Gallery: It’s time to think small
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Gallery: It’s time to think small

Inside the art gallery at 1807 1/2 21st Ave. S. in Hillsboro Village hang 10 works by Dutch artist Louis Reith. The show, entitled “Avalanche,” is a commentary on winter, using a collage of contrasting geometric shapes and patterns.  The space is not unlike most art galleries in Nashville—it’s well lighted and welcoming, offering itself as a public service to art aficionados local and abroad.

There’s just one thing. The gallery takes up less than 7 square feet on a wall, and the artworks inside were created using small paperback pages, measuring 4.5 inches by 7.5 inches. This is Nashville’s Smallest Art Gallery.

In January 2008, after moving his graphic design studio, KNI, into the upstairs office space between Peabody Shoe Repair and the Cosmetic Market, curator Daniel Box discovered a graffiti-scarred panel attached to the wall outside. Neither of the adjacent shop owners claimed ownership and it’s still something of a mystery as to where it actually came from.

“The building is so old, maybe it was a restaurant at one point,” Box suggested.

After getting the go-ahead from his neighbors, Box and a few friends bought some Goo Gone cleaner to remove the graffiti and set to work to refurbish the inside.

After finishing the panel’s makeover, the group installed lights powered by a small solar panel bolted to the top of the gallery. Effectively, the gallery is completely self-sustaining, a point that, nine months later, won them an award for “best environmentally friendly gallery” in the Nashville Scene’s 2008 Best of Nashville awards.

“We’ve gotten a lot of press online, mostly comparing us to other small galleries,” Box said. Although there could conceivably be a smaller gallery, Box is confident that the 120-square-inch space is the smallest operational gallery. Other contenders like Locker 50B, the creation of a Virginia Commonwealth University student who turned her square locker into a gallery, may be smaller, but no longer hold shows.

The only problem with the size: It isn’t always easy to spot. If you couple the compactness of the display with the fact that Tag, a gallery now in the Arcade, once occupied the space upstairs, you have a recipe for confusion.

“The No. 1 question that we get is ‘Where is the gallery?’” Box said. “Sometimes people will come upstairs to our offices looking for the gallery and we have to explain that it’s outside, downstairs.”

Since hosting its inaugural show on the Ides of March in 2008, the Smallest Art Gallery has run a show each month until February’s winter storms caused a break in the streak.

“We’re hibernating for winter,” Box joked. “I have an exhibit ready to go up, but after my fingers went numb putting in the last exhibit, I decided to push it back to March.”
Aside from a couple of themed pieces—the aforementioned “Beware the Ides of March” debut and a later show where local artists made figurines based off a popular design by vinyl toy manufacturer Kidrobot—the gallery has only one mandate for its artists: keep it small.

“You’ve got to let the artists do what they’re going to do,” Box said of his philosophy towards shows in the gallery. Other shows have included photography, cartoons and acrylic on canvas with titles like “Times Are Changing,” “Cut-n-Paste” and “Killer Robots of the Future.”

But while the Smallest Art Gallery quietly celebrates simplicity, everything around it is spreading out. Most recently, Fido expanded into the space once occupied by Taste of Tokyo, while rumors of massive development projects ranging from parking garages to residential space to office high-rises have haunted the stretch of shops for years.

“We can only sign three-year leases and every three years [our landlords] threaten to tear the building down to make something bigger,” Box said. The gallery operates on the face of one of the oldest buildings in the area, which is both a blessing and a curse.

Although the building is sometimes plagued by electrical and heading problems, Box says that he doesn’t mind the inconveniences too much.

“If you lose the oldness of the village, you lose some of the character,” he said.

Box doesn’t intend to make any changes to the gallery, despite the development occurring around him.

“I think from this point on, it’s maintenance,” he said, although he has considered petitioning the Hillsboro Village Merchants Association to put a bench outside of the gallery.

Even with the three-year leases and the economic uncertainty surrounding the space, Box does know one thing about the gallery’s future: “It’s not going to grow.”

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