During a two-month long residency in Iceland, artist Addoley Dzegede scoured the country’s beaches, fields and turf homes for natural detritus. Dzegede found bones and wood that she sculpted in clay. She wove nets with seaweed she picked up and covered a bullet-riddled buoy with copper leaf.
These are the elements from Dzegede’s first solo show at Fort Gondo on Cherokee Street. The exhibit will also be the venue’s last exhibit; Fort Gondo is closing Jan. 7. It’s a bittersweet moment for her. The artist’s work is as unconventional as the building where it’s shown, and she’s not sure another gallery would have provided the freedom to exhibit her work.
“I think there’s a general feeling that there aren’t many opportunities for emerging artists. And you know, there’s kind of this feeling of what’s next?” said Dzegede “Like, there are certain places that you can show but if you show there, what’s next?”
Dzegede aptly titled the show “Fare Well.”
Fort Gondo is just one of a number of alternative arts organizations that will be closing Jan. 7. Museum Blue, White Flag Projects and The Pink House all announced their departures from the St. Louis art scene by the end of this year. Like Gondo, as it is affectionately called by patrons, these organizations were part of a tradition of artist-run, independent projects that fill the gaps between commercial galleries, museums and educational institution venues.
Over the past two decades these spaces have popped up, established loyal followings and eventually closed for a variety of reasons including administrators’ changing focus, a loss of venue, financial concerns and, in one case, a “decline in our ability to connect with local patrons.” While the reasons for closing differ, the impact may be the same. And the story of Fort Gondo can provide a lens through which to view the growth and impact these galleries have on the St. Louis arts community.
Fort Gondo was opened in 2002 when Galen Gondolfi found an abandoned building on Cherokee Street and decided to rehab it partially as an art project, partially as way to reinvest in an often-ignored neighborhood in South City. Initially an ever-evolving group of local artists curated shows and hosted events at Fort Gondo. The building offered a chance for more experimental or eccentric artists to showcase their work. The art was sometimes available for purchase but exhibits weren’t profit-driven. The entire endeavor was initially funded out of pocket.
Gondo inspired numerous other venues that have opened and closed including Open Lot, Maps, and Los Caminos. These locations were located in apartments and storefronts and had the same goal of highlighting emerging artists that weren’t yet able to show their work at better established galleries.
Jessica Baran took over programing and administrative duties of the Fort Gondo in 2012. She formally incorporated the organization as a non-profit which allowed it to apply for grants. Fort Gondo eventually received $70,000 from a major arts-funding institution, The Warhol Foundation.
Sometimes, artists who showed in the gallery were later featured in commercial galleries, participated in exhibits outside St. Louis and were included major local shows like the Great Rivers Biennial at CAM. Baran said the venue and its shows acted as a catalyst for artists and arts practitioners to make work and find places to show it.
“This is possible. This is something that can happen. People can create an arts space,” she said. “I feel like Fort Gondo is not merely responsible for fostering arts careers for individual artists but inspiring other arts practitioners to create nonprofit or alternative arts spaces. Again, it didn’t reek of money it didn’t reek of privilege.”
That accessibility and independence helped highlight an approach to creating art that was about shared experience and collaboration as much as about making sculpture, drawings, or installations.
“Art is about more than just objects. Art is about working with people, creating a dialogue and really thinking through ideas and sensibilities,” she said.
So, what's an new artist to do?
With the closing of these organizations, some are worried that the community of emerging artists may falter. Dzegede said Gondo provided a outlet for artists to realize their visions just as they were being developed. Without a location to exhibit this type of work, some artists have decided to leave town. And more are considering following suit.
“I think there’s definitely an idea that there are less places to show, and I know a lot of people are leaving I know a lot of people are moving, and they feel like there are not any opportunities here anymore,” said Dzegede.
But, even as these sites close, others have sprung up. For example, Reese Gallery, opened two years ago. It’s run by Ruth Reese and she said it started in a similar way as Fort Gondo; she found a derelict building with her husband and got to work.
“It was raining inside and there were wild animals living in it and we decided it was the building for us,” she said.
Reese Gallery’s mission is somewhat different than Gondo’s, focusing more on the intersection of fine arts and craft. Yet, she said, the gallery aims to provide the same sort of opportunities to artists.
“St. Louis doesn’t really have a lot of these kind of spaces and I think they’re really important for grooming the next generation, the next cannon of great artists,” Reese said.
And for her, it’s not just a question of what alternative arts organizations can provide for artists, but what the venues can provide the culture at large.
“I kind of think of the gallery as almost a hallowed space and you get to explore ideas that are bubbling up in the culture right now and we get to do that as a group when we have it in a gallery,” she said. “I really think it’s pretty integral to a culture defining and getting to know itself.”
But even as some of these informal galleries fade away, the people who were involved with them aren't disappearing. Galen Gondolfi, Fort Gondo’s founder, recently opened Granite City Art and Design District which is a full city block made up of galleries, exhibition and performance venues just over the river. He penned a "love letter" to St. Louis after the closing was announced. Baran teaches at Washington University and will be reinventing the Fort Gondo poetry series with her cohost Ted Mathys at The Pulitzer Arts Foundation's “100 Boots Poetry Series."
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