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Open to the Public and Free to All: Ars Populi Gallery

This gallery has a no-nonsense aim: Bring art to the people, and people to the art

Photograph by Kevin A. Roberts

You know the Latin phrase ‘sui generis’? It means unique,” explains Keith Spoeneman, artist and co-curator of Ars Populi art gallery. “Sui generis—that’s us.” In the gallery’s front room are wrought-iron tables and chairs, as well as church pews. The walls are painted peach and teal and packed with art, while an oversize golden cherub gazes benignly at entering visitors. “It’s not a traditional gallery,” says Spoeneman. “It’s not antiseptic. It’s not clean. That’s what we wanted.”

Gallery owners Spoeneman, assemblage artist Bill Christman, and antiques dealer Greg Rhomberg all made sure the gallery didn’t just look different. They also wanted to break from traditional ways of running a gallery. “We don’t take a commission,” explains Spoeneman. “We just tell the artist, ‘If it sells, be kind enough to give us something.’”

They also didn’t send out a call for art for their current exhibit, “The Human Face,” which runs through this month and features more than 100 artists. “We just went around to artists that we know,” says Spoeneman.

“We want to be kind of a populist venue,” he explains. “It’s populism as opposed to people who want art as an investment and want it to appreciate in value, who think of it as commercial property. We’re not interested in that. We’re just interested in art in the old-fashioned way, as something that people just like—like music.”

The partnership is unique in the St. Louis art scene, too. Spoeneman and Christman met in July 2003 when a mutual friend, sculptor Dewey Dempsey, died. They organized a retrospective of Dempsey’s work in 2004 at City Museum, where Christman owns Beatnik Bob’s Museum of Mirth, Mystery and Mayhem.

In October 2010, when the space next to Joe’s Café (also owned by Christman) became available, the duo started an art gallery together with Rhomberg, who calls himself “more of an advisor.” Rhomberg and Christman both love signs (Rhomberg’s first exposure to Christman was through an article about him in Mary Engelbreit’s magazine). Ars Populi’s upcoming fall exhibit, “The Art of the Sign,” will feature signs from the collections of Rhomberg, Christman, and others across the country. It will also introduce Christman’s new book, A Sign Painter’s Scrapbook, Volumes 1 and 2.

The real fun, though, is in watching Spoeneman and Christman work together. The gallery reflects their varying tastes. “The front of the gallery is more modern,” Spoeneman says. “See, I’m German, so I’m a little more formal. And Bill, he’s German with Irish—so you know how bad that can be. If you go into the back room, that’s a little more of Bill’s influence. It’s a little more unusual, a little more ramshackle.”

The back room is lit only by a string of large colored bulbs and candles on dilapidated shelving. “I just wanted to create a different feeling back here,” explains Christman.

Wearing a paint-spattered shirt and plaid-lined Crocs, Christman talks excitedly about his plans. “I’ve collected stuff ever since I was about 5 years old, and one of the things I’ve collected since high school are graphic images that portray Asians, blacks, Jews, Irish people, and now the Arab people—these very prejudiced, degrading images. And there’s never been any public presentation because it’s a very delicate and inflammatory visual realm… Art in the service of racial prejudice.”

“I don’t like controversy,” Spoeneman says, like they’ve discussed this before. Moreover, “it would be a big project to do it right. It would be scholarship, and we’re not equipped to do that.”

“I always thought art has become so bland in the modern age,” says Christman. “It’s just sort of decorative, and proof of your high stature and awareness and culture… If I wanted to go out in a blaze of glory, I would have a show that would upset people.”

While Christman longs for the days of the 1913 Armory Show, Spoeneman just wants to encourage people to appreciate art. His idea for a new exhibit comes from a quote from artist Paul Klee: “Art does not reproduce what we see; rather, it makes us see.”

But it works. Maybe it’s because both men are assemblage artists. “In assemblage art, the idea is to take a lot of disparate things and make a unified whole out of this variety,” Spoeneman explains. Strength through diversity? This is definitely art for the people.

Ars Populi is open from 7 to 10 p.m. Thursday, 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and otherwise “by chance or appointment” at 6010 Kingsbury, 314-862-2541,

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