Pedestrians wandering near the intersection of University Avenue and Raymond Avenue in St. Paul can expect to experience more than the rush of the light rail and the traffic of the busy streets.
Tucked into a 3 foot by 2 foot vintage fire hose cabinet outside of Workhorse Coffee Bar is the Smallest Museum in St. Paul — a tribute to local history, artists and community.
“In my mind, when I saw this little architectural feature … it was kind of like a Little Free Library, but I wanted to see it as a gallery, and therein began the Smallest Museum,” said Shannon Forney, founder of the Smallest Museum and business manager of Workhorse Coffee Bar.
A new exhibit featuring a local artist is brought into the space on a monthly basis. Artists can apply biannually — a round of applications for Spring 2018 will close on Nov. 6.
The Smallest Museum gives artists just three rough guidelines — installations should relate to local history, encourage audience engagement and stay within a budget of $50, given that the micro-museum is exposed to the sidewalk and lacks a traditional security system.
“Artists interpret [those guidelines] through a lot of different lenses,” Forney said. “It does seem like it’s the right amount of construction.”
A former exhibit, for example, showcased a tiny movie theater, with a looped film playing on a Samsung Galaxy phone.
“He created a film that was based on an homage to the Lumière brothers, who were first attributed with creating film,” Forney said. “The film itself was of the Green Line train, and the Lumière brothers’ first film was [about a train], and that perspective of the train coming towards the screen, caused all this hysteria … He was equating it with the Green Line coming in on University Ave.”
Larsen Husby, the artist behind the Smallest Museum’s September exhibit entitled “8 Places You Are Right Now — A Postcard Documentary,” found the micro-museum’s initiative closely aligned with his perspective as an artist.
“A lot of my work takes the form of maps,” Husby said. “Sometimes it’s not so literal as that … This is actually a project that I’d had in mind for a while. It just seemed really fitting for that space because they’re specifically interested in places that related to their location and their community.”
Husby’s exhibit takes the form of eight postcards — each postcard is labeled with a different way to identify the location of the Smallest Museum, varying from the geographic coordinates to “The Security Building,” the historic title of the building in which Workhorse Coffee Bar is located.
The postcards are printed in a variety of colors Husby drew from previous work and exploration.
“I had actually been working on an entirely different project ... and in that place, I had developed a palette of colors that I had derived from looking at road maps,” Husby said.
He had originally intended to produce this idea with full-size posters, but the parameters of the Smallest Museum forced him to think within the 3 foot by 2 foot box.
“The cool thing about postcards is that not only can I put them in the window box, but I can also put out the postcards for people to take away,” Husby said.
While Husby’s exhibit offers visitors the option to enter the coffee shop if they wish to pick up a postcard of their own, the Smallest Museum is a separate work of public art.
“It’s important that people don’t have to be a customer and don’t have to step foot inside … to truly experience what the exhibit is about,” Forney said.
Other unaffiliated smallest museums do exist across the world, in telephone booths and in tiny windows. So, while the St. Paul location benefits from its home in the fire hose cabinet and next to Workhouse Coffee Bar, Forney would love to see the idea expanded, partially because of the simplicity of enjoying such a small space.
“There’s a retail business that I drive by every day, and they change their sign every week, whether they put up some funny joke … I always read it. I look forward to it,” Forney said. “Usually people don’t think about being engaged during transit … [But] it doesn’t require much of someone’s time to stand and look at this 2 foot exhibit. I don’t think there are many experiences in our lives that are this simple.”
For future expansions of the Smallest Museum, Forney dreams of seeing these micro-exhibits in unexpected locations. Fans of the art installation should pay attention to places like TCF Bank Stadium, not the Weisman Art Museum, Forney said.
“There’s this [love for] surprise and unassumingness that is born out of my artistic roots,” Forney said. “If Smallest Museums were to appear anywhere, wouldn’t it be great to see them appear at gas stations, or at sports facilities, not just libraries or art museums?”