The artful dodger

"I want to bring the artists back to Deep Ellum," declares developer Don Blanton, referring to the halcyon (and sometimes hyperbolized) days of the mid-'80s. Those were the days when yuppies stayed away from Deep Ellum because of the perceived skinhead threat, and musicians, painters, and performance artists were crammed into undeveloped, ofttimes illegal living quarters that doubled as exhibition and performance sites. "Some of the developers, including myself, were responsible for driving them out in the first place, with the improvements on Main Street and the residential zoning we pushed for. Rent went up, and the artists had to leave."

He's not cutting the price on any of the residential loft spaces that he owns, not offering a bed or roof to those dispossessed; instead he wants to provide Dallas artists with a central downtown performance venue that he plans on calling the Deep Ellum Center for the Arts.

By the early '80s, Blanton had already owned numerous properties on Elm and Commerce, including the space whose new incarnation he hopes will rebroadcast the siren song. The address, 2808 Commerce, was called Theatre Gallery during its fractious existence between 1984 and 1988, when operator Russell Hobbs and booker Jeff Liles lost buckets of money on the black-walled, wooden-staged, furniture-strewn performance space. It was the showcase for neighborhood visual artists and performers, as well as some prominent national folks, to display their talents.

The former Theatre Gallery will reopen in September outfitted with a brand-new facade, multi-ton air-conditioning units, and a coffee and juice bar (no alcohol will be served). Blanton is paying for the renovations and has essentially donated the location to house the nonprofit Center for the Arts, of which he is a trustee on its board of directors. He readily admits he has no arts background and says programming decisions will be left largely to those who do.

"We will have everything here," Blanton says, invoking the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, the Dallas Museum of Art, and The Sixth Floor as examples. "There are no limitations, no boundaries to the type of stuff the center will host."

Talk to him awhile, though, and a few limitations emerge--with the caveat that this is early in the center's development. Blanton is adamant, for example, that people will realize this isn't the second coming of Theatre Gallery. "Russell and Jeff attracted a bit of a rowdy crowd there," Blanton says of his space's former operators.

Fourteen years ago, Russell Hobbs referred to his gallery-theater-club--which hosted a yam-stuffing performance by Karen Finley as well as fostering young bands such as New Bohemians, Shallow Reign, and the Trees--as "an open sore of culture." A campaign of pressure from the Dallas police and code inspectors after underage kids were caught drinking, not to mention Hobbs' oft-chronicled conversion to Christianity, eventually shut the doors on a bold venture that, by shaky design, was doomed to a short life.

So, OK, no TG II. Well, will there be poetry readings? "We may try that once and see who comes, but poetry readings don't attract many people. We won't repeat something if it's not a success."

How about live theater? "There's not much money in theater. And we can't have a company leaving its sets up for a month at a time."

Well then, what?
"I would like to do shows with Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing Arts, because those kids have parents who'll pay money to see them." Other moneymaking ventures would include private parties by fraternities and stewardess organizations, as well as what Blanton calls "hair shows"--or, stylist trade shows.

Perhaps the iffiest of Blanton's desires is that the Deep Ellum Center for the Arts be open seven days a week, starting at 9 a.m. and closing after dark. "I want to have a full-time staff in place every day. There are days when the MAC isn't open, when the DMA closes early. If you have a visitor arriving at D/FW airport any day of the week, and that person asks, 'Where can I go see art in Dallas?' I want the cab driver to say 'Deep Ellum Center for the Arts.'"

Teresa Jones, who has been director of the McKinney Avenue Contemporary since 1996, admits that the MAC's closing on Monday and Tuesday as well as its brief Sunday operation comes from some hard-earned wisdom. "Our attendance is primarily event-driven," she says. "But most days, it's dead here. When people do come in to browse, they come at night. Closing on Mondays and Tuesdays gives us a big break in our operational costs."

Dee Anna Mercer, former Deep Ellum Association president and a longtime friend of Don Blanton's, was initially wooed by the developer to be the Center for the Arts' executive director. She declined, partly because she didn't want to drop the various accounts handled by her advertising and promotions company Mercer and Associates, and partly because she didn't think it was reasonable to keep the center open considering the dearth of Deep Ellum foot traffic most days and nights. Back in the early '80s, she also booked and promoted some acts at Theatre Gallery.

"He talked about wanting to attract tour groups," she said. "And he kept comparing the Center for the Arts to the Sixth Floor as a tourist attraction. Well, Deep Ellum doesn't have something exciting like a presidential assassination to draw people. Apparently he wants to try and bring people down there who don't normally come. I say, more power to him, but I'm a married lady with a lot of projects. I can't be tied to a building all day seven days a week."

Don Blanton finally did get his executive director--Melissa Savage, formerly director of the Arts Centre of Plano. Her background isn't just in arts administration.

"Don is a very successful businessman," she says. "But that's exactly what he is--a businessman. He's hired me for the cultural side of it."

Savage insists that there will be live performances of all kinds, including dance, readings, and theater--although, admittedly, no long-term production runs. She says she is in the process of booking a series of visual art shows. And she confirms that Blanton has a commitment to "community partnerships" with Booker T. Washington. And if there is a collision between art and profit where her programming is concerned, she says only, "I'm exploring all avenues, but we also have to be financially responsible."

Savage admits it's unlikely that the Deep Ellum Center for the Arts will have the daily schedule that Don Blanton first envisioned, because a large grant they were hoping for has fallen through. But they also haven't finalized public hours. In fact, they haven't finalized anything as far as programming goes. "Right now, we're still in start-up," she says. "We haven't signed contracts for anything."

By way of explaining her extremely cautious reaction when she hears Blanton's quotes about the future of the Deep Ellum Center for the Arts, she says with a small laugh, "I have a master's in public relations. That's why I'm cringing.


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