"When I was younger, I had to choose between being a musician and being an artist. I chose artist: I wanted to be responsible for screwing myself up." -- Frank Campagna
When Frank Campagna, Kirk Hopper and a tidy pack of painters and photographers assembled Kettle Art in '05, they erected wooden gallery walls to protect an old advert, which still covers the building's original brick bones. The hidden message reads "Kettle Rendered Lard," and exists as a final vestige to the space's turn-of-the-century incarnation, the old Kettle dry goods store. The appropriated name was a symbolic nod, bridging the region's historical legacy with a percolating notion of change in the emerging arts scene. And now, almost a decade later, Kettle will permanently close its Deep Ellum doors and light up its sign elsewhere. Legacy be damned.
Road development approaches the Kettle's space, and its pending upheaval will coincide with the skinning and gutting of 2714 Elm Street. The new landlord, former SMU football player Chuck Hixson, is giving it a plumbing overhaul, which required early termination of tenants' leases, without renewal.
When the transformation is complete, the faces we've come to associate with the space will be gone. In fact, Kettle is now all that still remains in the corner property -- even Sunshine Store, the longest consecutive running retailer in Deep Ellum, and the gallery's suite mate, closed its doors last week after 15 years. Kettle will bolt the locks come May, but it ain't going down without a killer final season.
Eight years ago, the opportunities for emerging artists were not as vibrant as they are in 2013. Dallas lacked showrooms where local talent could refine their style and work towards launching a career.
Frank Campagna saw that.
He identified the chasm and he knew that an answer sat in Elm Street's vacant row of buildings. He wanted a place where the artists would represent themselves, and they'd run the space together. With nudging by Campagna's friend and soon-to-be landlord Don Cass, Frank took on the project. The rent was understandably small. And when they turned the lights on and filled the walls with work by local talent, people not only ventured into the discarded area; they flocked to it.
"For a long time, it was just us and occasionally DADA bringing folks in," says Frank. "Hell, we could float a keg in two hours."
That ridiculous assessment of success is not lost on Campagna - he's laughing as the words leave his mouth. To say that Kettle's business model is not an investor's top priority is generous; it operates on an entirely different structure and ethical foundation than what most consider "successful."
At Kettle, victory and financial gain have never been synonymous.
It's a thesis noticeable in all manors of Kettle's operations, from Frank's joy over the pocket change balance currently sitting in one of Kettle's bank accounts -- "We didn't overdraft or anything!" - to the variety of shows they choose to book.
Take last year's solo exhibition by Austin primitive artist Tim Kerr: It was a beautiful tribute to unsung Civil Rights leaders, early African American folk musicians and baseball players - it didn't make a dime. "Real art doesn't cover its ass," says Campagna, "but you have to have the integrity to show it." For eight years, they've done exactly that. As the neighborhood slowly woke back up and stretched out, its art anchor continued lending walls to new, colorful blood. Through the economic collapse of '08 and a change to its current landlord in 2010, it maintained. But now that Deep Ellum's businesses are on the rise, and the century-old building is destined for remodel, Kettle can't afford to stay put and survive in the new flourishing dynamic that it was influential in creating. Campagna seems at peace with the situation, ironic as it is.
He's done a bit of soul searching and decided that giving up on Kettle simply isn't an option. What they will do is relocate, move the clubhouse elsewhere; most likely to another Dallas neighborhood that's currently poised to be a growth space for visual arts in the coming years. They'll finish out this Winter/Spring programming - closing with two big shows, one showcasing Justin Terveen's Dallas-centric photography and deadbolting things with a final Kettle retrospective show, featuring highlights of the last eight years.
Campagna expects that they'll use the Summer to relocate, move into a new space in the beginning of August and reopen in September - their current building's air conditioner "was shit" anyway.
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Still, Kettle Art and Deep Ellum are reflective of one another, their tenacity and boldness feel intimately linked. Imagining Kettle sitting anywhere else feels like a puzzle piece crammed into an ill-fitting space. But if anyone can create a new home and spice up another neighborhood, it's those stewards of artistic community over at Kettle.
Don't miss For the Love of Kettle, Kettle Art's annual competitive shopping/donation event happening this Saturday, February 9th. Curious about the rest of the season? Here's the exhibition line up:
February 9, 2013 - For the Love of Kettle - One night Only! Opens February 16 - For the Love of Artists - Feb. 23, 2013 Opens March 7 - Derek Rankins The Part & the Whole (Thesis Show) - Mar. 23 Opens March 28 - Justin Terveen - April 13 Opens April 18 - Past Present & Future (a gallery retrospect) - May 4.
This can be seen as the end of an era but may also be viewed as a new beginning. News of our relocation will come once the dust has settled. Please rest assured this is a giant step forward.\