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Posted on Fri. Jan. 04, 2013 - 12:01 am EDT

Casa D’Angelo gets new life as art gallery

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If you go

What: Wunderkammer Company

Where: 3402 Fairfield Ave.

When: 1 to 9 p.m. Wednesdays to Sundays

Cost: Gallery accepts donations

It was one of those restaurants that held memories for many Fort Wayne residents.

Dan Swartz had never eaten at Casa D’Angelo on Fairfield Avenue, which closed in 2011. So when he looked around the corners of half-walls or spied the leftover booths, instead of memories, he had daydreams.

He saw the potential for art gallery space. He imagined what the room would look like if he demolished those half-walls and ripped out those booths. He foresaw white-washed walls and minimalist seating – perhaps a bench or two scattered throughout the space.

He saw the headquarters for Wunderkammer Company, the arts nonprofit he started in 2007 that had been homeless before Swartz bought the former Italian restaurant in January. The building officially opened to the public Wednesday.

Finding the space

Swartz finalized the sale on his location of Wunderkammer on April 13 after spending four years looking for such a space.

Originally, he kept his search to within a 10- to 15-block radius of downtown. When he first saw his current space, he was not exactly thrilled.

“I wasn’t even impressed,” he says. “I have to be passionate about a space, and I just wasn’t feeling it. I’m looking for an industrial space, and this was a restaurant that looked very Italian.”

After further inspection, Swartz realized that nothing was structural. He saw the space had vaulted ceilings, and there were multiple walls not necessary to the building’s structure, so he’d be able to do some minor demolition.

Today, the space is wide-open and echoing, and the art on the walls is a little curious – which is exactly what Swartz wanted. There’s the “Ex” exhibit, which features 28 artists from four countries and eight states. Each artist created a person on a page set to particular dimensions, and artists cut their works into thirds. They mailed in their work, and Swartz assembled the exhibit by mixing and matching those one-third pieces of art to create an army of artistic Frankensteins; for each set up, the head might have been created by a Fort Wayne artist, the body by a Chinese artist, the legs by an East Coast artist.

“1x1” is full of local artists’ images of Fort Wayne. Some images are instantly recognizable – Zesto, Science Central. Others might have been taken in any city across America – a close-up of a vine, a man sitting on his front porch. A third exhibit by the University of Saint Francis photo club titled, “End of the World,” is meant to illustrate each photographer’s idea of the end of the world, which had been predicted on Dec. 21 based on the Mayan calendar. There is at least one zombie.

Feeling welcomed

Since opening, Swartz has been amazed at how he has been welcomed into the neighborhood. He held a soft opening for the building in mid-December and, just for fun, put out a Christmas wish list. He printed only a handful of copies, and the list included things like cleaning supplies and office furniture – anything a new space might need.

When a man from the neighborhood asked, “This is the last list. Is it OK if I take it?” Swartz couldn’t believe they were gone.

As he chats about acquiring the space and about his nonprofit, that same man ducks into the building. He apologizes for interrupting and says he has something to drop off.

Swartz walks away to meet him and, when he comes back, is wide-eyed.

“He just gave me a Staples gift card,” he says.

His and Wunderkammer’s welcoming surprises Swartz a bit. The gallery isn’t a traditional one, and he aims to showcase more modern art that, admittedly, isn’t always accessible to the masses. It’s not bowls of oranges or setting suns, but maybe a moveable sculpture with graffiti markings that show where people defiled it while it had been on public display.

The graffiti, however, is the point. The exhibit is meant to allow people to interact with art.

“I love that people say, ‘I keep an eye on your building when I walk my dog,’ ” he says. “It’s like they’re talking to a residential person, but I’m a gallery. They’re treating me like I’m their neighbor, but I don’t live here.”

It’s exactly what he wants.

“I want this space to be a neighborhood space,” he says. “I thought I’d have to woo everybody.”

One thing that hasn’t been decided: What to do with that long, slim sign on the front of the building that faces Fairfield Avenue. You know the one, the “Casa D’Angelo” sign that is almost synonymous with Fort Wayne (it could be an image in “1x1”).

Swartz will likely take it down, though another part of him wants to simply cross out the “gelo” part of “D’Angelo.”

Which would mark the building as “Casa D’An.”

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