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STL Art Game-Changers: Fort Gondo’s Cherokee Street Crusaders

Making art transforms artists. It can also revolutionize the world around them. St. Louisans like Dail Chambers, Peat Wollaeger, James McAnally and William Burtonare making their mark with clay, spray paint and outreach.

Today, St. Louis Public Radio begins an STL Art Game-Changers series with a profile of fort gondo's gallery owners, known for giving local artists their first break.

He's like a dog, leaping enthusiastically toward new ideas. She's more cat-like, cautiously sniffing out the details. Combing their instincts, Galen Gondolfiand Jessica Baran have launched the careers of numerous St. Louis artists.  

Gondolfi doesn't call himself an artist. He works in microfinance. But he does troll for found treasure, from vintage suitcases to a giant wooden coat hanger, dangling from the ceiling of their sun porch.

“I’m just a glorified junk collector,” Gondolfi said.

Lilly and Galen Gondolfi
Credit Provided by Jessica Baran
Lilly and Galen Gondolfi

A dozen years ago, Gondolfi began a small collection of buildings on Cherokee, then a withering, forgotten street. He and business partner Dave Early opened Radio Cherokee music venue and fort gondo compound for the arts— originally slated as a dog shelter.

Even though fort gondo ended up as an art gallery, it still harbors four dogs (and one cat) in the couple's own apartment upstairs. One pooch from the early days, 14-year-old Lilly, is still around, bearing witness to the project's longevity.

“fort gondo is kind of a cockroach on Cherokee Street; you can’t kill it if you wanted to,” Gondolfi said.

Now Gondolfi's known as the Godfather of Cherokee Street,a seven-block stretch filled with art spaces, restaurants and other businesses. He laughs about the old times, when an abandoned building lacking basic resources could morph into a gallery.

“You’d run a garden hose over three different backyards to plumb the toilet, and people actually thought that was an installation piece,” he said.

In 2008, Baran, a poet, curator and art-criticism teacher, came into the picture. She ushered in “an era of reform,” according to Gondolfi.

“I wasn’t eager to change anything,” Baran said. “But I imported a lot of the bureaucratic skills I have, developing a stronger web presence and things like Facebook.”

In this video, Baran and Gondolfi talk and laugh about their relationship, and some of Gondolfi’s unusual exhibits and escapades during fort gondo’s early days. (Story continues below.)

For many artists, their show at fort gondo and next-door beverly gallery is a first exhibition. Several of the hundreds who’ve debuted at fort gondo have gone on to much bigger careers. Five have been selected for the Contemporary Art Museum's Great Rivers Biennial, including current Biennial exhibitor Brandon Anschultz.

Another, Takashi Horisaki, who's shown in several New York City galleries, recently a found a photo of his fort gondo show.

“And he sent it to us. It was really a neat thing,” Baran said.

Others who’ve just had their first Cherokee experience may not come into their own as artists for several more years. This past December, fort gondo and Beverly hosted “Learning from Donald Judd,” a collaboration with the Pulitzerand its exhibition of Judd’s more colorful works, in which kids created “faux Judds” from trash.

“It was wonderful to offer something to an organization that’s so esteemed,” Baran said. “What could the Pulitzer possibly need from us? Well in fact, it was actually our very scrappiness.”

The scrappy organization was just awarded its first grants: $5,000 from New York's Dedalus Foundation, founded by abstract impressionist painter Robert Motherwell; and $10,000 over two years from the Regional Arts Commission, part of which they'll share with Paul Artspace residency program in Florissant.

While grateful for the stability, Gondolfi still reminisces over those leaner, simpler days.

“I’m a little bit maudlin about it, “Gondolfli said. “There’s been a lot of sheer joy along the way — it’s been an interesting ride.”

Look for more STL Art Game-Changers at STLPublicRadio.org this week and during the coming weeks and months.

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.