another—literally.

While the concept of small galleries has been around for a while (Milrany has seen it on Pinterest boards since at least 2017), the Seattle-based artist kickstarted the recent wave of small galleries making a name for themselves on the sidewalks. and aesthetic Instagram accounts. Milrany began making tiny works of art to send to her mother while she was undergoing chemotherapy three hours away, and when the pandemic hit Milrany began sending handmade postcards to friends. She opened her Free Little Art Gallery in Seattle in December 2020, and she estimates that since then more than 600 works have circulated.

She attributes the success in part to the pandemic. Many people have taken up new hobbies or returned to old ones in the past year, and the Free Little Art Gallery is, among other things, a pedestal for hobbyists – the perfect place to display a little sketch or a quick watercolor.

But it’s more than that. Implicit in tiny art is a certain intimacy. While large-scale art engages your whole body, your whole body has to engage tiny art: you have to crouch down, look down, gaze into the tiny space. It demands the kind of world-cancelling focus typically reserved for a smartphone.

“Especially during the pandemic and, frankly, at all times, sharing handmade elements of human expression is really important,” says Milrany. “Art is simply a reminder and proof that humans exist.”

At DC, that proof came in the form of a living abstraction from Ben Hough, pop art-inspired stickers from Michelle McAuliffe, and even an Eames chair 3D printed by Carl Andersen. The Eames Chair was the first work that FLAG DC founder Allyson Klinner scanned to create her own personal collection of small art objects.

Architect, Klinner spends his days thinking about scale plans for a city. Now, at night, she arranges model-sized artwork. The contrast showed him how a seemingly small element of a neighborhood can affect the larger streetscape.

“The Free Little Art Gallery made people stop a bit as they walked,” she says. “[It is about] making public space a place to be enjoyed rather than just a circulation corridor.

Artist Megan Pena-Ariet recently took a trip to DC’s FLAG from her home in Silver Spring. Passionate about small art, Pena-Ariet sells 4×4-inch and 6×6-inch canvases and once contributed to an exhibition of small works at One Thousand Museum, a Zaha Hadid-designed condo in Miami. She finds the small art more carefree. “When I work in miniature, I feel like there’s less pressure,” she says. “It’s like being a kid making art again.”

Clare Wright, a former art teacher who founded a Free Little Art Gallery in Phoenix, says the galleries remind her of the little replica houses she’s seen in museums. “It’s like a dollhouse,” she says. “It takes us back to when we were kids. Who hasn’t loved playing with miniature toys? »

Mildred D. Field