Frank Campagna gives a quick description of Deep Ellum 10 years ago: “Dead.” This is when he opened Kettle Art Gallery in Deep Ellum, which celebrates its double digits birthday Thursday. But he’s been involved with the neighborhood since 1981 and knew that it falls and rises. He opened the original location on Elm Street as a favor to a friend. “The neighborhood was in the pits,” Campagna says. “Almost every property owner down here came to me and I told them they had reaped what they’d sown.”
He says the property owners were asking him how to turn the neighborhood around and his suggestion was to put more thought into who they lease properties to. A few years earlier, the whole neighborhood had crashed and burned. “There were a lot of landlords who were basically slumlords,” Campagna says. “There were all kinds of porno shoots and meth labs happening in their buildings.”
But the original location on Elm was perfect for a gallery. Kettle Art Gallery was an attempt to bring back some semblance of Deep Ellum’s artistic roots to the community when it was at a particularly low point.
Ten years ago, Campagna was closing in on 50. He had been lucky enough to make a living as an artist since 1977. In 1982 he opened Studio D. He let bands play there on the weekends, and Butthole Surfers, Hüsker Dü, Dead Kennedys and the Misfits performed in his art studio. Life was awesome, Campagna says, so he decided he wanted to give back and help other artists. He remembers when he was starting out in the '70s, he would introduce himself to other artists and ask for pointers or tips, and it was often, "Good luck, kid."
Some people were snobby, but he was lucky to find a few artists who showed him the ropes. This was the idea for Kettle Art, to help underrepresented artists with a gallery devoid of pretentiousness, to be inclusive instead of exclusive. Campagna was also tired of pandering to galleries and he didn’t think they focused enough on local art. “Even to this day,” Campagna says. “Those fancy-pants galleries are bringing in Joe Blow from Bumfuck, Anywhere Else.”
Kettle Art planned to focus on local artists. But it also had to have the best presentation possible, equal to what a “stuffy” gallery would have. Campagna was getting sick of “fancy-pants” parties anyway. “This is real nice and stuff,” Campagna says. “But I’m bored out of my skull.” His idea of an art show is a laid-back party with local art on display.
“Great cities are built from within,” says Campagna. “You look at Paris, Rome, Tokyo, whatever. They’re all built from within and that’s why they’re incredible.” He describes Dallas as a city that has been trying to be an international city for many years and mentions designers being brought from other countries for massive projects. “What’s the matter with hiring from Texas?” he asks.
He believes that being an international force means beefing up and exporting. If we use our local talent, perhaps less future internationally known artists will leave Dallas for other cities. This could help make Dallas an international force to be reckoned with, but it would also be great way to nourish local arts scenes and decrease the likelihood of artistic communities hitting rock bottom.
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Thursday Kettle Art will celebrate its 10th anniversary with a show representing artists who were there in the beginning, as well as the ones who were picked up along the way. The gallery typically has group shows or shows that spotlight a few artists. There is an annual show to support the gallery called For the Love of Kettle. But there is also a yearly show to support local artists called For the Love of Artists. Support for these shows is so high that people devise all sorts of creative ways to buy something before everything is gone.
But this clubhouse for artists is ultimately a community service. These annual shows help keep the gallery doors open, along with some money out of Campagna’s pocket. Now nearly 60, Campagna laughs and says he has no idea what the next 10 years will bring for his gallery and neighborhood. Deep Ellum is Dallas’ Bourbon Street or Beale Street and Campagna believes that local businesses will be crucial to maintaining that. “When people come to Dallas they want to go to Deep Ellum,” he says. “They don’t want to go to Olive Garden or Chili’s.”
Considering the past decade, Campagna is proud of the art he has exhibited. “Anybody who has been patronizing this place for a few years has an incredible art collection,” he says. He loves seeing art from his shows in other people’s homes and people love to see what he had to buy for his own collection. Campagna also attributes his longevity to treating artists fairly: “You don’t last 10 years by burning people.”
The Instigators: Celebrating Ten Years of Kettle Art runs from Thursday, November 5 through November 28, at Kettle Art Gallery, 2650 Main St.