Billed as “the world’s smallest art gallery,” Tacoma’s Tollbooth Gallery is a bright gem lighting up the streets of Tacoma. Originally a TV-Tacoma information kiosk located near the corner of South 11th Street and Broadway downtown (outside the Woolworth Building), Tollbooth Gallery was born in 2003 when Jared Pappas-Kelley and Michael Lent, working under the aegis of the nonprofit arts organization ArtRod (descended from Allied Arts and Artists Exchange), began to exhibit an ambitious eight shows a year.
The little kiosk is fitted with a wide, metal root and is coated with a self-healing rubber polymer that gives it a surface that stands up to the wear and tear of its urban setting. A video monitor is housed behind a sturdy door of unbreakable glass and a metal speaker is set in a recess beneath the monitor. The whole structure stands 10 feet in height. For 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Tollbooth’s monitor plays a looped video composition by its current artist or arts organization. Passersby who encounter the exhibit midway through its play can stay for the end and then continue to watch from the beginning.
The backside of Tollbooth is meant to serve as a surface for paper, wheat-pasted art related to the video installation.
Pappas-Kelley and Lent intended for Tollbooth to be a means by which experimental art could be flushed out of the traditional museum setting and taken to the street to be encountered by citizens in the urban environment.
In addition to Tollbooth Gallery, ArtRod ran the Critical Line gallery space on St. Helens Avenue, put out the quarterly arts publication “Toby Room,” kept up a Northwest Artists’ Registry and facilitated a film series called “Don’t Bite the Pavement.” When the organization sputtered to a halt in 2007, however, Pappas-Kelley departed the area and Lent is currently in England pursuing a graduate degree in the arts.
Of all that ArtRod accomplished in its time, Tollbooth is the only artifact that remains. In 2007 the orphaned Tollbooth was taken into the care of Tacoma Contemporary (TaCo), another arts nonprofit that is responsible for the art installations in the Woolworth Windows – a natural fit since Tollbooth is right outside the Woolworth Building.
Between Tollbooth and the Woolworth Windows, TaCo maintains the corner of 11th and Broadway a magical realm of experimental art, a place that straddles the divide between gallery space and public art. Rotating shows by artists are encountered on the street level at any time of the day or night.
In its time, Tollbooth Gallery has served as a venue by which a great many local, national and international artists have been able to expose their work to the people of Tacoma. Examples include Pappas-Kelley’s “Some Say She Lost Her Head,” Denise Smith’s “Seadrift, Texas,” and “Exquisite Corpse” by students from Tacoma School of the Arts.
The current show is a short video composition called “70.9%” (referring to the percentage of the earth’s surface that is covered by water). Put out by local group Mad Hat Productions, “70.9%” features a sequence of close-ups of water surfaces set to haunting music of an electronic keyboard. There is the flowing water of a stream, several undulating surfaces with lighting effects that make liquid patterns that dazzle the eye. One bewitching sequence is of water spilling over an edge – a fountain or small waterfall – lit with metallic reds, whites and blues.
Now going into its eighth year of continual use, Tollbooth Gallery stands like a faithful, robotic megalith dutifully projecting its looped videos and sound effects out onto the streets of Tacoma. TaCo did the city a good turn in keeping Tollbooth Gallery alive and well. Live long and prosper Tollbooth Gallery!