Gentrification Welcomed by Deep Ellum Artists

Brian Gibb is sitting in his Deep Ellum art gallery on a sunny winter day, talking about why he moved to Dallas from Denton and how much his art means to him, when he looks out the big window to the street behind him and makes a telling observation.

"This place is like a ghost town sometimes," he says, peering at Commerce Street. "We would like to stay here forever, but the way things are, it's tough. Something's got to change."

The thing that's got to change, Gibb says, is foot traffic. For reasons Gibb can't quite put his finger on, even the people who live in lofts near Deep Ellum rarely venture out to its shops and cafes.

"I'm not saying I want to see a Banana Republic on the corner, but you look at Victory Park or the West Village and how that's increased foot traffic, and I think we need something like that here," he says. "The keeping-it-real police in Deep Ellum are the most out-of-date people around. They want things to be like they were 15 years ago, but times change."

It's an unexpected comment coming from an artist who dresses like a skateboarder and favors an art style that could be classified as anti-establishment. Gibb may be an idealist when it comes to the kind of art he wants to produce, but he's also a pragmatist, and he says the only way the art scene in Deep Ellum can survive is if new development comes to the area.

There is much resistance to this idea among old timers who pine for the days when Deep Ellum had a thriving nightlife and music scene, but Gibb isn't the only artist in the area who is welcoming gentrification with open arms.

Barry Whistler, who has had a gallery in Deep Ellum since 1985, also thinks change would be good. Like Gibb, he says he doesn't want to see a Gap on the corner, but he says the area has to embrace some degree of change to keep up with the times.

Whistler, as much as anyone else, has helped establish the art scene in Deep Ellum, and he's been delighted to see a number of new galleries—including Road Agent, the Pawn Gallery and Kettle Art—move to the area in the last couple of years. These galleries contribute to the overall aesthetic of the neighborhood, which Gibb describes as "a little bit Brooklyn."

Gibb's call for big-business development is at odds with the philosophy of the Deep Ellum Association, which is dedicated to preserving the historical buildings in the area. Gianna Madrini, president of the association, helped lure Gibb to Deep Ellum, and while she understands his frustration as a business owner, she says large scale redevelopment is not the answer.

"We'd like to see development within the context of this historic neighborhood," Madrini says. "This is one of the last neighborhoods that represents what Dallas once was and what it really is. If you have a whole bunch of West Villages, everything looks the same."

Madrini says what has been lost in the hand-wringing over the so-called death of Deep Ellum's entertainment district is that the area has quietly become a place where people actually live, not just shop, eat and play. In a sense, it already is a West Village, with a bohemian rather than mass-produced commercial feel.

To maintain that, she says the city must do everything it can to preserve Deep Ellum's historic buildings. Those buildings in and of themselves are an asset to the neighborhood and are one reason Deep Ellum has always been, and continues to be, an artist's enclave.

"It's true that we've lost a lot of entertainment, but what a lot of people don't realize is that we now have more residents living here than ever before. We have 17 art galleries in Deep Ellum. It really is a mixed-use neighborhood."

If the neighbor hood maintains its feel, Madrini says, more business owners like Gibb will come to the area and more residents will move there to live, all of which will increase foot traffic along streets like Commerce.

"The answer isn't to tear down historic buildings and build parking lots. We've got to preserve what makes this city unique."

For Gibb, Deep Ellum was a natural fit. He fell in love with art as a teenager growing up in Burleson, which is known today mostly as the hometown of Kelly Clarkson. Gibb says he felt a bit out of place growing up there and often escaped through the world of skateboarding magazines like Thrasher and Transworld. In these magazines Gibb says he discovered a style of art that was both inspiring and accessible. He also found a sort of philosophy that still guides him today.

That philosophy could be described as bringing art to the masses. As a student at the University of North Texas, Gibb and a classmate named Mark Searcy started a magazine called Art Prostitute. The name was an inside joke, a reference to a common term for artists who "whore" out their skills to ad agencies and print publications to pay for their true passion: fine art. But Gibb and Searcy believed these two worlds didn't have to be exclusive, and they sought out artists who found ways to incorporate their best work into commercial endeavors.

"I've always been inspired by artists who do really good work on a skateboard or an album liner. It's something that's of a very high quality, but it's accessible to people who may not be very knowledgeable about art."

The magazine spoke to artists in a new way. It featured the work of nationally known artists and graphic designers, along with in-depth interviews with the artists in which they talked in detail about their craft and how they had made it in the art world. Before long, the magazine, which sold in art museums and galleries for $27-$30, was a hit on both coasts, and suddenly Gibb and Searcy were being asked to speak to artist associations and lecture at universities.

"I would say by the fourth issue it had really reached a roar, where we were talking to big names in the art world and they were referencing us, and we were being flown places to talk about what we were doing," Gibb says. "Early on, we were so hell-bent on making it work at any cost. It didn't matter what happened to us. All that mattered is it got printed and got out into the world."

That meant borrowing money from family and putting bills on credit cards to keep the magazine afloat. Its success led to the opening of a gallery in Denton, which Gibb and Searcy moved to Dallas in 2006.

So far, the community support from the Dallas art world has been great, Gibb says, but he hasn't seen the spike in sales he hoped for, which is why, as an artist, he is welcoming development in Deep Ellum.

"The location is tough," he says. "We want to be here. The people who own this building have been so great. They believe in me and want us here. We don't want it to get to the point where we have to move."

Frank Campagna, who owns the Kettle Art gallery, says Gibb just needs to be patient. He says Kettle, 2714 Elm St., is regularly packed for openings and that business is better than he expected. The key, he says, is to embrace what makes the neighborhood special and to figure out creative ways to get people in your store. He recently hosted a night of films at his gallery on the history of Deep Ellum, an event that drew a standing-room-only crowd.

"There were people standing outside, watching through the windows," Campagna says. "I've been in Deep Ellum for a long time, and what we've got going on now, with this explosion of art galleries, is something special. Deep Ellum is as cool as it's been since the 1980s, and the last thing we need is some developers coming in from the outside and changing things."