Arts

Some neighbourhoods have a little library, but this one has a mini art museum

Anyone can contribute an artwork to Hamilton art teacher Matt Coleman's MMOMA (Mapleside Museum of Miniature Art) — or take one home.

Anyone can contribute an artwork to Matt Coleman's Mapleside Museum of Miniature Art — or take one home

Exterior and interior views of the MMOMA. (Matt Coleman/Mapleside Museum of Miniature Art)

Perched atop a post at the foot of his front yard, high school art teacher Matt Coleman runs what might just be the tiniest art gallery in Canada. 

In this dollhouse-sized display room based in Hamilton, the sculptures are as big as thimbles and the canvases are seldom larger than hockey cards. The gallery patrons, who you'll find browsing the exhibitions, are all toy figurines. And the basement hides a cubby with take-home art supplies, while upstairs, in the museum attic, you can spy a fully-furnished artist's studio, with nods for the keen-eyed to Warhol, Jeff Koons, Banksy and other art world characters. The gallery is itself something of a tiny masterpiece. 

Inspired by those ubiquitous Little Free Libraries (whose motto is "take a book, leave a book"), anyone is welcome to make an artwork for display at the Mapleside Museum of Miniature Art. Unlike most other galleries, however, they're also welcome to take a piece home free of charge.

The concept's proven to be a hit, as the neighbourhood's youngest Picassos and not-so-young hobbyists contribute their creations alongside a few of the city's most established artists. With new artworks hitting the walls all the time, the MMOMA might not only be one of the country's tiniest art exhibitors, but one of its busiest, too.

Inside the MMOMA. (Matt Coleman/Mapleside Museum of Miniature Art)

The project began about a year ago, after a friend introduced Coleman to Stacy Milrany's Free Little Art Gallery, which had then just recently opened in Seattle. Coleman "fell in love with the idea," he says. "I love fostering creativity and building communities around art. That's my ultimate purpose."

He adds: "I weirdly also just like miniature things." 

With some barn board, cedar shingles, solar lighting and plexiglass — as well as the helping hands of the Meredith family a few doors over, who built and operate the neighbourhood Little Library — Coleman opened the Mapleside Museum of Miniature Art in December 2021. The teacher and gallery director, who was also once a busker, knew that if he wanted others to participate, he'd have to "prime the pump" with an example — so its inaugural exhibition featured the collaborative paint and marker works of Coleman and his 10-year-old son Quinn.

Quickly, the project attracted some social media buzz, and attention from local news outlets followed. MMOMA was soon flooded with contributions, and Coleman's role as curator truly began.

In its brief time, the gallery has already shown an astonishing variety of art, including drawings, paintings, photographs, prints, etchings, sculptures, textiles, mixed media collage and ceramics. Some works are by first-time scribblers, while others are by notable local talents, such as Holly Long, Amanda Immurs and the roving guerrilla (erm, duck) artist Lewis Mallard.

Cornelia Peckart and Nancy Benoy, both professional artists and art educators, featured MMOMA on an episode of their podcast Art To Go back in February, and left a postcard-sized piece each. "I wanted to participate," Peckart says, "because I love the idea of anonymous exchange and the open sharing of beautiful creations." 

Art by Cornelia Peckart at the MMOMA. (Matt Coleman/Mapleside Museum of Miniature Art)

Perhaps Hamilton's best-known landscape artist, E. Robert Ross — whose works have been collected by public institutions as well as significant private collectors, like former U.S. president Bill Clinton and Prince Charles and Duchess Camilla — is a spirited supporter of the MMOMA. He lives nearby and has contributed four or five paintings so far: a trillium, a cloud over water, a pine tree in winter, he recalls. Whereas his 11-by-22-foot painting for the lobby of Hamilton's St. Joseph Hospital took the realist artist some nine months to complete, Ross can satisfyingly realize an idea on a three-by-four-inch panel for the MMOMA in an hour or so.

"Art shouldn't be so exclusive," he says. "Art is for people to see … As an artist, you want your work to be seen, and this is just another venue."

Of course, the gallery's walls aren't solely for professionals. Early childhood educator Christine Trimmins introduced her kindergarteners to the MMOMA after a few students brought up their visits during a class discussion. Inspired by Coleman's project, her Earl Kitchener Elementary kindergarten class built their very own miniature museum, which they used to exchange artwork. Shortly after, Coleman treated the students to a group show at the real MMOMA.

"I love that [the museum] invites any artist, at any age and artistic ability, to express themselves," Trimmins says. "It exposes art to people who may be reluctant to walk into an art gallery. But what I think makes it extremely special is the ability it has to build connectedness." 

Art by Hamilton's E. Robert Ross (left) and Alberta's Jo McDonald (right) at the MMOMA's "The Hive" exhibition. (Matt Coleman/Mapleside Museum of Miniature Art)

For a recent exhibition, titled The Hive, Coleman laser-cut dozens of wooden hexagons for artists to embellish and return to the gallery. He received interest from art makers as far away as Alberta, so he dutifully mailed the honeycomb-shaped panels wherever enthusiasm arose. Collecting more than 60 submissions from over 50 artists, The Hive covered the museum's walls, with the work of Mapleside Avenue residents butted up beside out-of-towners and kindergarten-aged creators right next to the likes of E. Robert Ross. It was a true visualization of the incredible community this tiny museum has gathered. 

The MMOMA director still has large plans for his mini museum, with a zine show and miniaturists exhibition in the works. Because galleries sometimes close for private parties, Coleman, alongside artist and DJ Julie Fazooli, has begun imagining what a rave night at MMOMA might look like. And since a few other mini art museums have newly opened in Hamilton — at least one directly inspired by MMOMA — the mini gallerists have been discussing the possibility of a mini art crawl. It's all proof that big inspiration can grow from the tiniest of places.  

"I think that humans are just aching to connect and to create," Coleman says. "Being able to create a space that is accessible to all levels and all ages just through the sheer joy of art and creating community, it's sort of this field of dreams: if you build it, they will come."

Take a look at more art from the MMOMA:

Works by various artists at the MMOMA. (Matt Coleman/Mapleside Museum of Miniature Art)
Art by Lewis Mallard at the MMOMA. (Matt Coleman/Mapleside Museum of Miniature Art)
Works by various artists at the MMOMA. (Matt Coleman/Mapleside Museum of Miniature Art)
Inside the MMOMA. (Matt Coleman/Mapleside Museum of Miniature Art)
Works by various artists at the MMOMA. (Matt Coleman/Mapleside Museum of Miniature Art)
A collaboration between a kindergarten class at Earl Kitchener and the MMOMA. (Matt Coleman/Mapleside Museum of Miniature Art)
Inside the MMOMA. (Matt Coleman/Mapleside Museum of Miniature Art)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Hampton is a Hamilton-based freelance arts and culture writer. His work has appeared elsewhere in The New York Times, the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The Walrus, and Canadian Art. Find him on Instagram: @chris.hampton

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