Create a Big Impact with a Little Museum – the Art Version of the Little Free Library.

Elysian Koglmeier | December 4, 2023

A man stands in front of the mini museum with three galleries displaying  abstract paintings and various types of sculptures.Photo of the Little Museum of Art at The Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia. Image courtesy of The Fralin Museum of Art.

Create an enchanting engagement opportunity outside of your art museum with a Little Museum.

Between the pandemic and a massive renovation project, The Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia was closed for over a year and a half. Lisa Jevack, Community Relations Manager at the Fralin, was tasked with finding ways to engage with the community during the museum’s closure and continue highlighting the artwork of local and student artists. 

Once the museum was reopened, Lisa had the additional challenge of getting people excited about returning to the museum after 18 months away. 

When brainstorming a solution, Lisa knew that she wanted to utilize the Fralin’s outdoor space. If people weren't comfortable going inside, they could still participate and engage with the museum in the Cornell Plaza. 

Inspired by the Little Free Library Movement, Lisa decided to create a Little Museum of Art (LMA) outside of the “Big Museum.”


What is a Little Museum of Art?

Think Little Free Library but in art museum form. The Little Museum of Art has six galleries, each measuring approximately one square foot, and is open 24-hours a day. Each gallery showcases tiny works on a rotating basis. At the close of each exhibition, the artwork is moved to the Free Little Museum Store. In the spirit of the Free Little Libraries, the public can take a piece or swap with one of their own, sharing art throughout the community. 

Two hand drawn sketches of the LMA with notes.  One is the box where art is left; the other is the front view with galleries.Sketches of the Little Museum of Art courtesy of The Fralin Museum of Art.


How do you build a Little Museum?

Lisa walks us through the steps of constructing the LMA. “The first step was drawing up some plans. I had a vision in my mind so I made sketches and showed them to my colleagues to get their input.” 

Then Lisa needed a fabricator. She was recommended to an instructor in the UVA art department who had done some small scale building projects for their sister museum.



Since the LMA would be outside, there was a good amount of problem solving needed for this prototype. 

  • It needed to be movable: The LMA had to be heavy enough to withstand wind but not so heavy that they couldn’t move it if they needed to.

  • It needed to be weatherproof: The structure needed to be as weather tight as possible but at the same time, they had to get inside to replace the art. 


Lessons learned

The initial iteration was a good first pass but Lisa quickly learned that improvements needed to be made. 

  1. The exterior of the LMA (exterior walls and roof) was a separate shell that lifted off. To get into the interior galleries, two people had to be present to lift  the outer case and put it back on. That was a challenge because if one thing fell off the interior wall, Lisa had to find someone to help her make the small tweak.

  2. The LMA was made of pressure treated wood and exterior paint. It was installed in the summer of 2021 and by the spring of 2022, you could see cracks in the wood and warping. The design wouldn’t hold up much longer. 


A second pass

Lisa contacted a local sign fabricator for a redesign. Rather than rebuild the entire museum, they redesigned the exterior which was a wrap of powder coated aluminum. The aluminum sheet was permanently affixed to the structure.

Instead of lifting off the top, the fabricator created a sliding panel in the front window, which is made of a special type of plexiglass that is weather resistant. 

A group of people gather in a courtyard outside of a brick building. Two young women look at the miniature museum.Community engaging with the Little Museum. Photo courtesy of The Fralin Museum of Art.


Now the good stuff – the exhibitions in the Little Museum of Art!

For the past two years, the LMA has hosted exhibitions once a month. 

Lisa hosts a call for artists with an application process. Initially the shows were an open call but now some of the exhibits have themes. Some of the shows are connected to what’s exhibited in the “Big Museum.” Last fall the Fralin had an exhibition of Joseph Cornell shadow boxes and artists were asked to submit artwork inspired by Joseph Cornell. 

The LMA has also hosted: 

  • A faculty/staff exhibition

  • A student exhibition

  • A botanical arts call

  • A show inspired by summer camp arts & crafts

What type of art can be exhibited in a Little Museum? According to Lisa, they’ve displayed a little bit of everything – drawings, paintings, collage, etchings, prints, photography, miniature pieces of pottery, and textiles.

The LMA has covered every medium except for video. Lisa hopes to find a way to project video. In last year’s faculty staff show, one professor, whose portfolio is mostly video, included a QR code on a plaque in the Little Gallery.

Most importantly, “we pay the artist a stipend for their mini artworks. We don't want them to hand over the artwork for free,” shares Lisa.


What is a Little Museum without a Little Museum Store?

Modeled after the Little Library, artwork is pulled out of the miniature galleries in the LMA and moved into the Free Little Museum Store once the exhibit is over. And, it’s open to anybody. 

“We’re hoping that there will be a swap: that people will take a work but also leave something behind.. It’s a great way to engage with the public. You can get a piece of original art by a well known local artist for free. The students love it.” – Lisa Jevack


Your Little Museum of Art can help bridge the “town and gown” divide. 

“Town and gown” refers to the division that can arise between a university and the non-academic population in the immediate geographic community. Often this divide is due to the perceived imbalance of resources of the university and the lack of access to the town. 

These days academic institutions are trying to develop stronger ties to their communities. You’ll find many academic museums have a staff member with the title, “Community Relations Manager” to help improve community engagement. 

In Charlottesville, the LMA helps address the “town and gown” issues. Lisa explains: “It’s a way that we can hopefully bridge the divide that has existed historically. We’re showing the people in our community that the resources of the museum are not just for students, but for the community as well.” 

Lisa is making a conscientious effort to work with local arts organizations and artist cooperatives to partner and bring their works into the LMA. 

LMA is shown in the courtyard. It is white, angular, modern, and it is secured to a white base with four skinny black legs.The Little Museum of Art in front of The Fralin Museum of Art. Image courtesy of The Fralin Museum of Art.


Every project has its own unique roadblocks

Even though the LMA is small in scale, it doesn't mean that it doesn’t have its own challenges. 

Despite the LMA being miniature, Lisa still has to coordinate with 12-14 artists. “Communication is always a challenge regardless of the venue,” divulges Lisa. She emphasizes the importance of giving herself enough time to plan and market the exhibit with the artists. 

Lisa also shares the challenges of hanging miniature artworks. “I’ve gone through many different techniques. You’d think it shouldn't be a big deal, but I don't want to put holes in the walls. I’ve had to invent a hanging system that will work and make sure artists are giving me work ready to hang.” 

After a few attempts Lisa found a good hanging solution. She buys magnetic strips and adheres them to the top of the walls. She attaches the artworks to magnetic hooks.

Advice for those wanting to establish their own Little Museum

Lisa imparts some wisdom after going through the process. Her advice:

Consider the space where you want the museum to go. Where will it be most visible? Where will it be accessible to the public but also accessible to the staff that are maintaining it?

Don’t commit to the first idea. Get a few different design proposals from different builders and fabricators. Getting multiple people involved will help with good design solutions. 

Look at it like it’s another exhibit space. It’s all about planning. Curators are working on shows years in advance. For the Little Museum, I want to start planning things out 6-12 months in advance. One, it makes my life easier. And it gives the time that the project deserves. 

What’s next at the Fralin Little Museum of Art? Check out the Fralin’s website here.

Interested in another audience engagement opportunity on campus? Read about Davidson College's Art Loan programs.


iPhone with a list of artworks and their thumbnails is displayed next to ad copy and a clickable button to learn more.


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