THE GODFATHER OF CHEROKEE ST
I couldn’t think of a more appropriate conclusion to our month-long St. Louis feature than a free-form exploration of the influence of Galen Gondolfi’s Fort Gondo Compound for the Arts on the area’s alternative art community. The small storefront gallery has defined the DIY, startup art culture of the city for a decade and in the process has created one of the few outposts we could justifiably call a community. The abstract, shifting target we call Cherokee Street owes its identity to the complicated legacy of Galen and Fort Gondo, the evolving list of basement venues, apartment galleries, record stores and print collectives each equally indebted to the work he started in early 2002.
Along with David and Bevin Early of the recently-paused gallery Snowflake, Galen has dictated the discussion about what is possible for one person with limited resources and an empty building, in the process instigating an ongoing conversation about what St. Louis artists need, what constitutes a community, and how to survive your own ideas. Fort Gondo quietly celebrated its 10th anniversary this past month, so we want to celebrate its legacy a little less quietly by presenting some thoughts from the community he has helped shape.
Fort Gondo is only one small component in an assemblage of ideas and actions that comprise Galen’s life. Overwhelmingly, these ideas and actions can be explained by a single trait. A concept easy enough to understand but quite rare to encounter – at least at the degree to which Galen possesses it: empathy. I’m not sure if a formal definition of empathy includes the identification with the feelings of animals. If not, empathy should be expanded for such in Galen’s case because he is just as likely to feed and shelter an animal down on it’s luck as he is a human – both of which I have seen him do, multiple times.
It is empathy that drives him to help people in all aspects of their lives, from empowering them in the most fundamental of ways to helping them achieve profound accomplishments in their lives to just making them feel happy about humanity. He remembers birthdays (not just his mom’s but ALL his friends. I don’t know if he writes them down, but I have seen him call a friend from the third grade out of the blue, who he hasn’t spoken to in years just to say happy birthday). He simply works very hard to make the world a better place by helping people on an individual level – and by picking up garbage.
Fort Gondo is an amazingly unique art institution in that it’s core democratic (real democracy that is, not representational) principles do not compromise it’s credibility, and, in fact exponentially enhance it’s dignity. The art world is a disgustingly hierarchical and elitist environment, but Fort Gondo seems a place where everyone is treated equally. A place where even the most slavishly devoted art snob does not mind sharing a beer with the Sunday painters. (Kevin Harris, Floating Laboratories)
Fort Gondo was there first. If you weren’t in St. Louis 10 years ago it’s hard to imagine the utter art wasteland that Galen introduced Gondo into. Elliot Smith was the best you could do, and shows in the hallway at John Burroughs were a real thing that people did. I think Galen would be the first person to tell you Fort Gondo wasn’t ever about art– I think it was always about community, and when you look at Cherokee Street you can see the community that has evolved there– I feel like Fort Gondo is responsible for it. Galen was the progenitor. (Matthew Strauss, White Flag Projects)
Fort Gondo’s Legacy is its open door punk rock d.i.y. policy which enabled many artists to have experimental art shows that might have not been otherwise possible.
I started out as a Fort Gondo groupie back in the early 00’s. I remember going there with a voracious need for contemporary art community. I found a space that was not only cool, but open to music shows, performance art, happenings, and art shows- student and professional. For my generation it was the alternative art space in St. Louis. Later, as I became involved with Fort Gondo, having my own shows, curating group shows, and holding the Chautauqua Art Lab, I realized that the freedom of the space actually stemmed from Galen’s own flexibility and broadmindedness in letting the artists and performers take ownership of the space. It is the closest thing I’ve ever felt to being part of a kid’s neighborhood clubhouse.
Galen doesn’t go around self promoting or talking about how he is an artist. I like that about him because, in my opinion, his work has been some of the most interesting things going on around here. From his daily efforts picking up trash around the neighborhood, to housing a collection of rescued dumpster items, to his garage sales where there is an elaborate vetting process for the customers, to his free rickshaw rides, to his annual impromptu PJP parade performances, Galen is quite possibly my most favorite social practice artist working in St. Louis. I am continually impressed with his humility, hard work ethic, and expansive vision for St. Louis city. (Sarah Paulsen, Artist)
Fort Gondo stands as a strong, unique pillar in St. Louis’ arts community as it has played host to a variety of contemporary and alternative forms of art and artists. Its intimate size has allowed for a more creative use of space. Since being established in 2002, I feel that Fort Gondo has led and inspired future galleries/art spaces on Cherokee, resulting in the burgeoning arts community that it is today. Fort Gondo was ahead of its time, with a simple idea and a passionate heart behind it. Fort Gondo is a space very dear to my heart. As I have an innate trust in the curation of the space, it is always certain that I will happen upon an interesting opening or event. Having a space in the city that is not only willing but eager to showcase the works of Chris Smentkowski and Ben Stegman (aka Mr. Ben), gives me hope for the future of the St. Louis arts community. (Josh Levi, Flood Yr Face)
Whether true for the entire community or not, for me, Fort Gondo has always been at the core of the Saint Louis art scene. The first show I ever went to was at Fort Gondo. The best show I ever went to was there (as well as the second and third best shows). The shows always seem to display a huge amount of creative energy, undoubtedly because of the open manner in which the space is run. It’s a space for talented and experienced artists, as well as people who are just starting to experiment with artistic expression and build their talents. I’d trade a million museums, over-managed arts organizations, and commercial galleries for a single Fort Gondo. (Steven Brien, All Along Press)
My enduring memory of Galen is his appearance at the first People’s Joy Parade, where he was dressed in only a Lucha Libre style mask and green skivvies, pulling a rickshaw. I can think of no better Aldermannic candidate for whom I would go canvassing, and so I’m glad I canvassed for skivvy-wearing, rickshaw-pulling, would-be Alderman Gondolfi. (Ben West, WasabiNet/CAMP)
Much like Galen himself, the spaces he creates take on an easy coolness, which yield to an air of approachability that’s so rare when you’re talking about art and music spaces. It’s always low key and low pressure, which is unexpectedly nice and relieving when you’re arriving solo at a show or opening. I really miss the Beverly Gallery– it was so cool to think that there was a space dedicated to showing female artists, and since it was right next to fort gondo, I don’t think anyone got bent out of shape or felt excluded by the concept. Part of what’s wonderful about the spaces Galen creates is that he essentially has no problem with handing over the keys for a weekend to anyone with a vision for filling the space with something creative, no matter how different or crazy it sounds. As long as you’re respectful of the space and clean up after yourselves, I can’t think of much he hasn’t let go on in there. If you think about it, there’s really no loss in taking a risk on something that might flop, it’s a community gallery for a reason—he not only opens his doors to the community, the shows he’s facilitated over the years has allowed for all the growth in St Louis’ creative community that’s gone into what Cherokee Street is today.
What’s even more astonishing is that he does all of this while holding down a full time job, where he does even more admirable things, like helping to educate and aid people who seek to become more trustworthy to financial institutions that may otherwise view them as a high risk borrower. George, (who is a catholic priest originally from Africa with a very thick accent) told the most touching story while marrying Jessica [Baran] and Galen, about how he met Galen because he was waiting for the bus without gloves on a very cold and icy winter day, and Galen pulled over and offered him a ride, having recognized George from his seeking financial advice from a coworker of Galen’s…Galen and Jessica are very special and hardworking people, and yet they both manage to stay super cool and approachable, so it’s no surprise that fort gondo is as much of an extension of them as people as it is an extension of their home! (Heather Lindsy Donahue, Artist)
I feel that Fort Gondo has a fairly isolated niche in the St. Louis art scene. It perfectly straddles the line between edge and access. Not every show works, but when it does, it’s almost beatific. As far as the greater community, if Cherokee Street evolves into a nationally recognized arts district, Fort Gondo will have been that mutant seed.
In St. Louis, 10 years of existence for an arts space is the benchmark of an institution. Seriously. As bizarre as it sounds, Galen should be studied. Examined. Consider the obstacles at every step: setting up an arts space in what was once a seriously gang addled street corner, struggling with unsupportive neighbors (still to this day, 10 years later), having to sell, rent out, or shutter other projects to make ends meet; only through true, serious, frantic love can an arts space season through such. (David Burnett, Designer and Musician)
Fort Gondo offers a space for almost complete creative freedom – I think Galen said, “as long as you lock the doors and turn out the lights at night you can pretty much do what you want.” It’s a great learning gallery space – I was in a group show in 2010 – I hadn’t had a lot of experience installing work at the time and I felt really comfortable in the space just figuring things out, the nuts and bolts of what goes into installing and promoting an exhibition. (Amelia Jones, Sloup)
Fort Gondo is one of the pillars that shaped Cherokee Street. (Juan William Chavez, Artist and Cultural Activist)
Fort Gondo is a place to experience new things and meet new people. It’s a place to run into people you know. It’s an incubator for new ideas about whatever someone wants to show, talk about, or gather a crowd for…It’s consistently full of good people putting out good vibes. They’re there to talk, see some art, and figure out what else they can do to stay engaged in this town. Given that it’s close to home, I’m happy that it’s one of my dog Panda’s favorite places. Also, you must talk about GALEN, what an amazingly energetic and positive dude he is, and how he and David [Early] have shaped the entire block over the past decade. (Eric Ryszkiewicz, Musician)
Galen is a ball full of energy, and that’s something we need more of around here. I’ve always been impressed at how when he sets his mind to do something he just goes full bore at it with all of his energy. He’s like a Jedi master, and for him there truly is no try, there is only do. He’s awesome!
I’ve exhibited at Fort Gondo a few times, but not until it had been around for a year or two. I heard a story from other artists about one of the first exhibits they put on. At the time they were planning the show, there was a wall between the very front room and the middle room. Everyone regrouped a day later for further planning, and the wall was gone. Galen had taken it down himself. He removed 15 feet by 12 feet of plaster, lathe and dimensional lumber in 24 hours by himself. That may have been an exageration on the part of the people who told me that story, or I might have misrembered some of the details, but I know some version of that actually happened.
I think the entire artistic scene on Cherokee can largely be traced back to Galen. If it weren’t for him and all his drive and passion I don’t know that any of the multitudes of other cool art galleries, studios and event spaces that are now on Cherokee would have happened. And aside from all of that energy, Galen is a very sweet and kind person. He’s been a blessing for all of St. Louis. (Daniel Shown, Artist)[The first night I went to Fort Gondo] has a dreamy quality in my memory…..I meandered in with Dann Green and Katie Mack some evening in 2003, maybe? New to the street, I was still getting my bearings. It was a performance — The crowd was seated at tables on the far platform area, being served big bowls of breakfast cereal. Galen was being nailed to a cross, maybe mostly naked? With a scantily-clad trophy female waltzing around during commercial breaks. Like crucifixion saturday morning cartoons. Bitchslapped: not in Kansas anymore! aha! Boundaries breaking open……That’s when i understood Fort Gondo, (and by extension – future dreams on Cherokee) — to be a portal thru which ‘reality’ melted and the world we collaborate on takes foreground.
It’s a super-accessible, diverse, laboratory of creative collaboration. Programming has been wide enough and persistent enough so the draw beckons to ‘crowds’ that otherwise might get lumped into The College Scene/ The Museum Scene/ The Underground Scene. It’s also alchemical — an invitation to engage the ritual/transformational aspects of shared art-making.
In 2010 Galen invited Sarah Paulsen and I to curate during the Beverlyear, and our show Bric-aleuring co-created a profoundly lady-power space. We spent a lot of time in the gallery sewing a gigantic quilt, had an all lady music show, and held kid classes. But the most profound night was a women’s circle…..we were singing and toning together and once again the sound brought in a presence that superseded the sum of its parts. All the things I sometimes miss about the ‘gallery scene’ in general — deep connection, relationship, authenticity, sharing mysticism and inquiry with gentleness — we got freedom to bring to whatever degree we desired.
Galen hands you the keys, and with that confers a trust that you’ll take care of the space and risk as big as you’re comfortable. Which makes for great play, as we’ve witnessed. (Lyndsey Scott, Artist)
I have had the chance to see a lot of exhibitions at Fort Gondo over the years. Some openings you might be the only person inside besides the artist, and some are so packed that you can’t go inside (Kevin McCoy & Fresh Paint!). Peter Pranschke’s “My Disaster Box” and Bruce Burton’s solo show were great exhibitions that really sparked my interest in those artists’ work.
Fort Gondo really opened up the Cherokee neighborhood. My first trips to Cherokee were to go to shows at Fort Gondo. What Galen had accomplished with the space was very inspiring. Fort Gondo has a huge influence on the proliferation of alternative art spaces in the city. St. Louis is very fortunate to have people like Galen and spaces like Fort Gondo. (Cole Root, Los Caminos)
Galen’s early embrace of Cherokee Street, with the opening of Fort Gondo, set off a spur of unique community driven creativity. His vision brought art into an already diverse neighborhood and consequently aided in shifting perception of the area. The result is still visible today as Cherokee continues to be further defined as a creative hub in the city.
Galen’s individual influence reaches far beyond the work with Fort Gondo. He simply supports autonomous creativity as a principle. He has been a strong mentor for me; always offering insightful advice, emotional support, and general good will regarding my endeavors with Cranky Yellow. (David Wolk, Cranky Yellow)
For me – personally – Galen (not just Fort Gondo) proves that you can make anything amazing with hard work and love. He is pretty much my cornerstone inspiration of fearlessness and work ethic.
From my perspective, Galen’s efforts are invaluable and cannot be calculated. He lives by example. I hope someone, somewhere, writes his name in a very hard Rock with the tag, “THE GODFATHER OF CHEROKEE ST.” (Mike Stasny, MSIF)
Photos courtesy of Heather Lindsy Donahue