Art and Soul

Couple making dream of South Dallas arts center come true

by Debra Martine
Staff writer of the News

Sunday, September 26, 1982
Photo by Randy Eli Grothe,
Dallas Morning News

In two years, Artist and Elaine La Rose Thornton say they are going to look at the big, light gray structure that will be the South Dallas Cultural Center and forget it took more than six years to get it built.

"That building is going to look good--really good," said Thornton. "Getting that center was a long struggle, but when it's built, black artists in Dallas will finally have a place to call their own." After years of lobbying city officials, circulating petitions and rallying community support, the Thorntons' efforts to get the South Dallas Cultural Center built are about to pay off. Dallas Park and Recreation Department officials said the facility--which will be built on city owned property at the northeast corner of Fitzhugh Avenue and Robert B.Cullum Boulevard near Fair Park--will be completed in about 12 to 18 months after the city's spring 1983 bond sales. For Artists like the Thorntons, it couldn't some soon enough.

"For years, black arts groups in Dallas haven't had the space or money to produce shows," said Thornton, 36, an actor and advertising executive with Metro Media Buyers, a Dallas advertising firm. "But now we'll have a physical structure. I just feel the arts can't help but grow there." When voters approved the $247 million city bon proposal Aug. 3, $1.5 million was appropriated through the city's park and recreation department to build the South Dallas Cultural Center. It will be the second city-owned cultural arts center in Dallas; the other is the White Rock Lake Bath House Cultural Center, which was converted in April 1981 from a bath house, built in 1930, to an arts center. Artists will be able to rent studio, rehearsal and performance space at the South Dallas facility at nominal cost--just as they do at the Bath House Thornton said the idea for the South Dallas facility began four years ago. Thornton and his wife --along with other Dallas actors and artists--saw an exhibit at a cultural center in Austin's black community that Thornton said "looked so good we decided we were going to have one too." When they returned home, the Thorntons got to work. In spring 1978, Thornton said he presented to Dallas City Council members a petition with 25 names of artists, community leaders and business people who supportee construction of cultural center in South Dallas. "I told them I knew a large amount of city money went to the Dallas Theater Center and Theatre Three, and that I wanted a place to express black culture," Thornton said. "They were very receptive to it." But when city leaders told Thornton that community development funds--which are administered to cities through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development--could not be used to construct new buildings, Thornton asked city officials to place the cultural center proposal on the $25 million 1979 city bond election. He was turned down.

"There were already a lot of items on the bond election list and, although they (city officials) favored the idea, they were afraid it wouldn't pass," Thornton said. "Then the city got a new mayor and a city manager," he said, "and I had to sell the idea all over again."

In the spring, the Thorntons finally found the financial support they had sought for years. With help of previous political and business supporters of the facvility, they were able to convince city officials to include the center in the Park and Recreation Department's $12.8 million Aug. 3 bond proposal. Today, plans for the center are virtually complete. The center--which is being designed by the black owned architectural firm Haywood Jordan and McCowan SAT Inc. of Dallas--will contain 16,980 feet of space. It will house office and exhibit areas, as well as a multi-purpose auditorium with a portable stage for theater and dance productions. There will also be a plaza featuring award winning sculpture of student artists and seven studios for dance, theater, art and music.

And Thornton's earlier concerns that money for the center would not include funds for lights, a piano and other art equipment have been alleviated.

Jack Robinson, director of the park and recreation department said that although he believes $1.5 million will cover equipment costs, the department is prepared to pay for a "modest" overrun.