Lost Art

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

Over this tableau, like a great cloud, floats a boat similar to the ones used to cross the Rio Grande. Colored light bulbs hang about it like stars, and the entire outside of its hull is lined with the strips of cloth used by La Junta's blanket-makers; the inside is smeared with the mud that locals still gather to make their pottery.

Off to one side is Govenar's contribution to the exhibit, a round room whose interior walls are made up of TVs and mirrors. Half the TVs are showing some of the footage Govenar shot on his visits; the others, the footage of Pancho Villa's attack. As the Mexican revolutionary's caissons cross the same river that boats now ply, recognizable in the background is the same mountain the pilgrims climb; later, the mournful sounds of ritual prayer fill the soundtrack of the modern footage while the archival screens fill with gun smoke and bodies.

Although American cultures have a special place in Govenar's heart, he doesn't define his efforts so narrowly. Since starting Documentary Arts, he's released a steady stream of esoteric recordings of what he considers "important regional styles," presenting the public with Vietnamese funeral music and the religious poetry of Dallasite Osceola Mays, as well as the music of French-speaking Louisiana and East Texas fiddlers. His most recent release was an album of music from the Hmong tribesmen of Laos.

"The Hmong and Vietnamese music are the newest forms of traditional music," Govenar says. "It's the music of immigrant countries, especially at that fragile time when old styles are being preserved, but the music is changing and starting to be about contemporary problems, about what it's like to be far away and miss your home, what it's like to be Vietnamese in Dallas."

Missing your home, posing for a picture, the blues--universal experiences behind which lurk a greater truth. "The whole point of the 20th century has been the fact that people really began to interact--intellectually and artistically--with non-Western cultures and appreciate their importance," Govenar says. "A big part of what we're doing here is showing that artists are artists. They may be divided by cultural differences, differences in training or in demographics, but the impulse to create is universal. The future of the world depends on our ability to understand others, and one of the most important ways of understanding others is through creative expression."

Universality makes for fine talk, but to walk the walk you have to cross some barriers and abandon much of the distance ordinary folks feel between them and "art." John Held Jr. sees the Arts Center, "especially Kaleta [Doolin], as being part of the trend in art these days...to take it out of the ivory tower and bring it down to a more participatory level."

Barriers were dismantled early on; one of the first shows at 5501 Columbia was photographer Judy Bankhead's The Neighborhood as Art, a pictorial reflection of Tyler, the Texas town where she grew up. "Judy and other artists came, and they had them work with neighborhood people and kids," says Ron Gleason, who worked with Govenar on the Living Texas Blues project. "The point was to demonstrate to them that any place can be the subject of art or of an artistic investigation, and that the Arts Center was going to be a place where art and community intersected."

As part of this intersection, Documentary Arts offers a "Folk Artist in Schools" program, and Contemporary Culture offers free workshops for kids in which they can not only work with established artists but have their efforts displayed afterward.

It's an approach that the Arts Center itself embodies, an alternative space on an open, unfenced corner located not in comfy Plano or Highland Park, but in an East Dallas neighborhood politely described as "heads up." It might get dicey--like the time folks attending a meeting had their car windows broken or a skateboarding youth blithely showed Govenar his bullet scars--but he and Doolin persevere.

"I believe in the power of art," Doolin says, "and in its ability to cross cultures and bring people together. I think people are becoming more educated, and that we've had something to do with that. I've always thought about being an urban pioneer."

Pioneering is not often cheap. The Arts Center struggles for funding and does not employ a publicist. And that's the reason why most Dallas residents are familiar with the MAC, but usually find 5501 Columbia Arts Center almost by accident. "We try to stay low-budget and put all our money into exhibits," Doolin says. "We're content to have slow growth."

Many evenings, as the sky closes purple on the departing day, there are still lights burning in Firehouse No. 16. As the evening deepens over the yells of children and the blare of mariachi music from passing cars, those lights still shine from the windows--not expecting or requiring that anybody see them, but there just in case.

When exhibits are installed, the Arts Center is open to the public Thursday and Friday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturdays from noon to 5 p.m. Most exhibits run about three months, and admission is free.

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