This month, Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone of Somerville, Massachusetts, cut the ribbon on Union Square’s latest addition, a small museum dedicated to highlighting the work of New England artists. By any measure, it was a surreal event.
For one thing, uncharacteristic of any administration, the press release issued by the City of Somerville announcing the event didn’t bother bragging about the size of Curtatone’s commitment to the arts. Instead, it bragged about the small pittance Somerville had paid to support the project ("just a little"). When Mayor Curtatone showed up, he cut the ribbon with a tiny pair of scissors, scarcely larger than the ones you might use to trim a baby’s fingernails. As he did so, he trod, Godzilla-like, above the museum’s parking lot, his feet big enough to easily crush any of the cars or bicycles parked below. This mayoral colossus then handed a certificate the size of a postage stamp to the museum’s founding curator, thanking her for her "puny contribution to the arts." Even in comparison to other drive-by mayoral ribbon cuttings, Curtatone’s speech at the event was terse: He opened with "hello," then immediately closed the speech by saying "thank you."
Unlike many mayors all over the country, Curtatone wasn’t just being a jerk. He’d planned the spirit of his participation well: It was a micro-speech for a micro-opening. The museum Curtatone was celebrating--or more correctly, mµseum--is scarcely bigger than a mailbox. Just 10 inches tall, 16 inches wide, and 8 inches deep, the gallery is, almost definitely, the smallest museum anywhere in the world. But it is looking to fill a big void in the area.
The Mµseum was born out of frustration on the part of local artist Judith Klausner as to how few local art institutions actually showed work by New England-based artists. "Over the years, I’ve been party to numerous conversations about how underrepresented New England artists are in the area, and inevitably, those conversations would come around to the suggestion that we should create our own space."
The problem? There was no space. Union Square is a busy, crowded place. It’s home to a weekly farmer’s market in the summer, where ageless hippies sell Kombucha and murmur mysteriously to themselves about "the mother" while knife sharpeners spit sparks from their massive grinding wheels. Dinner parties and shrub tastings are often held outdoors at dusk. Union Square caters to a dozen different cultural traditions at once: Molecular gastronomists share parking lots with cacophonous Brazilian supermarkets and urban homesteaders, while schnitzel as large as a sow’s flank can be finished off with a Haitian pastry purchased right across the street. It is lively, diverse, and friendly, but despite the number of artists who live in the area, there’s just no place showing off their work.
Union Square is not alone in this problem. It quickly became clear to Klausner that the biggest hurdle getting a gallery for local artists off the ground was depressingly logistical: it was impossible to afford enough space for one. "It got me started looking for alternative, unused spaces," Klausner tells Co.Design. "So I started paying attention to these little gaps located between commercial buildings, these sort of limbo spaces that we don’t tend to notice, because it’s like they have perception filters around them."
Locating an unused patch of wall between a popular local bar and a Subway sandwich shop, Klausner eventually made her dream a reality. Her Mµseum is incredibly affordable: With lighting powered by a built-in solar array, the institution pays no rent and has no staff. It also charges no admission fees. Protected by Plexiglas from vandals and looters, visitors can peer into the display case, where they will see a small dollhouse of a museum, right down to the polished floor and Grecian columns.
At the moment, the Mµseum is hosting its opening exhibition, Invisible Cities, which focuses on the work of four Somerville artists. Right now, there are six works on display, each only a couple inches tall, including three copper prints by Ted Ollier silhouetting the outlines of New York and Boston in ink. In addition, photographer Mara Brod presents a locket-sized photo called "Opening," while Emily Garfield’s "Microeddies" explores an imaginary city’s canal system. Finally, Grace Durnford’s "Glance" renders the ordinary criss-crossings of a city’s power lines against the sky in colored pencils and embroidery. Klausner hopes to follow Invisible Cities with new exhibitions every two months.
While it would be easy to dismiss the Mµseum as a trifle, Klausner’s work deserves more credit. It’s a museum that, by virtue of being small, is designed to be accessible. To those who don’t already have a passion for the arts, the idea of going to a museum-- stately, marbled, massive, and hushed--can be daunting. But the Mµseum is different: You stumble upon it, take it in at a glance, and walk away with a little more awareness of art in your life, without ever having to work up the resolve to go inside.
"If you haven’t been raised going to museums and galleries (and there is often a socioeconomic factor to that), those spaces can be very alienating. Even to me, a lifelong artist, commercial galleries can often be intimidating," says Klausner. "It can feel like you’re being evaluated or watched with suspicion. By having a space that uses some of the same visual vocabulary as a museum, but presents art in a low-pressure environment where you can just check it out as you walk past without paying any money, I hoped to create a bit of a bridge to the world of museums in general."
That’s a big, lofty goal for a dollhouse-sized gallery. If you’re in Somerville and would like to check out the Mµseum, you can find it at 72 1/2 Union Square. Look for the "We Bake Our Own Bread" sign in the window of Subway, and then look down and to the right. Figuratively, you can’t miss it, but literally, of course, you obviously can. So don’t. You can also find the official website here.