Big plans for Smallest Museum in St. Paul

The micro-museum
To the right of the Workhorse coffee shop front door is a vintage fire-hose cabinet which has been converted to a micro-museum.
Courtesy Pavlica Photography

At a time when proposals for new museums in the United States are often accused of "edifice complex," the soon-to-be-opened Smallest Museum in St. Paul is deliberately understated and decidedly tiny.

"It is a vintage fire hose cabinet," says Shannon Forney. "It is about two foot by three foot. It is 11 inches deep. It is a very square cabinet. There is an electrical outlet in the cabinet, so we are still figuring out what the electronic or lighting capabilities will be of the little museum."

Forney is a project leader on the Smallest Museum. She is also the co-owner of the Workhorse Coffee Bar which is under construction near the corner of University and Raymond on the western edge of the city. The cabinet, which Forney believes may date back to the 1930s (if not to 1910 when the building went up), sits on the wall outside the store.

When Forney and her partner began working on the coffee shop, she knew the surrounding area as a hotbed of artistic activity, with many studios in surrounding buildings, as well as the administrative offices of several arts organizations. Finally, she heard about the Knight Foundation Challenge grants, which are designed to encourage the development of arts projects in the city.

"There are not that many grant opportunities that are open to a for-profit business," she said. That's why the Knight grants announcement caught her eye when it came out last year. She applied and was delighted when the Smallest Museum idea got funding.

"The St. Paul Art Challenge really has this fun, inventive, excitement around it," said Forney, who is an arts administrator by day. "And it is so amazing to be part of this initial cohort of St. Paul projects. I feel totally honored and blown away to be one of the 42 awardees."

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The proposal was for a year's worth of month-long exhibits. The Knight grant provides a stipend of $200 each. The coffee shop will handle publicity for the shows.

Forney admits the idea of the Smallest Museum in St Paul owes a lot of the popular Little Free Libraries, which started in Hudson, Wisconsin but have now sprung up all over the country. She hopes to capture the warm spirit of community they have engendered.

"A little bit of humanity and humor, and investigation" she said. "Engaging curiosity is a primary feature of the Museum."

Ty Barnett and Shannon Forney
Ty Barnett and Shannon Forney, owners of the Workhorse Coffee Bar.
Courtesy Pavlica Photography

Forney says she is excited to see what people propose for the tiny space. She hopes to engage people who don't necessarily see themselves as artists, as well as some of the well established names with connections to the area such as Wing Young Huie and Alec Soth. Forney says that mix would also set the tone that the museum is for everyone.

Applications are open now, and the first exhibit will be installed in June. Forney admits she has no clue how it's likely to go.

"That's both the wonderful and terrifying thing about the inaugural event of something," she said. "No one really knows what to expect of how it's going to play out."

However while the Smallest Museum in St Paul has funds for one year, Forney says they are already thinking beyond that.

"If there are 300 proposals that come in, then clearly we would know that we have interest to continue this and that we would find a way to find the funding to make it possible in the future."