How Real Estate Ate Nashville’s Smallest Art Gallery
Remembering the torso-sized DIY gallery that supported Nashville artists for years.
This article originally appeared on Creators.
The story is familiar to art scenesters from Chelsea to Honolulu's Kaka'ako arts district. For four glorious years, Nashville was home to a miniature experiment in guerrilla curation, which came to an abrupt end at the hands of the real estate market.
Nashville's Smallest Art Gallery (NSAG) proclaimed itself as, "the smallest functioning art gallery in Nashville, and dare we say, the world!" What it lacked in size, it made up for in freedom and ambition. Today, the gallery has been replaced by condos and a canine-themed bar where you can eat nachos out of a dog bowl.
Rewind to the Ides of March, 2008. Hillary Clinton's first presidential bid is in full swing. Major print publications are (barely) realizing the internet is changing their business. The New York Times has just begun profiling Chelsea gallerinas. A few weeks prior, NSAG was nothing but a graffiti-ravaged display case, 27" wide and 37" tall. Thanks to area web designer Daniel Box, it's now a self-sustained gallery, complete with lights and a little solar panel to illuminate it by night. It clings to the wall of Peabody Shoe Repair in Nashville's walkable Hillsboro Village, a family-owned business that had operated in Nashville for 50 years.
Each month, Box curated a themed show. They had titles like Summer Book Club, Diorama Drama, and Matchbook Paintings, and every set was unified by thematic and physical limitations. Artists were Box's friends, or cold-called via the internet. Those who worked with him would make original art proportional to the gallery. That was part of the fun: the challenge of making work that fit. Box says even small photographs didn't fit in the space—they had to be tiny. He featured many Nashville artists, but received submissions from as far away as The Netherlands. He got packages delivered from the artists at his place of business, arranged the show on poster board in his spare time, then changed out the work every four to six weeks.
Box describes the first show as as an act of opportunity. "I walked past the dilapidated, graffiti-covered box every day," he tells Creators. "Every time I thought, 'We should do something cool with this.'" One spring day he spontaneously started renovating. "I knew if we could kick it off, it would work," he says. "My girlfriend thought I was crazy. It was a leap of faith, that people would actually do it."
He enlisted his friends San Francisco-based street artist Ferris Plock, GRAMMY-nominated designer Matthew Curry, and Nashville artist Rachel Briggs to break the space in. In keeping with the Ides of March, the show's theme was a sense of impending doom. The artists rose to the occasion, offering portraits of kings, grotesque body horror, and images of crying girls. "It was early illustration days for me, so I have to credit them as giving me my first gallery show," Briggs says.
During its short life span, NSAG was host to Thomas Brodahl's CGI killer robots, paintings of rock n' roll icons on cassette tapes by Jeff Bertrand, and the matchbooks paintings of Korean artist Jee Hoon Stark, showcasing techniques learned from a Japanese miniature artisan. NSAG gave artists a space to try something new. The small scale and devoted community made it a fixture for curious Nashvillians, and without the pressure of monthly rent, Box could afford to take a risk with the artists he showed. "People liked it because it was a delightful surprise they weren't expecting as they were walking," Box says.
For born and raised Nashville artist Shana Kohnstamm, the gallery played a role in her development as an artist. "When Daniel put out the call-for-art, I was still transitioning from painting to felt work," she says. Her show, Surface Treat, was among the first public showings of a process she had been developing for two years. "I was eager to try out some small framed works and play around with what were basically sample pieces for different techniques," she says.
A curator for Mobile, Alabama's Museum of Art viewed Surface Treat online and asked Kohnstamm to be a part of an exhibit called Size Matters in 2015. It was a big break for Kohnstamm. It was also NSAG's last show.
"It ended in typical fashion. It was torn town for generic condos," Box laments. "I was incredibly bummed." In 2012, he got a letter from The Hill Company, one of Nashville's largest landowners and the company managing his building. "The joke is that Hill would drive around with his accountant saying, 'I want that building,' and the accountant would have to say, 'Sir, you already own that one!'" Box says. The letter informed them that the building hosting both his office and Peabody Shoe Repair was to be torn down and rent hiked to a price far out of the Peabodys' price range.
"Nothing gold can stay," says Briggs of NSAG's demise. "In the age of Nashville rapid growth, gentrification, and rampant teardown of historic and cultural markers, its a little bit heartbreaking that the Smallest Art Gallery and it's old charming building were torn down to be replaced with a vapidly terrible sports bar."
"To be fair, the building was in disrepair," Box admits. "But it was fixable. The owners had no interest in fixing it. It was much easier for them to knock it down and put something in that would make more money."
While Box hasn't reopened the gallery in a new location, he still loves NSAG. "I kept doing it until they kicked us out. December 6, 2012 was the last show," he says. After the building was destroyed, he moved his office and moved on with his life. He now has four kids and spends his creative energy designing graphics and products.
Kohnstamm and Box once exchanged ideas about restarting the gallery in 2015. "When I asked him about reviving the gallery, he said that he didn't have the time," Kohnstamm says. "But if I felt like starting it up again in a different incarnation, that was up to me." She hasn't yet acted on the invitation.
These days, Box is encouraging of others who want to resurrect NSAG, even offering me advice about managing the project. His place, both in Nashville and in life isn't, right for him at the moment—in an alternate universe, though, he might still be curating tiny art. Says Box, "I would definitely still be doing it if the building hadn't been knocked down."
Check out more work from Nashville's Smallest Art Gallery here.