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Posted on Thu. Jun. 19, 2014 - 12:01 am EDT

‘Little kid on block’ lets art work its magic

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At a glance

Name: Dan Swartz

Age: 28

Hometown: Fort Wayne

Title and employer: Owner of The Wunderkammer Company, a nonprofit contemporary arts center

Time in current position: About two years

Education and professional experience: Artist; community activist

Dan Swartz’s résumé has more color than most – especially at the young age of 28.

He is a Leo High School graduate who has worked in New York at various galleries, lived in China for a summer, helped develop downtown Fort Wayne and brought his own art to the public.

Then in 2012, he took a big leap – creating a nonprofit contemporary arts center in Fort Wayne – The Wunderkammer Company. That entity received grants and gifts, and eventually Swartz bought a building on Fairfield Avenue to permanently house his dream.

It opened in January 2013 and, now in its second year, is still going strong.

“Our mission is to revitalize communities through contemporary art,” Swartz said. “We want to be really honest about stuff and let people figure it out for themselves instead of giving them an answer.”

He acknowledges that the name “Wunderkammer” is a challenge. It can turn folks off, but it makes perfect sense when people learn what it means.

“Wonder chamber” is the direct German translation.

Swartz said it is an ancestral form of a gallery and is important to the idea of what he is doing.

He first spent time in New York soaking up the contemporary art world, working for artists and galleries – sometimes getting paid in sandwiches. But he said he always knew he would return to Fort Wayne.

“I think Fort Wayne is badass, and I want to be a part of making it better,” Swartz said.

He said the building he bought – the former Casa D’Angelo restaurant – would have cost him millions in another city. But he is one mile from downtown, has 10,000 square feet of space and attached parking and is part of a growing neighborhood.

“I’m always a fan of the underdog,” Swartz said. “I’m always excited by what’s around the corner – not what’s on the pedestal.”

Since the center has been open, he said one of his favorite events was a four-day Fringe Festival with performing artists from Chicago, Atlanta, Columbus, Ohio, and Fort Wayne. He has also enjoyed having murals added on the building and seeing how they change the structure.

“There are a lot of small moments (that) are really awesome, like when you see someone get art for the first time and their face lights up. That is amazing,” Swartz said. “And when people meet each other at an event and they come to another event together. It wasn’t just a fleeting moment. It was connecting.”

He is an artist as well – starting with painting in printmaking and moving to drawings and sculptures with a social and performance aesthetic. He attended the University of Saint Francis but didn’t graduate – something he says people focus too much on.

“Education is a tool, not a necessity and not an identity,” Swartz said.

In the center’s second year with a physical space, he said thousands of people are enjoying the space, and the entity is in the black with no debt. But he has learned some tough lessons.

“I thought that would earn some credibility, but it feels like we’re going to be the little kid on the block until there is a new little kid,” Swartz said.

“The main thing I have learned is you can’t make people happy. People make themselves happy. I can assist sometimes. I’m very naïve because I want to change the world somehow. I assume everyone wants to be friends and make cool things happen.”

He also said he has learned how important being self-reliant is, because when you rely on other people, sometimes things don’t happen the right way.

“If you can’t do it by yourself, then you need to be wary about attempting something,” Swartz said. “It’s going to be a longer road than I might have thought to build the community up. I have to be happy along the way with the small successes.”

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