|“A World of Black and White,” by Ellen Sweets, The Dallas Morning News, Feb. 1996.|
It's easy to zip down Abrams Road past the little red fire station at Columbia and Augusta and to therefore remain totally unaware of the hot stuff that goes on inside. Since 1992, when the husband-and-wife team of sculptor Kaleta Doolin and documentarian Alan Govenar opened 5501 Columbia Art Center in Old East Dallas, the renovated firehouse has housed dance concerts, new music performances, poetry readings, children's art workshops, art exhibits, photography and performance art.
Mr. Govenar also amassed an extensive archive of works by black Texas photographers that is housed in a facility the couple built across the street. "Basically, we opened the gallery and archive in an effort to create a vehicle for broadening Dallas' cultural base," he says. "We try to present things here that you aren't likely to see in other spaces. We like to think of 5501 as a cross between a gallery and a museum - a kind of mini-museum."
The gallery has worked with several museums to present unusual exhibits by a range of artists. Most recently, for example, Hungarian-born artist Beata Szechy gave away personal belongings to everyone who attended the opening of her evocative work, "Borderless Gardens." The recent installation documented the decade Ms. Szechy has spent in the United States. By folding original book pages into various geometric, sculptural forms, and imbedding them with resin and wax, the artist created objects that assumed new meanings. By creating a new way of looking at old things, Ms. Szechy's work embodies5501 Columbia's basic philosophy.
It has also been home to diverse and seldom-seen works, such as an exhibit of photographed works by tattoo. artists; a tribute to Bahai martyrs in Iran after 1978; and, more recently, "Portraits of Community: African-American Photography in Texas," an exhibition of 200 photographs that looks back over more than a century in the lives of black Texans.
"This show is significant t because it not only documents the lives of African-Americans around the state, but because it is drawn from an archive of works by black photographers," Mr. Govenar says. "Many of these names are either unknown or known to a very small group of people."
Linnie McAdams and Bill Warde are among them. They drove in from Denton to join the multiracial, multi ethnic audience that gathered for a lecture presented in conjunction with "Portraits." They stumbled upon the gallery some time back when they were in town for a funeral. They were so impressed, they brought friends back to see it.
"I like the juxtaposition of the old and the new - the historic firehouse and the modernity of the interior that has nonetheless pre. served the architectural integrity of the original," Ms. McAdams says. "It's so incredibly honest." And it's also what Mr. Govenar and Ms. Doolin want people to feel about their space. They have a lot of plans and a lot of ideas and they want people to care enough to, well, drive in from Denton. Or Preston Hollow. Or South Dallas. Or the Park Cities.
"Portraits" is an extension of an earlier effort that began with a commission from the Dallas Museum of Art for Mr. Govenar to do a project called "Living Texas Blues," which was part of a larger DMA exhibit. In the course of crisscrossing the state for the DMA, Mr. Govenar discovered a generation of relatively unknown black photographers, which led to his curating a show of the works of Houston photographer Benny Joseph. It has since traveled to 30 different venues in the United States.
"For, that show alone I waded through, I guess, 10,000 negatives spanning more than 40 years of work," Mr. Govenar says. "I realized there must be a whole world of photographs that were languishing somewhere, and that if the rich history of African-Americans in Texas was going to be preserved, something had to be done - and soon."
Mr. Govenar has also worked with the city's African American Museum, including a joint presentation of works by black photographers. The museum's director, Harry. Robinson Jr., anticipates future collaborations.
"We've done some things jointly, such as proposals, but I expect we'll develop closer ties in the future. We're already working on an exhibition on black cowboys." The "Portraits" exhibit, which , grew out of that earlier effort, is touring the state. It includes a multilayered look at the black experience: family portraits, lynchings, protests, farm life, musicians, debutantes, school kids and historic figures.
"We think that for a community to be vibrant there must be some way of supporting artists who want to work," Ms. Doolin says. "But it is also important to preserve the works others have already done."
To that end. Mr. Govenar has worked with historically black colleges to integrate the exhibit with related events in the communities where the photographs are shown. With the help of a $36,000 grant from the Meadows Foundation, he has established a touring schedule and set up an internship program for budding young black photographers.
"We're trying to do several things here," Mr. Govenar says. "It's a way to identify other photographers, thereby making this a living entity - not a dormant collection." The show is also touring communities where there are historically black colleges and predominantly white audiences.
"A big part of the problem with race relations in Texas - or anywhere, for that matter - is that people don't talk to one another," Mr. Govenar says. "They don't know one another. This exhibit is a catalyst for stimulating dialogue. If whites want to see the photographs, they will have to come to the black . colleges. If blacks want to know more about the history of the photographs, they have to come to the lecture in the white community to hear it."
Mary Cleveland, who works in the library at Texas College in Tyler, thinks the effort is long overdue. Texas College is where Curtis Humphrey taught. Mr. Humphrey, who is in his 80s and seriously ill, photographed blacks in Tyler for decades. The commitment to preservation led Mr. Govenar to establish the I Texas African American Photography Collection and Archive, which is housed in a fireproof building built on a lot where two tenements once stood.
The archive consists of more than 12,500 negatives and about 4,000 prints - in addition to oral histories. It includes such local pioneers as Dallas newspapermen Marion Butts and A.B. Bell; relative I newcomers such as Carl Sidle, also of Dallas; and Mr. Humphrey.
"By creating the gallery, we've established a place with a number of different facets," Ms. Doolin says. "There are no limits or boundaries governing what can happen here well, within reason and the law."
Converted from its original 1918 use as a firehouse, the gallery has undergone several incarnations - . it was once a Mexican Mennonite: church - before arriving at its new life. It's a life that evolved out of a serendipitous experience Ms. Doolin had when visiting Mr. Govenar's parents in Florida.
"I was in Lakeworth and visited the Lannan Museum," she says. "It's an art-deco theater that had been made into a small museum for contemporary art. I got the idea that I could do this; that Dallas didn't have anything like it. I started looking for an architectural jewel like the Lannen."
That was in the early 1990s, just before Ms. Doolin and Mr. Govenar were married. Up until then, Ms. Doolin, a sculptor, was among those who zipped down Abrams - en route to her Deep Ellum studio.
"I had my eye on it. Several times I had said to myse1f that if it ever went on the market, it was mine," she says.
Then, one day, she saw what she'd been looking for: a "for sale" sign. Mr. Govenar, who also teaches at the University of North Texas, already worked out of his Lakewood apartment. He too had looked for a space in Deep Ellum, but found nothing he liked.
Shortly after their marriage in 1990, Ms. Doolin. Bought the old firehouse and had it renovated. Ms. Doolin would not disclose the purchase price or cost of renovation. The important thing, she says, is that they had someplace from which they could work to realize their dream of providing facilities for their two non profits: Documentary Arts - his and Contemporary Culture - hers.
Ms. Doolin's interest in the arts began when she was an undergraduate student. After earning a master's degree in fine arts at Southern Methodist University, she worked as a sculptor in the West before returning home to Dallas. Mr. Govenar - author, filmmaker, teacher, folklorist - is a native of Massachusetts who did his doctoral studies in arts and humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas.
In focusing on documentary arts, Mr. Govenar already has a reputation as a folklorist, in the tradition of the renowned ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. He has received sever al awards for "Masters of Traditional Music,"' a series of five-minute National Public Radio spots show casing performers - ranging from cowboy poets and polka players to gospel singing and Kiowa flute players.
"What a lot of people don't realize,"' Mr. Govenar says, "Is that a lot of this music exists here in Dallas." Jazz musician Roger Boykin met Mr. Govenar when Mr. Boykin was asked to collaborate with David "Fathead" Newman on an original score for the Dallas Black Dance Theater.
"We were doing the score for a new Dallas Black production, Deep Ellum Blues," says Mr. Boykin. "Alan's input was related to the history of Deep Ellum, because he had done a lot of research about black jazz musicians. He also provided me with some recordings of Blind Lemon Jefferson, so I got to know him in that context." When Mr. Govenar talks about the things he wants to do and why he thinks it's important, he rarely comes up for air. For as long as you can listen, he can talk about plans for the gallery's future. He has al ready attracted funding from sever al sources, including the National Endowment for the Arts and the Texas Commission on the Arts. He's also planning a conference on black expatriates with Harvard University and the Sorbonne University in France.
Ms. Doolin and Mr. Govenar have established a name for them selves in the arts community with their combined efforts. Their work has had an effect on a changing neighborhood.
Dallas police Officer Thomas Sible knows. He lives and patrols in Old East Dallas. "I got to know Alan when he was teaching an art appreciation course at El Centro and I was one of his students," Mr. Sible says. "He let us hold a neighborhood crime watch meeting [at 5501 Columbia] one night". "People who were trying to revive the neighborhood crime watch were having difficulty getting people interested. When they heard it was going to be at the firehouse, they signed up because they were curious. They've done wonders, which also means the immediate area has been affected.
"We need to do that sort of thing more often. Any community function that can get people out of their houses to visit with one another is great."
Copyright © 2006 Kaleta Doolin