Still life

Chris Kahanek, the new executive director of DECA, brings her perky energy to the difficult task of solving the art center's identity crisis.
Mark Graham

It's dusk in Deep Ellum, still too bright for the frat boys, poseur chicks, and Uptown yupsters who congregate in the restaurants and be-seen bars of what was once alternative Dallas. This August eve, there's plenty of parking in front of 2808 Commerce St., the site of a venue in search of its soul. The Deep Ellum Center for the Arts is entrenched behind a burgundy banner, 84 panes of glass, and a history of the way things were and never will be again.

DECA was once the home of Theatre Gallery, a club run by Russell Hobbs and booked by Jeff Liles that Hobbs once called "the open sore of culture." Its black-walled, wooden-staged performance space showcased the likes of the New Bohemians, Three on a Hill, and Shallow Reign. Back in the day, Jim "Reverend Horton Heat" Heath both slept and wrote there, and sometimes its walls were even decked with visual art. Along with the neighboring Prophet Bar, Theatre Gallery was Deep Ellum in the mid-'80s.

That was before the real estate developers started moving into the neighborhood, making it trendy, changing warehouse space to loft space, and imagining the Prophet Bar as a profit center. It's that same old story: Starving artists need a place to starve, and when rents go up, they move out -- whether it's SoHo to Brooklyn in New York, or Deep Ellum to Oak Cliff in Dallas. What was once an alternative lifestyle becomes just one more bedroom community.

It's dark inside the DECA building, save an office where a board meeting is taking place. Large, riotous abstract paintings would otherwise brighten up the cavernous interior. The artwork hangs on crumbling plaster and exposed brick walls. Toward the rear of the space, a new stage is shrouded in black curtains. No one is looking at the art, and nothing is happening on stage.

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As the board meeting ends, the assembled begin to gather papers and shove them into briefcases. Two men wear suits, two women don't, and two other men apparently don't realize grunge is dead. Chris Kahanek takes a phone call. She is the latest in a string of DECA executive directors who have attempted to define and energize, then redefine and re-energize, the fledgling arts center.

As Kahanek starts to leave, her film background is showing. She looks very Sharon Stone, only younger; blonde hair in an updo; wearing cropped white pants, short top, black slides. She seems very Hollywood as she kisses each board member good-bye. Very, very Hollywood. Only, this is Deep Ellum, and her history is here, working in local independent films. Her exuberance for her new job is admirable but exhausting. The four board members who have turned over the center to Kahanek seem tired just watching her.

"Let's go for it," she says. "It's happening. I've mapped out the next five years, and we're six months ahead of schedule." But Kahanek has had her new position for less than a month, and she sounds a tad naive. Her job is to solve the year-old art center's identity crisis. Since opening, DECA has been a rudderless mess, struggling for survival as its vision shifts from an upscale gallery to a museum for Deep Ellum's past to a clone of Uptown's McKinney Avenue Contemporary.

She, like those who came before her, must search for a way to salvage the myopic vision of Don Blanton, the real estate developer who ironically holds himself in part responsible for driving the artists out of Deep Ellum and now hopes to lure them back by offering them a venue for their work. Perhaps it was Blanton's fuzzy marching orders and hands-off administration that threw everyone off-track in the first place. How can you bring artists back to an area they can no longer afford? How can you pay homage to an art movement that may not even exist? Blanton knew only one thing for certain: What he didn't want was a Theatre Gallery redo.

There are those who are suspicious of his motives with DECA. Is he just trying to make a buck to protect his substantial investment in Deep Ellum? Could it be that he is interested in soothing his own conscience by trying to rebuild what he had a hand in destroying? Or perhaps he's just doing it for the love of art.

Don Blanton seems determined to re-create Deep Ellum in an image that hasn't existed in more than a decade, if it ever did at all. Trying to recall the Deep Ellum of the early to mid-1980s is like trying to recall a thousand dreams the following morning. They're there, but only in fragments -- the punk-rock clubs that have since been shut down, the skinheads who used to populate the area before the tourists from Plano moved in, the musicians who saw their demilitarized zone turn into the West End almost overnight. What was supposed to be a mini-SoHo -- at least, that's what Newsweek said in 1986 -- never really materialized.  

Now, only a handful of landmark clubs from that time remain -- Club Dada, Club Clearview -- and even they are vestiges of history; what is Dada now if not the home of Grateful Dead, Beatles, and Rolling Stones cover bands? Any true believer will tell you things were better when Studio D, the Theatre Gallery, the Twilite Room (then Circle A Ranch), and the Prophet Bar stood downtown. But they and their progeny have long since been wiped off the map. Everyone wants to take credit for transforming Deep Ellum from a warehouse graveyard into a rock-and-roll garden. But in retrospect, Eden lasted only a brief while.

At the beginning of this decade, it became clear that paradise was in the hands of businessmen. Don Blanton, one of the foremost property owners in the area, would come under fire from locals for repeatedly raising rents, running out his more boho tenants, and overcharging for the parking spaces he controlled. Blanton started buying real estate in Deep Ellum during the late 1960s, when it was nothing but a warehouse district. But in 1983 -- as younger, hipper tenants started to discover the area -- Blanton formed Txon Real Estate Co., hoping to actually profit from his investments. By 1988, he and other landlords in the area were turning Deep Ellum into the West End -- but, paradoxically, always with the caveat that "we don't want it to become the West End." No matter: In May 1992, the Deep Ellum Association, a consortium of Deep Ellum landlords, merchants, and bar owners, of which Blanton was president, went so far as to create brochures about Deep Ellum that were distributed to thousands of tourists through the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau.

In 1996, Blanton found himself at odds with Barry Annino and other local real estate developers who wanted to run the tattoo parlors out of Deep Ellum and clean up the area, paving the way for apartment buildings and even more restaurants and furniture stores. Yet it was too little, too late. Old-timers were chagrined, but slightly amused, when Club Clearview founder and owner Jeff Swaney -- now a real estate developer in Deep Ellum -- and partner Sam Paulos, a local record-label owner who is now on the DECA board, shut down punk-rock sanctuary The Orbit Room in June 1998. That's what happens when irony doesn't pay the rent.

Blanton, now 58, makes the Deep Ellum of the '80s sound like his own blank canvas. His ability to visualize all that decaying properties, transmission shops, and havens to Hell's Angels could become is a testament to an innate sense of aesthetics and a short-lived education in architecture at Texas Tech.

Where Blanton settled is a long way from West Texas. He lives in Deep Ellum, walks its streets, knows his neighbors. A study in contradictions, he seems troubled that his and other real estate developers' trying to improve Main Street and pushing for residential rezoning contributed to a mass exodus of the artists that gave the district its bohemian personality and gritty charm.

His love of art seems genuine as he points to each of the dozens of art objects all over the loft where he lives, in a Deep Ellum building he found roofless, then rehabbed. Blanton recites the artists' names, their connection to Deep Ellum, where they are now. He remembers their first shows, or their last shows, and he'll tell you which paintings were a bargain, and which were not. He has abstracts by David McCullough, artful ceramics by Vicki Sheets, and a hanging sculpture of acrobats on a trapeze by Wayne Amarine, whom he calls "the spotted-cow guy."

Whether out of love for Deep Ellum artists, or out of guilt, or for reasons that are strictly dollars and cents, Blanton and his wife, Jeanne, set up a nonprofit organization, the Deep Ellum Center for the Arts, to renovate the Theatre Gallery, which he had owned even before its Russell Hobbs heyday. Except for an occasional warehouse party, the building had been vacant for the last 10 years. Blanton says he committed himself to the project in an attempt to resurrect a Deep Ellum art scene that he believes is as much a part of the area as its music. In July 1998, Blanton told the Dallas Observer, "I want to bring the artists back to Deep Ellum," and said DECA would hang art shows, try live music, and feature poetry readings. Although he said "there are no limitations, no boundaries, to the type of stuff the center will host," he was adamant that DECA would not be perceived as the second coming of the Theatre Gallery. "Russell and Jeff attracted a bit of a rowdy crowd there."  

The first year for any new venture is always hard; for a nonprofit, even harder; for an arts endeavor, harder still. Deeanna Mercer, with whom Blanton worked at Txon Real Estate and the Deep Ellum Association, helped get the fledgling art venue off the drawing board, but when Mercer couldn't make a long-term commitment to the place, Blanton found Melissa Sauvage, a young self-starter so eager to get back into the arts, she leaped before she really looked.

Blanton says Melissa Sauvage looked perfect on paper. She was a polished public relations professional with a passion for the arts. She had hands-on experience too, having served as the ArtCentre of Plano's executive director from its inception, and, after a stint as a spin doctor at Baylor Medical Center, she was ready to get back into the arts scene. "I had opened an arts facility before," Sauvage says. "I knew what it took."

Sauvage's approach was to use Deep Ellum as a locator rather than as an art movement. DECA could be like Turner & Runyon, Conduit Gallery, and Barry Whistler Gallery, a well-respected art space that happened to be in Deep Ellum, not a testament to a long-past heyday or an impossible-to-define Deep Ellum style. She filled the arts center with show after show of solid visual art, her forte, launching with Frederick William McElroy's abstracts on September 26, 1998, when DECA officially opened its doors. McElroy had worked in a Deep Ellum studio from 1980 to '86, but had moved out and moved on.

Sauvage could also hustle; she competitively priced art for a "Holiday Art Market" at DECA in December, bringing Christmas shoppers into the area and selling $4,000 worth of art in two weeks. In deference to Blanton's multi-disciplinary mission, and after scheduling a full year of visual-art exhibitions by Texas artists, Sauvage began discussions with Our Endeavors Theater Company, a small, homeless troupe of actors who seemed to fit Blanton's grand scheme.

"I was willing to be flexible," Sauvage says, but Blanton tested her flexibility again and again. She got little direction from him and increasing pressure to bring in more money by renting out the space. But the building had few amenities, and she was forced to book raucous fraternity parties and out-of-control private concerts -- and was always grateful for the more sedate bar mitzvah crowd. "With the kind of parties we were getting, I had to take the art off the walls to protect it," she says. Blanton wanted her to look for grants and corporate sponsorships too, but Sauvage was doing everything and says the center's board was too small to offer support. Blanton and his wife, Jeanne, were the only board members.

Ironically, Blanton wanted DECA to "preserve the energy that created the history and culture of Deep Ellum" -- the same culture he had helped bulldoze out of existence. But Sauvage didn't actively seek out Deep Ellum's long-standing community of streetwise artists, including Frank Campagna (who ran Studio D in 1982), Cabe Booth, and ex-pop poppins frontman Broose Dickinson. And it really pissed them off.

Sauvage's instincts told her that most of the muralists, spray-can painters, and self-taught stragglers who remained in Deep Ellum didn't produce work that she believed a forward-looking gallery should show. Yet Sauvage tried to be diplomatic. After DECA opened its doors, she began to meet regularly at the center with about 20 members of the Deep Ellum Artists Cooperative. Member Cabe Booth recalls how the neighborhood artists set up a showdown. "When we would go to the meetings and see what Melissa had on the calendar, we'd say, This is called the Deep Ellum Center for the Arts? Some of those artists are from out of town.' We did not see representation for us," he says.

"Our concern was that a bunch of unknown artists would be solicited to represent Deep Ellum," Campagna says, "and those of us who consider ourselves Deep Ellum artists would be left out -- after everything we've been through down here all these years."

Sauvage felt blindsided by Campagna and Booth after Campagna went to the media and began to complain about the shabby treatment Deep Ellum artists were receiving at DECA. Sauvage dealt with the flak by hastily arranging an exhibition that included Campagna's and Booth's work over Thanksgiving weekend.

But by January, Sauvage had had enough. Working night and day with no staff but herself, she managed to schedule a year of decent programming and raise $6,000 in revenue for the arts center in the first three months. Yet she felt unappreciated, as if operating in hostile territory. "She was out of her element," says Amy Vercruysse, marketing director of the Deep Ellum Association. "She was not made for Deep Ellum, and Deep Ellum was not made for her."  

When her old boss at the ArtCentre of Plano asked her to come back, she was ready to bail.

If she had any lingering doubts, she resolved them when she had to deal with the hordes of media camping outside DECA's door on January 31. One of Blanton's properties on Commerce Street, just a short crawl across the parking lot, was the site of a now infamous high school beer bash, rented as a party warehouse to a group of Park Cities teens. The story was front-page news. Dallas police ticketed 150 underage teens. The police investigated Blanton for possible criminal violations, but never charged him with anything. The media circus put Sauvage on the edge of a spotlight she didn't expect and couldn't stomach. One week later, she made it official and tendered her resignation.

A case can be made that Sauvage was the only one who knew what DECA should have been about. She was building an image for a nonprofit arts center, deliberately showcasing Dallas-based and regional Texas artists to build its reputation.

"She did a fine job," admits Vercruysse. "But she really did have an awful lot to carry on her shoulders. There were so many expectations; and Don, to this day, I'm not sure he fully appreciates how hard it is to keep it running. There's no way one person can do it. Melissa couldn't do it."

In the Deep Ellum Association offices, Amy Vercruysse learned of Sauvage's resignation from Blanton, who was so frustrated at this point, she says, he offered up DECA's head on a silver platter. "I got a fax the day after Melissa resigned from Don that said something to the effect that 'I'm not spending any more of my money,'" she says. "I got the impression that he was saying, 'If I don't find somebody else to keep this thing going or find a new director, then I'm closing the doors.'"

Vercruysse took the message to the next regular meeting of the artists co-op at DECA, coincidentally the next night. "We went down to Sushi Nights and had a beer and agreed to do whatever we could to keep the doors open," she recalls. "We'll volunteer if we have to, everyone said." The group of three artists (Campagna, Booth, Dickinson) and two Deep Ellum business leaders (Stephen Elsaesser, owner of Home Concepts, and Vercruysse) agreed to run the center without pay for what they hoped would be a temporary rescue. Blanton accepted their offer, and as a token of good faith, put them all on the DECA board. He also waived the rent to lower overhead.

In less than a week, the inmates had taken over the asylum. "There was a sense of urgency," says Vercruysse, who also became board president. "Frank [Campagna] was so passionate about it, and it was a situation that was tailor-made for him."

"When this place opened, I had said, 'It's here. It's a gift,'" Campagna says. "You don't give gifts back. You take it and work with it until it becomes what it's supposed to be."

"I remember thinking, if this place closes, it will be the death knell," says Booth. "People would say there is no art in Deep Ellum, because we can't even keep this nonprofit organization going."

Campagna, Booth, and Dickinson became curators for visual-art shows in a space that had to be coerced to show their work before. They focused on group shows, featuring themselves and other Deep Ellum artists -- muralists, spray-can artists, scenic artists, and painters in oils. Clay Austin, Greg "Ozone" AKA "Toy" Contestabile, David "Mosquito" Hawley, Jim Sasso, and Eddie Winterhawk were among those who created new works that Campagna says showed the "fine art" side of their abilities.

The trouble with this strategy, though, was that DECA's art openings took on a sense of déjà vu. Every new show looked like the one before it. It was the kind of art that was already on the walls, in the bars, and on the tunnels of Deep Ellum. The same kind of work, by the same handful of artists, was showing month after month.

It also seemed as though Campagna was trying to recapture his past: He and Deep Ellum go back to 1982, when he lived and painted in a 4,500-square-foot warehouse studio and showered illegally in the alley with a garden hose. "I was one of the first artists down here," he says. His art is all over Deep Ellum, his muralist tendencies showing up outside establishments like Home Concepts and Fat Ted's, and in the Good-Latimer tunnels. He booked bands back then as well, to pay the $450-a-month rent for the warehouse, bringing the Meat Puppets to Theatre Gallery one night, hosting the Dead Kennedys at his place the next.  

Cast out of Deep Ellum by higher rents, Campagna got married, had children, and moved to White Rock Lake to raise his family. Yet at DECA, he clung to an idea that Deep Ellum art deserved a designation. Not even Campagna will go so far as to say there's a "Deep Ellum School" of art, but there's a look to the work he, Booth, and Dickinson brought to the arts center during the spring and summer after they took over DECA.

Group shows featured friends of the three new board members, as well as the artists themselves. They favored fantastical paintings, flashy abstracts, representations of pop-culture icons like Elvis and stylized pinup girls. The look of the work is illustrative overall, often air-brushed, and some of the technique goes the way of the beginner -- tentative brush strokes, too little paint on the canvas -- and the pieces are easily dismissed in a category known as "student work."

Campagna believed DECA could bring respect to "Deep Ellum artists." After all, back in the 1980s, Jean-Michel Basquiat painted images and graffiti all over New York City's East Village, and he got famous. Campagna painted murals and text all over Deep Ellum, and he got pigeonholed. If Deep Ellum mirrored the East Village's edgy bar and music scene in the early 1980s, it hasn't come into its own with SoHo's kind of art scene, or Chelsea's, or Brooklyn's, in the 1990s. SoHo's legendary NYC neighborhood has close to 300 art galleries, while Deep Ellum has fewer than 10, and that's counting Exposition Park.

Nancy Whitenack's Conduit Gallery is one of the best. Over the last 15 years, she's made it a destination in Deep Ellum by filling it consistently with the edgy work of established contemporary artists and even dedicating a small annex gallery to emerging newcomers. She doesn't show "Deep Ellum artists," she says, because she's not sure what that means, and it doesn't seem particularly relevant. She chooses to be in Deep Ellum because she loves the "grittiness" and "diversity" of the neighborhood.

Whitenack says that while she longs for what was going on in Deep Ellum in the 1980s, when artists could afford to keep studios there, her business benefits more from the mainstream crowds that now flock to her gallery. The "upscaling of everything," she says, forced artists out, the same artists who first got everything moving in Deep Ellum. She's nostalgic for galleries like Laura Carpenter, DWGallery, Ruth Wiseman, and Herling Gallery that have closed or moved out, but she doesn't believe that anyone can restore Deep Ellum's past or even needs to. Instead, she sees the need for DECA as another credible arts venue, but says it can survive only if its vision is clear.

While Campagna and Booth filled DECA's visual-art space with the work they believed represented the area, Vercruysse brought in staged readings of new plays and poetry, and dance performances as well. Elsaesser, meanwhile, was adding his unique talents -- greeting guests at openings, riding herd on private parties that generated rental revenue to cover utilities each month, and getting the center's legal ducks in a row.

But at the end of five months, the group was exhausted. "I was really ready to get back to work, and I was really tired of sitting up here, phones ringing, my face turning red," says Booth. "There were more and more problems that I wanted to deal with, but I can't. Last year I made 78 paintings. This year I've made 8."

The other artists wanted to get back to their art as well. And Elsaesser had a business to run. "I don't want to keep doing bar mitzvahs for the rest of my life." He was more interested in turning the center into a moneymaker by showcasing artistic ventures. He appealed to Blanton's pragmatic side, convincing him that he should sign a five-year lease with DECA and that it was time the arts center found a new executive director before his feisty group of volunteers ran themselves and the place into the ground.

Chris Kahanek fairly hums with energy. You could probably hear it if she'd just take a breath between sentences, between gushing about her love of Deep Ellum and prattling about her plans for the Deep Ellum Center for the Arts. She's so darn perky, but in a genuine way that's somehow scarier than the typical schmoozer. "I met my husband, Nick, in this space when it was Theatre Gallery," she says. "Everything keeps drawing me back to DECA."  

Kahanek looks younger than 29, but her age fits when she says she's loved Deep Ellum for 12 years, since high school. Blanton calls her a "Deep Ellum girl," and he remembers seeing her around.

They first met formally when she booked the arts center for a private party to kick off the fund-raising campaign for this fall's first Deep Ellum Film Festival, backed by DEFMAN (Deep Ellum Film, Music, Art, and Noise). Kahanek is a DEFMAN board member as well as a freelance producer and casting director for Stone Core Films in Dallas. She'll be bringing these and other relationships with her to DECA. After she worked things out with Blanton, Kahanek helped move DEFMAN's offices into the arts center during her first week, and she plans to start an "Independent Film Night" there on Wednesdays this fall. She's tight with D-Town and Dallas Powerhouse dancers and hopes to introduce hip-hop routines to DECA's range of stage performances. She's scripting the future of the arts center like a screenplay, and buying into Blanton's big ideas.

"I brought a different perspective," Kahanek says. "What I believe is that the last few months of struggle helped pull it together just when it was about to fall apart." She says the expanded board has welcomed her, offering its support. "It's the type of board of directors I can call and discuss things with," she says. "If they weren't that active, I don't know if I could pull this off."

Blanton has been supportive too, she says. "He basically wants what I want. To help the Deep Ellum artists, promote them, preserve them, give them a place to work. We want artists to be able to work during the day in the space. Any new freelance photographers can arrange to use the space for photo shoots. New theater companies can use the space to rehearse."

That there may be no such animal as a Deep Ellum artist in no way dampens her enthusiasm. Kahanek understands she'll have to raise money fast to keep DECA open -- and even to keep her job. She will maintain a freelance relationship with the arts center until January, she says, when she hopes to become a full-time employee. Meanwhile, "It's sticking," she says. "I'm happy."

Even with Blanton's global vision for the Deep Ellum Center for the Arts and his desire for it to reflect the neighborhood's artful heritage, it's hard not to worry about its future. Kahanek's heart is in the right place, and her energy seems boundless. Yet Blanton's commitment to her is in fact a six-month contract. The scrappy board has proven its dedication and reflects the neighborhood's diversity. Amy Vercruysse is astute and devoted to the growth of Deep Ellum, but she seems unwilling to oppose the artist-members who are driving DECA's gallery space in the wrong direction. Stephen Elsaesser is in a place to provide much-needed mediation and moderation -- a balance between the tunnel vision of creative types and the bigger picture of Deep Ellum as it is today. Campagna sees the center through rose-colored, circa 1982, glasses, but he's easygoing these days and eager to please. Booth's educated artistic vision is clouded by divided loyalties -- to a romanticized Deep Ellum past, to a solid handle on edgy contemporary art, to the drive to focus on his own work. If those involved play to their strengths, and if they compromise, DECA could have a fighting chance.

Don Blanton, for all his plans, is his own piece of work, and perhaps his own worst enemy. He doesn't want another Theatre Gallery, he says, but maybe he'd take an upscale version of one. He wants a monument to Deep Ellum's past one minute and a toehold on Deep Ellum's future the next. He says he's not a blank check for the center, but promises financial backing. Paradox and pariah, hands-off or hands-on, Blanton has changed the landscape of Deep Ellum, and while he may not like everything about the new vista, he can't go home again. If that's what he's trying to do with the Deep Ellum Center for the Arts, he shouldn't even bother. But through luck or design, he now has the people in place who can make the center happen. He should keep the money coming, but, otherwise, stay out of their way.

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