Photos by L.G. Patterson
Many communities have adopted the concept of little free libraries over the past decade, small boxes installed in neighborhoods that encourage anyone to take or bring books.
But it’s not that common to see an art gallery version.
Unless you frequent the area near Rollins Road and Westport Drive in Columbia.
That’s where you’ll find Gallery 717, named after the address where it’s housed. The now three-story miniature art gallery, found staked into the yard on the Rollins Road side, aims to make art accessible to all, while creating a community around this tiny attraction.
The idea came to Laurie Kingsley last year, when she was getting ready to visit friends in Oregon. She was searching for specific gifts to bring the children of her friend and began to Google “tiny art” when she stumbled upon this idea of a tiny art gallery. In Seattle, Stacy Milrany opened the Free Little Art Gallery in December 2020 as a way of adding some light in the midst of the global pandemic. Kingsley refers to Milrany as the godmother of free little art galleries everywhere. “I just started diving into her Instagram and I’m like, ‘I have to have one of these,’” she says.
It was a perfect fit for Kingsley, who had often talked about starting her own little free library over the years, but never put one in. Plus, there’s already quite a few of those in mid-Missouri. (According to the Little Free Library organization, there’s more than 20 in Columbia alone.)
When Kingsley got home from Oregon, she reached out to local artist Ken Nichols about building the tiny gallery itself. Nichols unexpectedly delivered the next day and Paul Wagner helped get it installed by the sidewalk facing Rollins Road. Kingsley and Wagner started up an Instagram page and Columbia’s first free little art gallery officially opened on Aug. 22, 2021.
Since then, it’s grown to comprise three galleries, one of which is dedicated to solo shows. (Kingsley is quick to note that Nichols provided all of them, with the second one being a surprise gift.) People can sign up for a solo show, which runs every two weeks, by messaging Kingsley through the Gallery 717 Instagram account. She keeps a calendar of planned shows, booking out months in advance, and notes that some of the artists who participate are simply fans of the gallery from out of state who mail their contributions to Kingsley.
In general, here’s how Gallery 717 works: For the two regular gallery spaces (the one for solo shows is marked as such), anyone is welcome to view, add and even take any piece of art being shown at any time. For the solo show space, Kingsley says they keep the art for the two-week duration of the show, but usually at the end people can take whatever pieces they like.
It’s surprising, Kingsley and Wagner note, how many people hesitate to take the art from the gallery. “We’ve had a harder time getting people to take things,” Kingsley says. “I think people feel bad.” She’ll tell people who stop by to make sure to take something when they leave, and often they’ll say they can’t take anything. She has to really convince people that the art is, in fact, free for the taking.
Kingsley recalls one incident where three elementary school children came to the door and asked what exactly the sign on the gallery that says “free” meant. When she informed them that it meant just what it says that all the art was free and available for the taking (minus what was being shown in the solo show), they quickly ran back to the gallery and spent the next hour poking around the available art and finding pieces to take home.
Wagner thinks children respond positively to the little people and miniature furniture, but Kingsley is quick to correct him: Everyone loves the miniature people and positioning them around the gallery. “It’s become this fun little place to make little scenes,” she says. “It’s so fun!” She admits that she’s spent a chunk of money purchasing tiny objects to use as part of the gallery, but that’s part of the fun of managing the miniature attraction.
A lot of themed shows have sprung up organically, which Kingsley loves. After war broke out in Ukraine, Gallery 717 began to accumulate art showing support for the people of Ukraine, from depictions of the country’s flag to incorporations of its national colors and even the national flower. “It was like the Ukraine support room,” Kingsley says.
There was even a women, activism and art class at Stephens College that had students brainstorm issues and create art that was then displayed in the gallery for three weeks, Wagner says.
For the most part, the gallery art and themes change on their own, but Kingsley notes that if it goes a few days without anything changing, she’ll add something new to help spark new additions from the community.
The Gallery 717 Instagram account has nearly 600 followers, as of mid-June, and it’s growing every day. Kingsley and Wagner say they were surprised by how quickly people latched on to the idea with Wagner noting that while they thought it was “an awesome idea,” they weren’t sure others would agree. Kingsley says she’s always surprised when someone she’s never met seems to know about the gallery without realizing she’s involved with it.
Wagner says that while some come searching for the gallery after finding it on Instagram or hearing about it from someone else, plenty of people stumble on it naturally as they walk, or drive, around the neighborhood. “We get a lot of traffic,” he says. “We just have a spot here where there just happens to be a lot of people who are walking their dogs or are out for a walk with their kids or just drive by. … People get excited about it real quickly.”
Kingsley’s favorite thing at the gallery so far was actually pretty early on, when they set up a tiny patron in the grass below the gallery with a miniature road sign that read, “SLOW.” She says she loved how people often didn’t even notice it until it was pointed out to them. Wagner says it’s interesting to note that when they have done tiny things in the grass, like the sign or the time they set up a tiny croquet match, it’s the children who see it and then point it out to the adults who missed it. “We enjoyed that,” Wagner says.
While plenty of dedicated artists have shown their tiny works of art at Gallery 717, Kingsley and Wagner like to use the space to encourage everyone to access their inner artist. “Everyone is an artist,” Kingsley says, but many people struggle to get over that initial hesitation, that thought of “I’m not artistically talented.” So making a piece of art that’s about the size of a regular postage stamp can make the task seem far more achievable, even to those who would never consider themselves artists. Sometimes, Kingsley says, people just need permission to do an art project.
Managing the tiny art gallery has become one of Kingsley’s favorite hobbies and she’s eagerly looking for ways to further grow Gallery 717, from considering adding a geocaching spot for outdoor adventurers or some type of small art camp for kids. She already tries to keep chalk art stored at the gallery for people to decorate the sidewalk and extend the art outside of the gallery itself.
She says she would love to start hosting events at (well, technically, in front of or around) the gallery, too. She notes that sometimes, some of the artists will mark the start of their solo show by coming by the gallery with a little champagne.
“I keep having big dreams,” Kingsley says.
And she’s working on plans to mark the gallery’s one-year anniversary, though she and Wagner are not quite sure what those are yet.
The one thing Kingsley and Wagner really want people to know about Gallery 717? They should make some tiny art to put in there. And take some, too. “It does make people happy,” Kingsley says.
For more information, find @gallery_717 on Instagram.