Arts & Culture News

Deep Ellum Art Company Says Freeloading Is Destroying Their Business

The Deep Ellum Art Company says it can't survive with clientele who refuse to pay for cover fees and drinks.
The Deep Ellum Art Company says it can't survive with clientele who refuse to pay for cover fees and drinks. Mike Brooks
From an outsider’s perspective, Deep Ellum Art Company has been crushing it ever since it opened in 2017. They should be crushing it. There is nothing else like DEAC, a venue where every facet of the arts is represented in some way, shape or form, founder John LaRue says.

Even as other Deep Ellum spots shuttered, such as The Curtain Club and Drugstore Cowboy, DEAC seemingly stood strong, providing a “festival-type vibe” 365 days a year. But that’s not necessarily the case. LaRue and the staff at DEAC face the same calculated risks as those at other venues.

“We might have one or two things a month that just really get some folks excited," LaRue says. "But those one or two things are not big enough in some cases to carry the rest of the month.”

But people take advantage of the venue, LaRue says.

The Deep Ellum Art Company, under the direction of LaRue and art director Amber Crimmings, has fostered a community of artists who come together and create under its roof. Some members of this community only take, however, and expect free drinks, bypass the box office and ask for ridiculously high guarantees to perform, LaRue says.

“There’s a lot of artists who do contribute; my frustration is with the people that don’t,” LaRue says. “That’s to be expected and somewhat understood, but there has just been an inordinate amount of that lately.”

In a May 11 Facebook post, LaRue claimed that an individual defrauded him out of $662 for Deep Ellum Art Company T-shirts. The man bought a print shop that housed screens with the venue’s logo on it and offered to make and sell some shirts to LaRue. The shirts were paid for, but allegedly never produced, or at least not delivered.

“There’s a lot of artists who do contribute; my frustration is with the people that don’t.” – John LaRue

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“If you know (this person), let him know that he’ll be part of the reason we close Art Co permanently in early 2020,” the post read.

LaRue now says he's not certain the venue will have to close on such a date, but he does question how he'll manage to keep it open and what form the space will have to take in the future.

“We’re gonna have to make some changes here,” LaRue says. “We can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing and expect things to change. I think that’s actually the definition of insanity.”

The venue could cut about 30% of its operational costs, cut some of its personnel, trim back on rent and certain amenities, but the experience would suffer, LaRue says. For example, the owners keep a loft to house touring bands.

“When you have a band that comes through who hasn’t done laundry in a week and a half, that can be like the greatest oasis in the world,” LaRue says. “If we get that stuff out, and trim it from our budget, it does help the bottom line, but it hurts the attention we’re trying to get. And I fully believe that this table is large enough for everyone to get a shot at it.”

LaRue, who is also the CEO of So-Cal Tacos, has had big plans for the venue since the beginning, some of which he has been able to institute, while others have been put on hold. He's considered expanding down the alleyway, using other buildings on the block as creative spaces for artists and turning the other building on the property into a restaurant.

Not enough people have been putting back into the community pot Deep Ellum Art Company has helped create. LaRue says, essentially appealing to the old saying, "This is why we can’t have nice things."

The venue cannot move forward with any of these plans until it sees some modicum of success. Until then, LaRue and his business partners will do what they have to do to get by. LaRue says he and wife Kari work about 40 hours a week behind the bar just to get some money for their efforts, which he says helps put groceries on the table.

However, LaRue sees these rough patches as a means of perfecting the Deep Ellum Art Company business model, while there's a lot that has to take place before the venue reaches the potential intended for it. Despite the setbacks, he's hopeful the space is closer to that potential than it’s ever been.
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Jacob Vaughn, a former Brookhaven College journalism student, has written for the Observer since 2018, first as clubs editor. More recently, he's been in the news section as a staff writer covering City Hall, the Dallas Police Department and whatever else editors throw his way.
Contact: Jacob Vaughn