Lost Art

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

He founded Documentary Arts in 1985 as little more than a post-office box and continued to develop projects designed to broaden public appreciation of different cultures' art.

Govenar and Doolin met in 1988; the inspiration for the Arts Center was a result of that most dreaded of dating rituals, Meeting the Parents--in this case Govenar's, who lived in Florida. While there, he and Doolin visited the Lannan Museum in Lake Worth. "It's a contemporary art museum inside an art deco theater," Doolin remembers. "When we went through it, I just had this thunderbolt of inspiration--I could do this."

The two returned to Texas, married, and began searching for a place where they could merge their visions; in 1991, Doolin started Contemporary Culture in order to advance "culturally diverse visual, performance, media, and book art.

"Our [Documentary Arts and Contemporary Culture] missions are very close," she says. "If anything, I'm more contemporary, while Alan is more historical, but that's pretty broad."

The space, completely renovated, opened in May 1992 with two inaugural exhibitions: Forever Yes: The Art of the Tattoo, a series of tattoo images by modern artists that harkened back to Govenar's undergrad days in Stoney's tattoo parlor; and Caren Heft's Artist's Books. Since then, the Arts Center has hosted live performances; exhibits of paintings, sculpture, and photography; and less-easily categorized efforts, almost always incorporating or accompanied by some exploration of book art--a style Doolin describes as "a new art, part literary content and part physical form"--and in which the two are both deeply interested.

Typical of that interest were the exhibits installed at the beginning of this year: Hungarian artist Beata Szechy's Borderless Garden and a retrospective display of the work of John Held Jr., a Dallas native who moved to San Francisco last year.

Like most of the installations and larger exhibits, Szechy's work was located in the spacious ground-level gallery--once the bay that housed the fire engines, then the urban mission. Several circular holes in the high ceiling--one still sporting its vertical brass pole--remind the visitor of the building's original function. An open arrangement of candles, glass, and books with pages folded into elaborate mass origami--Szechy's Borderless Garden--occupied the whole of the downstairs galley and invited quiet, Zenlike contemplation.

Held's exhibit was in the upstairs gallery, whose closer confines and museum cases are more appropriate for displaying the smaller-scale exhibits of book art. In Held's display are many artifacts from his 14-year stay in Dallas. "When I began planning to leave town," Held says, "I realized I wanted to do a Dallas retrospective of my work, and they [Doolin and Govenar] have one of the few noncommercial, nonprofit art spaces in town. They have a real flair for putting exhibits together."

Held's exhibition--which reminded one of the work of postal miniaturist Donald Evans, blown wide open by Held's avant-garde/Fluxus/SubGenius sensibilities--was decidedly offbeat. Elaborately decorated envelopes, a wall-mounted wetsuit covered with gold autographs, and fictitious postage stamps all vied for attention.

"Most galleries are just interested in what's the hottest thing, what'll sell," Held says. "But Alan in particular has this commitment to the historical aspect. He's especially good at documenting the history of fringe cultures. He doesn't look for the marketable, he looks for the marginal--for things that might have been overlooked or scorned. Then he puts them in their proper context before the public."

In addition to Szechy and Held's work, other notable exhibits have included Willie Birch's Spirit House, a beautifully multilayered evocation of African-American tradition and experience, and Beverly Semme's Yellow Pool, a strikingly surreal dissertation on femininity--a massive dress whose exaggerated sleeves disappear into a floor-covering swirl of gauzelike yellow fabric. Both installations have gone on to visit respected galleries here and abroad.

"You can't allow someone else to define 'what is' for you," Birch says about the Arts Center. "They're introducing a lot of things that haven't yet been socially accepted as art. I think they understand that they're sustaining some of these art forms until they can be recognized.

"They're on the edge of stuff that hasn't been validated yet--and that's an important role," he adds. "You don't get recognition doing that immediately, but eventually everybody will know who you are. They'll have to come to the table with you, because you're doing something that ties all of it--subculture and mainstream--together."

Doolin's devotion to contemporary art--art in the now, created and seen--is matched by Govenar's sense of history. Perhaps the most impressive work being done by his Documentary Arts is the creation and maintenance of the Texas African-American Photography Archive.

Govenar's awareness of such work was born while working on the Living Texas Blues project in the mid-'80s, as he assembled pictures of minstrels in blackface, blues legends, and long-gone neighborhoods, many captured through the lenses of black photographers.

Around the time of the state sesquicentennial, Texas Monthly Press published a two-volume history of Texas photography. Govenar, who had spent the previous 18 months poring over the work of black photographers from Texas, was shocked to see that there wasn't a single one mentioned in the book. "When I asked the people who compiled it why this was, they explained that they were limited to pictures that were in existing collections. This meant that no museums--nobody--was collecting this material."

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