A Rochester artist’s walks with her dog during the pandemic got her thinking about accessibility.
“The art world sometimes can be a little difficult for some people who feel they don’t have an opinion about art or don’t feel comfortable going to the big museums or contemporary art galleries,” Mary Beth Magyar said.
With "mini libraries" along her path while walking her dog, she started thinking about how they provide access to books, even when the public library was closed.
“Clearly, there’s movement, with things coming in and going out,” she said.
With that, the concept for Rochester’s first Smallärt gallery was hatched, and a $6,000 Minnesota State Arts Board grant helped make it a reality.
Magyar secured a permit to place the aluminum gallery, with an enclosed display area measuring 18 inches on all three sides, on the west side of Soldiers Field Park along Sixth Avenue Southwest, just south of the former George Gibbs Drive intersection.
“I like the idea of offering up art for the person pushing the stroller by, or the person walking to work,” she said.
So does Nicole Havekost, who will be the gallery’s first exhibiting artist, with an official opening event planned for 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, June 18.
“I think it makes art a whole lot more accessible for a lot of people,” she said.
For the mini gallery, Havekost made a miniature version of the felt sculptures she has on display at Minneapolis Institute of Art. The sculpture is designed to encourage people to think about the human body.
“This piece, and the work that I made up at MIA, is really about how weird and fantastic and mysterious and gross bodies are — in particular, my body, because that’s the body I experience,” she said.
“We are all embarrassed and horrified and grateful for the things our body can do, and I think it’s wonderful to be able to recognize that at any stage of your life, and see the absurdity in it and the humanity in it,” she added.
Working in miniature offers a unique challenge, but Magyar said the small gallery will also provide new ways to connect with people, since each display will include a unique QR code to access artist information through a cellphone.
It will also provide links to similar artists, art education, and possible related projects for children.
Park Board President Linnea Archer said community engagement will be an important part of the collaboration.
“I think that is really where the learning and the growth comes, from them taking the next step,” she said.
Magyar said she selected the first four artists to bring differing perspectives to the display and engage as much of the community as possible.
“Contemporary art is such an interesting way to tap different people’s perspectives,” she said, adding that the gallery will offer those perspectives as a destination, as well as something passers-by will stumble across.
Patricia Dunn-Walker, who will be the third featured artist, said she’s still working to visualize what will be in the gallery for August, but said it will likely focus on family transition and nostalgia.
“I’m just going to start making some pieces that will go in that small space, and see how it goes together,” she said.
The Rochester artist, who works in mixed media, said the smaller gallery will have a chance to surprise people who wouldn’t normally see an exhibit.
“It’s a nice way of getting community going,” she said.
Mike Nigbur, the city’s parks and forestry division head, said he appreciated the mix of local and regional artists, and emphasized that it will be important to ensure people have the opportunity to engage with the project.
“It has to be done right,” he said of adding a new style of art to parks that already includes larger Art4Trails sculptures and performance art events.
“It’s a different type of art in our parks, and they are all welcome,” he said, adding that increasing public art in parks is a goal for the department.
The Soldiers Field display is permitted through December, and Magyar said the later months could test people’s commitment to viewing the artwork.
“We’ll see how many people want to stand out in the cold in December,” she said. “It depends on how intense our weather gets.”
She’s hoping the small display will draw attention, but also inspire budding artists. She said the scale means a new artist doesn’t need to fill a gallery with original work to experience what it’s like to have a dedicated display.
“This way, it’s one small thing, and you can kind of get your feet wet,” she said.
For now, Magyar said she’s also getting her feet wet with the first Smallärt gallery, but she envisions adding displays throughout the city.
Two more are already in production with the grant funds.
Havekost said creating paths to different exhibits in the galleries is an exciting concept to increase access to the art.
“It could be a community event,” she said.