Lost Art

Dallas' most compelling art museum is hidden away in an old East Dallas firehouse

Artists Alan Govenar and Kaleta Doolin aren't the most obvious pair: While he speaks with the rapid cadences of his Boston boyhood, hers are the measured rhythms of a native Dallasite. He projects an active, external hustle--a sense of always leaning toward you--while she suggests hidden currents, processes that continue unseen until they surface in her sculpture. His office contains an academic's clutter--piles of papers, pictures, and artifacts; her workshop is raw, almost blue-collar, full of hammers and tin snips, and is dominated by a big steel hoist draped with chains.

Encountered separately, Govenar and Doolin seem very different, but together they have made a singular contribution to Dallas' cultural life through their two nonprofit organizations: Doolin's Contemporary Culture and Govenar's Documentary Arts. Joined beneath the roof of an old firehouse--now called the 5501 Columbia Arts Center--they have staged groundbreaking exhibits, alternately haunting and surprising, studying and presenting cultural signposts as diverse as tattoos and the Rio Grande river.

Along the way, the Arts Center has come to stand for many things: art as a continuing process, equal parts preservation of the past, presentation of the now, and preparation for the future; art as local, its definition reclaimed from the ruling classes and returned to the people; and, ultimately, art as expression, unfettered by boundaries.

But whereas almost everyone in Dallas is familiar with the Barney-colored McKinney Avenue Contemporary (the MAC), relatively few know about 5501 Columbia. Entire installations come and go without a word of recognition from the media--while even light bulbs changings at the MAC seem to rate ink. The Center doesn't employ a publicist, so some of its low profile is understandable. Even so, it's puzzling that the MAC--a laudable effort that has never really shed the perception that it presents monied Dallas' idea of what's hip--enjoys such a buzz while 5501 Columbia is still to many what it was to Govenar and Doolin when they first noticed it: that neat, mysterious building over on the wild side of East Dallas.

They found the firehouse in 1990--a year after they'd married--following a search that led them to the usual industrial spaces and Deep Ellum storefronts, which they'd all found wanting: too big, too dark, too trashed. They wanted a place where they could realize their dream: a common workspace to share, a place that would be big enough for Govenar's explorations of art and culture, Doolin's sculpture, and an exhibition space that would enable them to share their enthusiasms with the public. The site that kept sticking in their minds was one they often passed on their way into Deep Ellum, a weather-beaten but still stately brick building at the corner of Columbia and Augusta, where the tree-lined gentility of Lakewood turned into the bars, taquerias, and convenience stores of inner-city East Dallas.

Although its sagging roof indicated that the two-story structure might soon be joining the dilapidated houses and cheap apartments clustered around it, the building still had presence; the two massive roll-up doors that faced Columbia bespoke its past life as a fire station. A half-fallen sign proclaimed the name of a mission that held services on the ground floor, while a Mexican Mennonite congregation worshiped upstairs.

"We kept seeing it as we drove by," Govenar says, "and we always thought it was such a great space. We wondered what it would take to buy it."

The fact that the structure at 5501 Columbia--Firehouse No. 16 from its construction in 1918 until the '50s, when the Dallas Fire Department abandoned it--was already a part of the life of the local community made it even more attractive to the pair. When the "for sale" sign went up, Doolin was the first person to make an offer.

While the firehouse is an easy symbol for the intertwined careers of Doolin and Govenar, the elements of their collaboration had been in place long before they met.

Doolin, 46, pursued a degree in art at Southern Methodist University; by the time she graduated with her M.F.A. in 1987, she was an award-winning sculptor with a love of the immiscible, marrying feminine themes to the inherently masculine medium of metalwork. In the late '80s, her focus shifted somewhat to larger installations, a maximalism not only of size but of layers of meaning and implication.

Govenar, 43, followed an interest in folklore to Ohio State University in 1970, where he met a hunchbacked dwarf and tattoo artist, Leonard "Stoney" St. Clair. St. Clair's joie de vivre and tales of more than 50 years in carnivals and circuses inspired Govenar to make St. Clair the subject of a class paper, then a book, and finally a film with noted documentary filmmaker Les Blank. "It was hard to get Stoney to agree to the movie," Govenar recalls. "His profession had been so sensationalized by the media that he was reluctant, and it took many weekends of hanging around with him to earn his trust."

After working with St. Clair, Govenar had found his calling. He moved to Texas and graduated from the University of Texas at Dallas in 1980 with a doctoral degree in arts and humanities, and helped put together the Dallas Folk Festivals of 1981 and 1983. In 1984, the Dallas Museum of Art commissioned him to make Living Texas Blues, three short films on the musical contributions of Texas bluesmen that he followed with a brief book and an audio tape.

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help