It’s hard to imagine a world without exchange. Everything we do, from smiling at a passing stranger to ordering a coffee is in some way informed by an understanding of giving and receiving. Though this may be the way of the world, one Montclair resident believes it doesn’t have to be, and over the last year, has created a community around shared experiences of joy, all from a miniature art gallery on her front lawn.
Standing proudly on the corner of 8 Stanford Place is Montclair’s own Tiny Gallery, a small showcase of miniature art pieces from local artists. Created and directed by Montclair resident Francesca Castagnoli, the gallery features themed, month-long exhibits and is free for any curious passersby.
While the gallery is tiny, the passion behind the project feels massive, and its upcoming plans are even bigger. Read on to learn more about how Montclair’s Tiny Gallery came to be and what this little community has in store for the future.
What if it was Art?
When Francesca first imagined the miniature gallery, she was met almost exclusively with dismissal. Neighbors and friends were quick to say it wouldn’t work, or people wouldn’t care, or whatever other excuse is often presented in the face of a good idea. As the story goes, Francesca didn’t listen.
She first got the idea from Little Free Libraries, a non-profit organization that has now placed over 150,000 free book-sharing cases, from which anyone can take a book in exchange for a book inside, throughout the country. Francesca looked at these cases and wondered: What if it was art?
The art of it all doesn’t come at random. Francesca descends from a long line of artists and briefly worked at an art gallery in San Francisco after college. In another life, she would’ve been an art history major; but as she puts it, she didn’t get “the artist gene.” Incidentally, the gene is somewhere inside Francesca and she passed it down to her eldest son Conrad, who currently studies art at The Cooper Union.
^ Montclair resident + founder of Tiny Gallery, Francesca Castagnoli
Francesca cites Conrad as one of the main reasons she pursued the Tiny Gallery. She felt envious of all the new experiences her firstborn would have in New York City and wanted to forge a new experience for herself, even if her geographic location remained the same. When the dinner party naysayers laughed at the Tiny Gallery, it was Conrad who told her to keep going, that she could create a community from shared joy.
Making it Happen
The most astounding thing about the Tiny Gallery is how many people are involved in a project that is ostensibly so small. The first iteration featured a collection of miniature watercolor paintings that Francesca scrapped almost as soon as she painted them. She quickly realized that she wouldn’t be the artist in this story: like her post-grad days, she’d be the gallerist, recruiting local artists to have monthly displays.
^ Tiny Gallery’s March exhibit: Rendezvous by Kendra Shedenhelm
She also needed to build the physical gallery, and as a journalist for various women’s publications, woodworking wasn’t exactly in the cards for her. So Francesca enlisted the architectural talents of her husband, David Moore, and later, Will Rosebro, to design a display case that was waterproof, sturdy, and sunlight-resistant to preserve the art.
After numerous models, the gallery was taking physical shape and Francesca had to think about the logistics. It was important to her that the gallery didn’t feel crafty — that despite its size, it presented itself as a true, formal gathering space to admire the work of local creatives. In the same breath, it was also a priority that the gallery didn’t feel pretentious or inaccessible. That’s why mini is the medium.
^ From Parade of my Color Dreams by Yana Rodin + Vacation Terrra/Sol3 Earth, U.S.A by Joan Park
She decided that there would be rotating exhibitions from local artists and that the artists would hand paint the tiny art pieces, rather than have them printed to the smaller size. This, admittedly, is a challenge: Francesca says that the challenge, and the opportunity to do something totally unique, is why the artists are on board.
The miniature art pieces weren’t the only hurdle, though. At first, Francesca relied on Conrad’s access to The Cooper Union’s Maker Lab to print small frames for the art pieces. When Conrad had run out of favors (as all children do), she turned to Montclair resident Jessenia Cosme (of JCs Art Designs) to create the frames, easels, etc.
A Warm Welcome
The gallery first launched in February 2023, with former Montclair resident Yana Rodin as the premier show. Called Parade of My Colorful Dreams, the exhibit was a glimpse into the “wonderful, charming, and charismatic characters in [Yana’s] dreams.” Francesca and the team hosted an opening night reception on the front lawn at 8 Stanford Place to celebrate the gallery’s official opening.
After the gallery’s initial launch, Francesca received an influx of inquiries from local artists, perhaps most notably, Todd Borough, an art teacher at Montclair High School. He and Francesca teamed up to feature a number of Montclair’s budding artists from MHS in the gallery. The gallery has become a place for artists both young and established to explore a new avenue of their craft and gain some exposure.
Tiny Gallery has since featured eight shows, each with respective receptions, from local artists. It’s now booked through next year. Any uncertainty Francesca had (and continues to have) for the gallery proves frivolous: almost every day, the gallery gives pause to curious pedestrians passing by. Even if just for a moment, locals are “forced to lean in and have a totally different experience. A small, expansive wondrous little moment,” she says.
^ Tiny Gallery’s September exhibit: #journalismmattersmontclair by Erika Bleiberg
This is the ethos of Montclair’s Tiny Gallery: to create a small little moment that pulls us from our day-to-day monotony, for nothing other than the delight of that moment. Francesca describes the gallery and her experience creating it as one that is “all joy,” and perhaps this is evidenced most by the fact that the project raises zero profits, despite how many hands are involved. Artists can commission pieces independently, but as far as the gallery is concerned, it’s completely free to the public. What’s more, the gallery stands on Francesca’s front lawn and has yet to be vandalized — a testament to the reciprocal trust in the Montclair community.
On October 16th, Tiny Gallery officially launched its second Montclair location in the Van Vleck Gardens visitors center. Just like the Stanford Place podium, the Van Vleck gallery features rotating shows from local artists. The first exhibit is Tracey Diamond’s love note to nature with The Dreaming Trees. Tracey’s artist reception at the visitor center is scheduled for Sunday, November 5th, from 12PM – 2PM.
Meanwhile, Stanford Place is booked and busy: the original Tiny Gallery location has artist exhibits booked through next year, though Francesca shared she’s always looking for more artists. Keep scrolling for the complete lineup.
Paula Stark, Nothing is Too Wonderful to Be True | October
Steve Black | November
Sofia Batres | December
Hannah Ruth | February
Valerie Dial | March
Karny | April
Alex Kraus | May
Eventually, Francesca hopes that the Tiny Gallery will make its way throughout the U.S. with traveling shows. For now, we can think of it similarly to Montclair: a small pocket of joy that functions through its community and creativity.
You can keep up with Montclair’s Tiny Gallery on Instagram and its website. Right now, Paula Stark’s show of miniature paper collages is on display at 8 Stanford Place, and it runs until November 11th.