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Laura J. Gardner | The Journal Gazette
Dan Swartz plans to open contemporary art galleries in the former Casa D’Angelo restaurant.

Beloved ex-eatery getting new life in arts

Inside the former Casa D’Angelo on Fairfield Avenue, Dan Swartz is a one-man wrecking crew.

The once-beloved eatery is, at present, a shadow of its former self – or more specifically, a skeleton of its former physique.

But if all goes according to Swartz’s plans, not to mention his stamina, it will rise this summer like a phoenix from the ashes, which is another way of saying “like a new hot spot from an old mainstay.”

In April, Swartz purchased the building to accommodate his non-profit corporation Wunderkammer (a German word meaning, roughly, room of wonders).

Swartz, a liaison for the Fort Wayne Cultural District, says he looked at more than 80 possible locales for his company, most of them closer to downtown, before he settled on the Casa structure.

He says some recent happenings, including the 46807 Quality of Life community organization, made him feel like Wunderkammer and the south side would make a good fit.

Many people counseled Swartz to lease rather than buy, but Swartz didn’t like the cut of leasing’s jib.

“I want complete control over the space,” he says. “If I ‘test it out,’ aren’t I admitting the possibility of failure? That’s not how I roll. I want the ability to rip down a wall, light it on fire, and call it performance art.”

Swartz says he founded Wunderkammer in 2007 with a mission of “revitalizing communities through contemporary art.”

The brick-and-mortar incarnation of Wunderkammer will be a contemporary art gallery – so very contemporary that it might make other newfangled art galleries look oldfangled.

Those are my words, not Swartz’s – blame me if you’re touchy about your fangledness.

Swartz says Wunderkammer will be composed of three gallery spaces, two with rapidly rotating exhibits and one devoted to performance art and installations.

Something new would open there every two weeks, he says.

“Basically I want to make it so you know you’re missing something if you only go once a month,” he says.

Casa’s bar area and entrances will stay more or less the same because Swartz wants to juxtapose the comfortable with the discomfiting.

“I am trying to keep the more iconic-y things,” he says. “People will be coming in thinking, ‘Hey it’s the old Casa’s… Wait; where the (expletive) am I?’ ”

Swartz hopes to foster a coffeehouse ambience, with habitués hanging around without pressing agendas, but he hasn’t worked out the whole coffee aspect.

What he covets most of all is “regulars,” a concept that seems closer to devotee than benefactor.

“If I have regulars, I will start crying,” he says. “If someone comes in here, doesn’t even talk to me, goes home and then comes back, I will burst into tears.”

“The average person looks at art for less than a minute,” he says. “So if I could get regulars into this gallery, I would be breaking human behavior.”

Swartz says he plans to tap untapped audiences, try untried collaborations, contact uncontacted funding sources and nurture unnurtured volunteers.

One day, Swartz says, Wunderkammer could be the home of a second-floor media and printmaking studio and a creative entrepreneurship incubation program. He also wants to interview the people who helped build Fort Wayne (in more the ideological than the architectural sense) and explore the nature of their love for the city.

“There are people in the community who helped build the community and are still here and we don’t know why they did it,” he says. “Young people have no reason to care. They only hear bad stories. If they could only hear more emotionally based stories along the lines of, ‘This is why I love it here.’ ”

Swartz is unquestionably a young person who loves it here. Despite having spent a number of years after high school in New York City and completing a curatorial residency in Beijing, China, he has resisted the allure of bigger cities.

Swartz says he used to cite flattering facts and figures to people who were skeptical about Fort Wayne but no longer.

“I love it because I love it,” he says. “That’s the only reason that’s acceptable to me. It’s not rational anymore.”

Steve Penhollow is an arts and entertainment writer for The Journal Gazette. His column appears Sundays. He appears Fridays on WPTA-TV, Channel 21, WISE-TV, Channel 33, and WBYR, 98.9 FM to talk about area happenings. Email him at spen@jg.net. A Facebook page for “Rants & Raves” can be accessed at www.facebook.com/pages.

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