Think of it like carry-on luggage: If it fits in the box, it flies -- in this case, right onto the walls of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, where any artwork that can squeeze inside a 12-inch wooden cube will be included in a new show called "Foot in the Door."

Clutching bubble-wrapped bronzes, grocery bags of ceramics and parcels of photos and paintings, a queue of artists and wannabes was waiting when the museum opened Thursday morning. The crowd looped twice around the rotunda outside the galleries where a dozen staff and volunteers registered and photographed each piece.

More than 400 artworks were clocked in by noon. Museum staff figure they could hit 3,000 or more by the time registration ends at 4:30 p.m. Sunday.

"It's open to any Minnesotan who is a hobbyist, or professional artist, or just made a cutting board in Boy Scouts," said Chris Atkins, coordinator of the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program, an artist-run program that has put on "Foot" every 10 years since 1980. "The only requirement is that the art has to be less than 12 by 12 by 12 inches."

The popular event began as an effort by Minnesota artists to boost visibility and buff up their resumes with a coveted museum listing. Records are spotty, but participation has roughly doubled every decade, hitting 1,700 at the most recent show in 2000.

Artists waiting their turn Friday ranged from students at nearby Minneapolis College of Art and Design to graying retirees bundled in down coats and at least one art teacher on her lunch hour, fretting that she'd miss her next class if the line didn't speed up.

The "curator" -- a hollow cube with a hinged front -- stood by to settle any squabbles about size. Its foot-deep interior offered impartial judgment that all the artists respected.

"I measured at home and my first box was too big by one-eighth inch so I had to remake it," said Yi Ellis, a former Wall Street investment banker (Morgan Stanley), who set aside her Columbia Ph.D. in economics to take up art after her two children were born. She now commutes from her Deephaven home to a studio in northeast Minneapolis where she painted "Endless," a cube-shaped landscape inspired by Chinese brush paintings.

Approved art included a beautiful "Blue-Winged Teal" carved from tupelo wood; a ceramic slob representing "Gluttony"; strange knitted and furry creatures; papier mâché masks; a glass mosaic; a bronze nude, and paintings and photos of lilies, oranges, stripes, a light bulb, a water tower, an angel, a horse's nose, a gnome waving a cell phone and a red blob.

Nino Nardecchia, a former airline pilot and systems analyst turned sculptor, showed off a snowboarding dragon he'd made out of urethane and tinted to look like bronze. The dragon was cresting a mogul with its bat-like wings spread for lift.

"It's a royal guard dragon," he explained. "They protect humans and live off kindness, laughter and love, the positive energies of life." Nardecchia makes dragons in various sizes and sells them via the Internet and word of mouth. Smaller sizes like his "Foot" entry sell better than the more expensive big ones. "You have to be marketable to be a commercial artist," he said.

As the line grew and the buzz from waiting artists grew louder, the museum crew speeded up its intake procedures.

"Can you feel the energy?" asked Jill Blumer, a graphic designer who has worked on MAEP shows for 18 years. "It's powerful! That's what artists do to this place."

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431