Free Little Art Gallery Looms Large in Community

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John McWilliams

By John McWilliams

In February 2018, my wife, Beth, and I purchased the Samuel Coad house in the historic district of Mineral Point. Built in 1864, this wonderful limestone building was the family residence of Samuel Coad, a Cornish miner who immigrated to Mineral Point from Cornwall, England. Initially attracted to Mineral Point for the opportunity to mine lead, Samuel evolved over time into a very wealthy wheat merchant. While his home passed through many hands over the past 157 years, and served many ambitions, it was predominantly used as a family home.

Believing we had uncovered a hidden gem, we were highly motivated to renovate the building and create a home that respected the unique history of Mineral Point while enhancing the home’s overall form and functionality with modern architectural improvements. Throughout the renovation process, we were taken aback by all of the support and encouragement we received from this kind and generous community. Toward the end of almost two years of work on the renovation, Beth ran across an article about a Free Little Art Gallery and knew in an instant that it would be the perfect finishing touch for our home, and a small way to thank the community for their positive and appreciative response to our efforts to ensure the Samuel Coad home could survive another 157 years.

The article featured Stacy Milrany, a Seattle-based artist, who in December 2020 installed a Free Little Art Gallery near her home. Inspired by Little Free Libraries and her appreciation for art and creativity, Stacy wanted to bring something light, fun and beautiful to her community after a very difficult and challenging year. While her FLAG was not the first in the country, it became very well-known thanks to a local news article and the power of the Internet. As her story spread, it provided the fuel necessary to inspire many more people across the country to build, install and support their own Free Little Art Gallery. After reading the article, we were convinced that the residents of Mineral Point would actively participate in the concept and adopt the Mineral Point Free Little Art Gallery as their own. We were right.

The basic concept behind a Free Little Art Gallery is simple. At its core, it is just like a Little Free Library, but instead of sharing books, a FLAG shares and displays little pieces of art! Art of any kind is welcome — paintings, poetry, photography, sculpture, ceramics, textiles — made by people of all ages and any artistic ability. Visitors to the FLAG are free to view and enjoy the art on display; take a piece of art home; leave a piece of art for others to enjoy; or, all of the above! Most FLAGs are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  

Our first step in bringing a FLAG to Mineral Point was to build the gallery structure. Using leftover materials from the renovation of our Mineral Point property, I built a structure modeled after our home that is approximately 18 inches wide, 18 inches deep, and 15 inches tall. Cedar siding and hardwood flooring was cut down to approximate a 1:12 scale and installed. A shed roof was also constructed with a pitch similar to the addition that was added to our historic property. Lastly, a local iron worker was hired to fabricate a steel column to support the little gallery. 

Keeping everything close to a 1:12 scale in an effort to provide a realistic appearance to the gallery interior, I made a little wooden bench that you could imagine patrons might sit on and view the art. I also made little pedestals and easels for displaying art. I found motion detecting, rechargeable lights that provide a beautiful and brilliant view of the gallery for nighttime visitors. As a final touch, I found and purchased little townspeople figures, all about 6 inches tall, to represent visiting patrons.

With construction mostly complete, we began to share the concept on social media along with images of what was to come. Within days, we were delighted to see supportive and positive comments from people all over the country! It wasn’t long before we started to hear from artists who wanted to donate art for the grand opening. 

After a couple of delays due to weather, the Mineral Point Free Little Art Gallery grand opening took place on April 18. Friends and family joined us to celebrate the FLAG and view all the wonderful little pieces of art that were donated for the big day. As we hoped, residents of Mineral Point and the surrounding area almost immediately began visiting, displaying their own art, and taking home art made by others. Over the following three months, we estimate well over 100 pieces of little art came and went through the door of the gallery.

Since opening the MP FLAG, we have experienced so much joy watching people and little pieces of art come and go. There have been some who never leave or take art, but always stop and look closely at what is on display. Others are regular contributors and take great pride in the quality and creativity of the pieces they leave behind. One father in particular has made visits to the MP FLAG a regular activity with his children, almost always leaving behind at least one beautiful little work of art. Highly accomplished artists, whose work sells for thousands of dollars, have graciously created and donated pieces of art specifically made for the FLAG. Young children, who respectfully wait for their parents to lift them up for a clear view, excitedly pick out their favorite work of art to take home and cherish. Older children joyfully cheer when they see the art that they left in the MP FLAG a few days earlier was chosen to go home with an unknown visitor. We have also witnessed many out-of-town visitors who find the FLAG, fall in love, and post wonderful comments about the gallery and their visit to Mineral Point. And finally, an entire class of students with a wonderful teacher who organized a class field trip to the gallery was seen leaving a few pieces of art, and respectfully only selecting a couple to take back to class to serve as inspiration for their next project.  

We couldn’t be more grateful for all the positive feedback we have received for bringing the FLAG to Mineral Point. For us, the gallery has come to symbolize the characteristics that attracted us to the community: creative, kind, supportive, inclusive, welcoming and fun! This wonderful community quickly adopted the FLAG as their own. They watch out for the gallery. They actively participate and engage in the exchange of art. They help organize and arrange the art on display. In doing all those things, they celebrate the MP FLAG’s simplicity and the positive energy it generates, strengthening the linkage between those who love all that Mineral Point has to offer. We hope you have the opportunity to visit our Free Little Art Gallery soon!

John and Beth McWilliams live in Verona and enjoy weekends and family gatherings at their historic Mineral Point property. Learn more about the MP FLAG by visiting the mpfreelittleartgallery on Facebook and Instagram.