In two years, a group with the appropriately anarchic name of DADA (the Durham Association for Downtown Arts) has taken a guerrilla approach to bringing free arts events to downtown Durham. In the process, they’ve changed the way the rest of the Triangle sees the Durham arts community.

They want to see that Durham artists play a role in the development of a city in transition, and have brought live music, dance, poetry and performance art to a city whose historic buildings and downtown area are just now being revitalized. They believe that a few well-placed dollars of support for local artists will go a longer way toward building a thriving arts community downtown than, say, a $40 million city investment that’s been proposed for a theater and parking deck.

Behind the nonprofit organization, which exists on little more than enthusiasm and willpower, are three young founders: husband and wife Jenn Duerr (Program Director) and Randall Gilbert (Development Director) and Executive Director Robert Stromberg. Over lunch at downtown Durham’s Latin Grill, the three talked about their vision to utilize and nurture the downtown area as an arts community.

The trio met by chance while working part-time at the Carolina Theatre and found they had a lot in common–a passion for the arts and community participation. “We had similar interests in seeing something happen here,” Duerr recalls. “There was a lot going on, it seemed, in people’s houses and things like that, but not a lot of public venues.”

All three brought something different to the table: Duerr had a background in theater and had played in rock bands along with Gilbert. They were active in the Omaha, Neb., music/arts scene, ran a performance space out in San Francisco from ’94-’97 and lived briefly in Mexico before moving to Durham. Along with day jobs and DADA, they’re raising their daughter Ilsa, 3. Duerr and Gilbert also run the group’s only paying gig, Rhythm/Light, a multimedia production company which is run by the Rhythm Light Sound Collective, a group of nine musicians.

Stromberg is a Duke grad with a degree in religion who, for a short time, taught middle school in Vance County before devoting his time to DADA. Stromberg works at the Durham Literacy Council while Gilbert works with the People’s Alliance, a social and economic justice citizens’ lobbying group. “So we do have a lot of concern about downtown development overall,” says Gilbert. “And we attend city council meetings and the hearings and we have contact with them. For example, we are against a 5,000-seat theater down here at the American Tobacco complex. They’ve been trying very hard to get that, to the tune of $40 million in public funding.

“The [proposed] theater–it’s not going to have much to do with the majority of Durham’s residents,” Gilbert adds. “DADA’s main concern is keeping both the arts and downtown development accessible to as many residents of as many different classes as possible.”

In an ideal world, DADA would like to see the city work with artists to utilize some of Durham’s vacant downtown buildings. “We see so much under-usage of the Carolina Theatre, which is city-owned; we see so many vacant buildings here that we would prefer not to see torn down but to see renovated–maybe some kind of generous leasing or purchase arrangements with nonprofits–a dollar lease a year, or whatever DAC pays,” says Gilbert.

Since November 2001, when the group initiated its Saturday night Durham Band Showcase at Ringside, not only wasn’t there an independent live music scene in Durham, but most original-music bands wouldn’t even admit they were from the Bull City. These days, Ringside owner Michael Penny is offering live music Thursdays through Saturdays, with Duerr booking the acts. And Bully’s Basement is bringing in live bands and touring acts, creating an actual music scene and a sense of civic pride among Durham musicians.

But fostering a live music scene is only a part of DADA’s many projects. The group has sponsored a series of cabaret events where hosts Reverend Samuel Brown (Stromberg’s alter ego) or poet and local personality Rufus Xavier Sasparilla (aka R.C. Glenn) bring together a group of widely varied performers in a cabaret atmosphere. These Café DADA events give people who wouldn’t usually have access to a stage or an audience a chance to strut their stuff. And although it’s not exactly downtown Durham, the DADA folks will bring the “Best of Café DADA” show to the Festival for the Eno this year. Featured performers will be local writer/musician Shirlette Ammons, a small version of the Paper Hand Puppet Intervention group called the Alan Best Puppeteers, performances by the Capoeria Collective (the Brazilian dance/martial arts form), Durham band Cody Cods, youth jazz band particle, guitarist Tim Brooks and more.

Duerr says they’ve worked with THEA, the home schoolers’ organization that participates with the children’s stuff. DADA works with other nonprofits: DDI (Durham Downtown Inc.), the Durham Arts Council (who’ve provided grant money), Walltown Children’s Theatre, Open Air Dance and more. “Collaborate Now” is a project they’re working on for next year. And Ringside is now hosting an independent film series titled “Show Us Your Shorts,” Durham’s version of Flicker, set up with help by local filmmaker and Flicker founder Jim Haverkamp. “I would say Jim Haverkamp is definitely part of the association; he’s awesome,” Duerr says.

The group, a registered nonprofit, operated on $6,000 last year and just received $1,000 cash and $1,400 “in-kind facility usage” from the DAC for the 2002-2003 fiscal year. It’s organizing a board of directors and sending out a “call to arms” for artists to join committees and become involved, says Duerr. “Our goal is that artists in Durham, all of them, any artists, take ownership of the group,” she says. “People are starting to step up and want to sit on committees for organizations and have projects that they’ve wanted to do that we’ll happily help produce.”

So far the three members have paid themselves a whopping $50 apiece for their work.

“We’ve done it up to this point with no money,” says Duerr. “I think that’s a really important thing to say, because what we’ve been able to accomplish so far is only because we and the people of Durham were certainly ready for it, wanted it. And if there’s a vision and a desire, I think the finances get in the way.”

Besides having a space of their own, DADA’s latest dream is to host a free outdoor Durham Bands Showcase in Durham’s Central Park, city-owned property that Durham Central Park, a nonprofit, private association, is working to develop. With renovations and structures projected at $1.5 million and the city coffers low, it’s going to take the initiative of private citizens to make the space available to the public.

“Part of the Central Park building, hopefully, will be a stage,” says Duerr. “I mean, we’re pretty guerrilla-based. We could go and do a show there now in a big open space, bring a generator. We don’t need a $1.5 million stage to do it. We’re quite happy to do it in a big open field.”

Part of DADA’s job, Stromberg says, is to help the city create ways for nonprofits to put on free art events. “It’ll come. They just don’t see it as something that’s needed yet. But when more and more start asking for something, then it will be provided.”

And DADA wants to connect more artists across the city.

“Outside the white hipster 20s, 30s crowd, the networking is totally broken down,” Stromberg says. “When you try to cross class and race barriers in Durham, there is no model, certainly not in an art sense. I mean, certain groups try, but they generally end up reaching out to a certain class. We want to reach out to as many people as we can and empower as many people as we can.” EndBlock

“Best of Café DADA” appears at the Eno Festival on July 7, on the River Stage at 5:30 p.m.