Picture Imperfect

A struggling arts foundation gives kids a chance to see South Dallas through a camera lens

It's almost noon on a hot Saturday morning in July, and the professional photographer who volunteered to teach Artist Thornton's photography workshop at the South Dallas Cultural Center is more than an hour late.

A roomful of about 20 eager youngsters, many clutching rolls of photographic negatives, stare expectantly at Thornton, a grandfatherly man in spectacles, white chinos, and a Panama hat. Checking his watch, Thornton decides he has to go on without a teacher.

"Who wants to develop a picture?" he asks to a round of cheers, appearing unfazed that he knows little about printing photographs. But he doesn't need to, because Thornton, a resourceful man, snags an unsuspecting Observer photographer assigned to cover the workshop for this story and asks her to share her expertise with the kids. Minutes later, class begins.

Artist Thornton is used to flying by the seat of his pants, making things work with volunteers and no money. At 51, Thornton has devoted almost half his life to bringing the arts to kids who might not otherwise be exposed to them. Twenty years ago, Thornton and his wife, Elaine, who are part-time actors and own their own advertising company, Metro Media Buyers Inc., personally lobbied the city to build four cultural centers--one each for North, South, East, and West Dallas. In 1981, the city renovated the Bath House Cultural Center at White Rock Lake, and a $1.5 million 1982 city bond issue was to provide for a comprehensive plan to build three more arts facilities. In 1986 the South Dallas Cultural Center was built. But with Dallas' real-estate bust in the late 1980s, the remaining two facilities were never built.

But the Thorntons just kept on going. In 1986, they created their own low-budget foundation (later renamed the Artist and Elaine Thornton Foundation for the Arts), with the primary goal of producing plays that provided good roles for black actors.

Several actors who participated in theThorntons' plays have gone on to become well-known. Irma P. Hall recently starred in the film A Family Thing, with Robert Duvall and James Earl Jones; young Dale Godboldo was "discovered" after he performed in the couple's 1990 production, Zooman and the Sign, a play about gang violence that was performed at the Majestic Theatre and the Tarrant County Convention Center. Godboldo later became the first black Mousketeer in the Disney remake of The Mickey Mouse Show, says Thornton.

Five years ago, the Thorntons inaugurated the Young Photographer's Workshop, much of which they say they have paid for out of their own pockets. According to the foundation's records, it received only $12,000 in donations in 1990. (No records were available for the years prior to 1990.) The Thorntons say they were forced to drop the program last year when they ran out of funds.

But 1996 may be the year they turn the foundation around: In June, the two hosted their first fund raiser, a small reception in the lobby of City Hall; actors Larry Hagman and Irma P. Hall flew in at their own expense for the occasion. Local businesswomen and arts supporters Bernice Washington and Niva Patel, who are active supporters of the arts, have pledged $10,000 for the foundation. Washington says she will also underwrite noted black photographer Gordon Parks' visit to Dallas on August 16 to speak to the photographer's workshop.

But it's not their good works that Artist Thornton is thinking about on this Saturday afternoon, after all the children from the photography workshop have gone; it's the lack of activity in the Cultural Center.

"It's still not doing all the things it should be doing. This is Saturday! This thing should be jumping! It shoulda' started jumping at 8 and it shouldn't stop until 8 tonight and shouldn't stop even then," he laments, looking out into the center's main hall, which houses sculptures and photographs by black artists. Except for a security guard, the entire center is empty. "Something should be happening, and it just hasn't happened." During the week, the center puts on a day camp for about 120 kids, but the Thorntons' two-hour workshop is the only thing going on Saturdays. The center's music recording studio has been locked for years because there hasn't been enough money to do anything with it, Thornton says.

In part, Thornton blames the city's budget cuts for the lack of programming for kids. And, the building itself, located on the corner of Robert B. Cullum Boulevard and Fitzhugh Avenue across from Fair Park, is partly to blame:Its dreary brown brick facade makes many people think it's a county clinic or a police substation. "Aesthetically it's not conveying the message it should be," he says. Kids from the neighborhood should be flocking to the center during the summer, he says. He remembers a young boy who stood at the center's main door recently asking if it was OK to come inside. "For some reason, when people see 'city owned and operated,' they think it's some strange entity from outer space. They don't realize that it means it's theirs."

Center officials recognized back in 1989 that the center had an identity problem. A design competition to improve the look of the facility was launched, aided by a $20,000 federal community development black grant, but nothing ever came of the project, says Marjorie Reese, assistant director of events facilities with the Office of Cultural Affairs, which oversees the center.

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