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New city-block sized arts compound opens in Granite City

In Granite City, $75,000 can buy you almost an entire city block. At least if you’re an arts organization.

“This is the promised land is what it is, it’s the land of opportunity. And as much as it may sound hackneyed or trite, it’s true,” said Galen Gondolfi, founder of Fort Gondo Compound for the Arts.

Gondolfi is the mastermind behind the troubled steel town’s new project space, Granite City Arts and Design District. The new compound encompasses most of the 1800 block of State Street and includes a former insurance agency, doctor’s office and hardware and paint store as well as parking and vacant lots. The project was inspired in part by a trip taken by Jessica Baran, Gondolfi’s wife and the director of Fort Gondo, to Marfa, Texas, and the land art she saw there. The project is part of Granite City’s gamble that the arts could help revitalize the city.

In 2007, the city backed Granite City Cinema, another arts organization aimed at keeping people interested in the downtown area. After a few initially rocky years, the cinema began turning a profit. Eventually two new businesses opened across the street.

According to Gondolfi, who refers to the project by the nickname GCADD, the endeavor is a collaboration between Fort Gondo, Granite City and St. Louis financial organization Justine Petersen. Gondolfi works as a senior loan counselor and chief communications officer at Justine Petersen, which helped finance the property purchases.

One lot was bought for $178 at a tax auction.

Originally purchased for $178, the Launchpad lot will be an instillation site for future projects that Gondolfi hopes will blend together inside and outside exhibits.
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio
Originally purchased for $178, the Launchpad lot will be an instillation site for future projects that Gondolfi hopes will blend together inside and outside exhibits.

Granite City 1st ward Alderman Bob Pickerell has been a strong supporter of the project.

According to Gondolfi, he spoke in favor of GCADD at a city council meeting, where he said he had considered the 1800 block of State possibly the worst block downtown and had thought the best thing to do would be to demolish it -- until the art team showed up.

Gondolfi intends to develop the space into a series of galleries, outdoor exhibition spaces, studios and artist residences. He hopes that developing studio space and apartments to rent will help generate additional income for the project. 

Artists have already dug into GCADD’s many advantages. 

Laurencia Strauss recorded interviews with local residents about their relationship to air. These recordings will be played from the back of tandem bicycles outfitted with windsocks to illustrate the flow of air outside the buildings. She’s hoping the project will engage the local community as much as art fans from St. Louis.

“It’s was just a way of opening up a conversation with Granite City so that we’re not just in isolation but that we actually have some connection with people and just to start that dialogue,” she said.

Laurencia Strauss relays the story of a woman inhaling the wind from an owl's wings and a man's belief that smoke is a sign of economic growth

Pulitzer Arts Foundation curatorial assistant and visual artist Jennifer Baker, 37, will display a video projection as part of The Transversal Project, run by Jose Garza. She says the strength of the space lies in Gandolfi’s vision.

“He really trusts artists and what their vision brings. He doesn’t see the need to have a heavy hand, he very bravely leaves an open space for people to create,” she said.

Baker will also participate in a year-long curatorial residency at GCADD beginning this fall.

The primary challenge facing the new arts space will be getting attendees to cross the river. Much of the promotion rests on the idea that the space “is closer to downtown St. Louis than Trader Joe’s” in Brentwood. But attendance may be a real challenge, as the area surrounding the project doesn’t have a wide variety of restaurants, bars or other activities to support extended time there.

For Gondolfi, Justine Petersen and Granite City, the possible payoff for the extended community is worth the risk.

“I want to argue this isn’t just about GCADD or Granite City, this is about maybe rediscovering metro east and Route 3,” he said.

The exhibits at the Granite City Art and Design District will open at 7 p.m. on Saturday, July 18.

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