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Free Little Art Galleries are popping up everywhere, spreading their bite-size charm nationwide

Tiny artworks including sculptures and paintings are shown in D.C.’s Free Little Art Gallery. (Allyson Klinner)
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On Capitol Hill, a neighborhood known for architecture that draws your eye upward to the official 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 St. NE, the white box along the north side of the sidewalk could be mistaken for an oddly placed birdhouse or an overly large mailbox. But look inside at its white walls, its miniature bench, tiny easel and art ranging from Cris Clapp Logan’s D.C. street scenes to Brian Miller’s floral oil paintings, and you’ll have no doubt — this is an art gallery. Albeit, one sized more for mice than for people.

If anything, that tininess has drawn viewers and artists inside its walls. Megan Pena-Ariet, a local artist, says it stirs feelings of “cute aggression,” a term that describes the way our minds cope with the onslaught of positive feelings brought on by something adorable — you just want to squish/squeeze/eat it.

Thankfully, no one has tried, but part of the popularity might come from the feeling that you could. Artists and tiny gallerists alike say bite-size art is less intimidating. It lowers the barrier to entry for amateur artists who might not ever 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 Milrany, founder of Seattle’s Free Little Art Gallery. “The art world can get elitist, superficial, alienating, otherwise inaccessible to some people. This is the opposite in every way.”

The idea has spread to dozens of cities and neighborhoods around the country. Atlanta, Oakland, Calif., Phoenix, and Hyattsville, Md., all boast their own little galleries. The FLAGs, as they call themselves, are close cousins of the Little Free Library. Some have criticized little libraries as evidence of gentrification and say they are nothing more than stockpiles of bad, unwanted books. But the little art gallery, where anyone from neighborhood children to retired artists to working professionals can swap fun-sized art, is much more personal and, ideally, more intentional. Books come and go from little libraries with relative anonymity. Here, there is an exchange from one artist’s fingertips to another’s — literally.

While the concept of little galleries has been around for a while (Milrany has seen it on Pinterest boards going back to at least 2017), the Seattle-based artist jump-started the recent wave of little galleries making names for themselves on sidewalks and aesthetically pleasing Instagram accounts. Milrany started making tiny art to mail to her mother while she was going through chemotherapy three hours away, and when the pandemic hit, Milrany began mailing 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 cycled through.

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She credits the success in part to the pandemic. Many people took on new hobbies or returned to old ones this past year, and the Free Little Art Gallery is, among other things, a hobbyist’s pedestal — the perfect place to display a quick little sketch or watercolor.

But it’s more than that. Implicit in tiny art is a certain intimacy. Whereas large-scale art engages your whole body, your whole body must engage tiny art: You have to crouch down, lower your gaze, peer into the teeny space. It demands the kind of world-canceling concentration typically reserved for a smartphone.

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

In D.C., that proof has come in the form of a lively abstraction by Ben Hough, pop art-inspired stickers by Michelle McAuliffe, even a 3-D-printed Eames chair by Carl Andersen. The Eames chair was the first work FLAG D.C. founder Allyson Klinner swiped to start her own personal collection of small art.

An architect, Klinner spends her days thinking in city-sized plans. Now, by night, she curates art that is model-sized. The contrast has shown her how a seemingly small element of a neighborhood can affect the larger streetscape.

“The Free Little Art Gallery has made people kind of pause as they walk,” she says. “[It is about] making public space a place to be enjoyed rather than just used as a traffic corridor.”

Artist Megan Pena-Ariet recently made a trip to D.C.’s FLAG from her home in Silver Spring. A small-art aficionado, Pena-Ariet sells 4-by-4-inch and 6-by-6-inch canvases and once contributed to a show of tiny work in the One Thousand Museum, a condo designed by Zaha Hadid in Miami. She finds small art more carefree. “When I work miniature, I feel like there’s less pressure,” she says. “It feels 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 small replica homes she has seen at museums. “It’s like a dollhouse,” she says. “It takes us back to when we were kids. Who didn’t love playing with miniature toys?”

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