Mark “Sponto” Kornfeld, the owner of Sponto Gallery in Venice, died suddenly Sunday, December 28th. He was 59 years old.

The cause of death is unknown, pending toxicology and other testing, said Ed Winter of the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office.

Kornfeld’s friends suspect it may have been a heart attack.

“He was complaining of chest pain and pain in his arm right before he died,” said a friend, Venice artist Suzy Williams.

An avid art collector and a collage artist himself, Kornfeld, who often went by “Sponto” — a nickname he coined for himself by combining the words spontaneous and pronto into one — moved from New York to Venice in 1971.

Thirteen years later, in 1984, he opened Sponto Gallery — the former home of Venice West CafÈ, which was a hangout for many of the Venice Beat poets in the 1950s and 1960s — at 7 Dudley Ave.

Since then, the spot has remained a home to many local artists.

“The important thing about Sponto is that it was so much more than an art gallery,” said Gerry Fialka, a close friend of Kornfeld and curator of the film screening series at Sponto, called 7 Dudley Cinema, which will continue at other local venues. “Most art galleries don’t do all these other things — poetry readings, live comedy, live music, experimental film screenings.

“Sponto nurtured the arts community in Venice for 24 years. The beauty is, what he did by nurturing the arts community will live on. His spirit and enthusiasm will live on.”

Bruce Meade, a longtime friend of Kornfeld and the booker at Sponto Gallery, felt Kornfeld contributed an “incredible gift” to the art community.

“Bottom line is, he gave artists total freedom, and that’s an unbelievable gift in today’s art world,” Meade said. “There were no compromises asked. That’s the greatest gift Sponto gave to artists.”

Kornfeld’s passing was unexpected, Fialka said.

Only one week before, he attended the gallery’s “Circle of Color” semiannual art exhibit, which has been held at summer and winter solstice for years.

“He was so alive” at the exhibit, remembers fine art photographer Leland Auslender. “He was always very cheerful, loving and full of fun.”

Added Fialka of Kornfeld’s death, “He was young. It was shocking. We were shocked immensely. He was one of the most alive people you could imagine. He was always positive and supportive of the community.”

Williams agrees.

“Sponto was inclusive and loving and generous,” she said. “He was notoriously generous, a lovely person. He was a hedonist, but also a person who just loved.”

At the time of Kornfeld’s death, there were negotiations on continuing the lease of 7 Dudley Ave. for another year, Fialka said.

However, Kornfeld had not yet signed a lease, and with his death, Sponto Gallery will likely have to close.

But even if the gallery has to shut its doors after 24 years in Venice, “the Sponto community will continue,” said Fialka. “It was so much more than a home.”

There is a memorial outside the gallery now, where many have placed flowers, candles and notes to honor the life of Kornfeld.

“He was really a beloved character — by everyone,” said Auslender.

In Kornfeld’s memory, a wake service will take place at 11 a.m. Sunday, January 11th, at Dudley Avenue and Ocean Front Walk in Venice. All are welcome to attend.

Information, Fialka at (310) 306-7330.