The Little Free Art Gallery is seen set up at Kenilworth Avenue and Harvard Street on March 27, 2021, in Oak Park, Ill. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

Ever wish you could reach inside one of those Little Free Library boxes and grab something other than a paperback Dean Koontz novel? Perhaps a piece of handmade artwork? In Oak Park, you can. At the corner of South Kenilworth Avenue and Harvard Street, sits the village’s first ever “little free art gallery.”

“I’m hoping it’s an outlet for expression and an outlet to connect with each other,” said Megan Spillman, who brought the little free art gallery to Oak Park.

Spillman got the idea for the outdoor community gallery after her friend shared an article with her about one in Seattle back in January. 

“The minute I saw that article I thought, ‘I definitely need to make this happen,’” said Spillman. “It’s one of those things that you just can’t shake; you’re going to have to do it.”

Spillman enlisted the help of her neighbor Aaron Johnson, of the Oak Park Handy Human. Johnson built the structure based on the dimensions of the little free art gallery in Seattle. It was installed March 22.

So far, gallery visitors have deposited such masterpieces as drawings and prints. Spillman herself put in some funny postcards she had collected. Most of the works donated have been on the smaller scale, according to Spillman, but the gallery has the capacity to hold two-dimensional pieces up to 11-by-10-inches in size.

People of all ages can put artwork of all types into the little gallery. Whether it’s a three-dimensional hanging mobile or a still life painting, amateur or professional – all art is welcome. 

“It could be any medium – fiber arts, ceramics, glass,” said Spillman. 

The only rule is to keep the gallery’s interior in its original condition. The hammering of nails to hang pieces is not permitted and artists should take care to make sure paint and glue fully dries before depositing the latest masterpieces. 

“No altering the inside of the gallery either with wet paint or with any hooks or nails or anything like that,” said Spillman.

Little plastic dolls sit inside the gallery, as if viewing art in a museum. Spillman purchased the figurines, which she calls “gallery visitors,” from Lakeshore Learning, a Chicago-based teaching supplies company. The gallery visitors are permanent fixtures for all to enjoy.

The little free art gallery has a Facebook and Instagram account, which Spillman updates to show new pieces. If an artist leaves their own social media usernames, Spillman will tag them in pictures. 

“I’m going to try to at least two times a day, take some photos of what’s coming and going,” said Spillman. “And then if people leave items, they’re welcome to tag the gallery and we can repost them on the gallery account.”

While Oak Park’s little free art gallery is still new, neighboring River Forest may soon have one too.

“I have a friend in River Forest; she was super interested in launching one in her front yard,” she said.

The River Forest location Spillman expects will open in the next couple of months. She hopes the little free art gallery will spread, with other communities constructing their own. 

“I’m starting to brainstorm ideas for bringing it to other neighborhoods,” said Spillman. “I feel like it’s a little bit of joy in a time that has felt not so joyful.”

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