By Susan Thurston
Times Staff Writer
The recession was tough on artists in Ybor City.
Several galleries shuttered. Many artists scattered for jobs with guaranteed paychecks.
But a core group remained, just like it has for decades. Because, much like cigars, Ybor will always have art.
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After more than two years, the Ybor Art Association has suspended its monthly art walks. Participation dwindled, and organizers decided to regroup and launch a nighttime event at the Ybor Art Colony.
"It was pretty good, but when you try to get people down here on a Saturday during the day, it's difficult," said Walter Romeo, the association's treasurer who used to own a cafe/art studio in Ybor. "People usually associate art with evenings and drinking wine."
Romeo and local painter Greg Latch dreamed up the walks years ago to attract more artists and galleries to Ybor. By encouraging families to check out the growing art scene, they hoped to dispel the myth that the historic district caters mostly to the late-night party crowd.
The Saturday afternoon walks attracted a few hundred people who visited nearly 20 art-related stops. Grants from the Ybor City Development Corp. paid for maps, promotional materials and musicians.
The association opted not to reapply for the grant in 2011 in order to focus on expanding the membership and showcasing members' artwork locally and around the region.
"We're looking for community buy-in," said association president Jason Shiver, a painter and sculptor. "Without community buy-in, the arts go away."
The association works out of the Ybor Art Colony, a group of 11 art studios located above King Corona on Seventh Avenue. The space has been a hub for the arts since the 1970s, when not much was happening in Ybor. Before that, it was medical offices for cigar workers and their families.
Over the years, the 113-year-old building has housed various artists who have lived and worked at the site. Roddy Reed, a ceramic artist well known for his pinch pots, leased the entire space for many years.
The colony started a monthly Saturday night Open House in October to raise awareness of the association and show the gritty, artsy side of Ybor. Visitors can watch the artists at work, sip beer or play Ping-Pong in painter Hance Clay's studio. The smell of cigarette and cigar smoke wafts from below.
"When you come here you're not walking into a gallery," said Clay, the association vice president. "You're looking at art and learning. You see the artists in their natural habitat."
The next Open House is Jan. 8. The dozen or so artists in the space will be there, demonstrating their craft and talking about their works. They'll people-watch from the second-story windows and drink Pabst Blue Ribbon, one of the sponsors.
Hopefully, they'll sell a piece of art to pay the rent and sustain an artful tradition in Ybor.