Only one month after Stephen Elsaesser accepted the position of president of the board of the Deep Ellum Center for the Arts, he found himself helping his fellow board members draft a statement announcing the center's impending closure. At the troubled DECA's regular monthly board meeting May 3, Elsaesser says the board reluctantly decided to call it quits.
"I wish the situation were not what it is," Elsaesser says. "It's very, very difficult to come to the realization that we don't know what else to do." The owner of Deep Ellum's Home Concepts store and a former attorney, Elsaesser is subdued and straightforward as he speaks, but there is real sadness and a degree of disillusionment in his voice. "We gave it our best effort," he says, "but unless the situation changes for the better, we will be forced to close our doors at the end of the run of the scheduled Teatro Dallas performances in early June."
This decision is particularly difficult for Elsaesser and a small group of artists and Deep Ellum business leaders who have been shoring up DECA for 15 months. He and past DECA President Amy Vercruysse, with longtime Deep Ellum artists Frank Campagna, Cabe Booth, and Broose Dickinson, staged what they believed would be a temporary volunteer rescue attempt in February 1999 when DECA lost its first director, and the center's founder, Don Blanton, was looking for some last-ditch option to save the facility.
Blanton, a major property owner and broker in Deep Ellum, created the art center in July 1998 in one of his properties at 2808 Commerce St. He and his wife, Jeanne Martin-Blanton, set it up as a not-for-profit organization and hired young but respected Dallas arts professional Melissa Sauvage to run the place. When Sauvage resigned in the wake of the much-hyped Park Cities teens beer bash and ensuing citations in January 1999 at one of Blanton's adjacent properties, Blanton told Vercruysse and Campagna he saw little alternative but to close the place. The handful of volunteers have held on to the center with the help of director Chris Kahanek for more than a year, but promised revenues from new offerings, art sales, and increased use by local theater companies have never materialized.
Part of Blanton's original frustration, and ultimately what most likely killed the Deep Ellum Center for the Arts, was the lack of consistent, committed leadership and the venue's ongoing identity crisis. In the summer of 1998, before DECA opened, Blanton shared his vision for what he hoped the center would be -- a multidisciplinary, all-things-to-all-people, Deep Ellum arts destination that could attract tourists to the restaurants and clubs in the entertainment district. He told the Dallas Observer he wanted "to bring the artists back to Deep Ellum." Blanton said the center would hang visual art shows, try live music and poetry readings, but probably not live theater. "There's not much money in theater," he said then. But in its short life span, DECA earned more respect for its theater offerings than any of the other arts disciplines it attempted to showcase. Our Endeavors Theater Company, Cara Mia, and Ground Zero Theater Company used the cavernous, rehabbed warehouse space to critical acclaim and decent audiences for productions such as Didymus and Gorey Stories. Ironically, Teatro Dallas' Between Pancho Villa and a Naked Woman, running May 12 through June 10, will likely be the art center's last hurrah.
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Some might call DECA's demise the end of an error -- the result of miscalculations in mission and money plus a lack of foresight about how long it takes to get a fledgling arts organization off the drawing board and into the black in Dallas. The group that accepted day-to-day operations of the center from Blanton in February 1999 thought they could keep it going, particularly when Blanton agreed to waive the rent to keep the overhead low. "We still have that agreement in place that could be extended," Elsaesser says, "but unless something drastic happens..."
Board member Vercruysse echoes Elsaesser's sadness, but seems more resigned to DECA's fate. "Despite everybody's best efforts for a long time, it's just not working," she says. "We've done great things, gotten a lot of attention, and are an asset to the neighborhood, but we just have not been able to raise the necessary funds to make it thrive, and it just isn't making sense anymore to keep trying. After you've been bailing water from a sinking ship for so long, there comes a time when you just have to abandon it or else you drown."
Elsaesser seems to be willing to accept a last-minute life preserver if an "angel" or foundation makes an 11th-hour bid to keep the center afloat. "Everybody is so interested in seeing this kind of thing be nurtured in this town," he says. "I can always hope that some group or individual hears about this and says, 'I'd like to help.' It's not too late. We'll continue to be up through June 10. We'd be extremely interested in working with anybody out there who wants to bring any proposal or business plan. Our network has simply dried up or run out."
For some of DECA's strongest supporters, it's going to be hard to say goodbye. Both Elsaesser and Vercruysse praised Blanton, who didn't return calls for comment. "Don is one of the heroes here," Vercruysse says. "The place never would have existed without him, and he was much more generous for a much longer time than he had to be. He also lost a lot more than anybody else."