YBOR CITY — Before the nightclubs came, the artists thrived. Ybor City was their home.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the then-empty rundown warehouse district had no shortage of studio space. Then in the 1990s, clubs transformed the neighborhood into a bustling entertainment district, drowning out the artists' influence. The recession followed, shuttering several galleries.
But Ybor's art community refuses to die. Indeed, the association, which includes at least 100 members, is experiencing a resurgence. For the first time, the group has its own space for members to meet regularly and showcase their works. Come Saturday, the public will get to peruse the space during an open house.
Leaders are also revamping an event this spring, hoping to recruit more art businesses and fans to Ybor.
Boosted by partnerships with local restaurants, the association wants to create a monthly artistic tour of sorts called Ybor City's Arts & Eats.
"We have our fingers on the pulse in Ybor, and you notice there's more of an interest in these kind of events," said Walter Romeo, association treasurer. "The whole idea is to do promotions and getting the word out that Ybor City is the place to go for art walks and art festivals."
Every second Saturday beginning in May, partnering Ybor restaurants will have menu specials as well as local art hanging on their walls. After dinner, customers will receive a map on a handbill that encourages them to stop by some of the galleries (there are at least six) and about 20 art-related shops within the square-mile district.
Ilya Goldberg, owner of the Stone Soup Co., one of several restaurants to sign on, says there's a parallel between art work and his restaurant's custom cooking.
"In a way it's kind of like art," he said of his work. "I don't know what to really expect but I'd like to see more of these things because I think it brings a different caliber of people into this area. This might be a way to bring some new people, some foodies out here or maybe people who don't know what's down here and think we just have the Columbia Restaurant."
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The concept, however, isn't entirely new. The art association had sponsored monthly art walks for two years. The "walks" encouraged people to stop in galleries, which hosted open houses. The events, however, didn't involve area restaurants and were held during the daytime — a major reason, organizers believe, that few people participated. Last year, the association suspended art walks altogether.
This year, members hope for more enthusiasm from the public. "The reason why we think it's going to be a bigger draw this time around is because it's going to be an evening event," Romeo said.
The Ybor Art Association didn't really have a physical presence during past art walks but that will change this month with the permanent space for its own gallery within the Ybor Art Colony building.
The colony is a group of 11 art studios above King Corona Cigars Cafe and Bar on Seventh Avenue. The 113-year-old building has housed various artists and art events since the 1970s. An artist recently left the big main room overlooking Seventh, and the building owner donated the space to the art association. The group decided to turn it into a gallery for collective artists, a place for association meetings and a main stop during Arts & Eats, where complimentary beer and wine will be served and a musician will play live music while people peruse the colony's art work.
"We're building something together now that's going to be so important for the future of the city and also for the art community of this city," said Princess Rashid, artist and association curator who is charged with organizing the new gallery space.
The association plans to have the gallery space ready for a free open house Saturday night as a prelude to next month's Arts & Eats official start. Members will show off their artwork and a handful of art galleries around Ybor will also participate, including the Singing Stone Gallery and Studio on 19th Street between Eighth and Ninth avenues.
Owners of the fine art jewelry gallery were fans of the past art walks and look forward to Arts & Eats. Co-owner Nataly Balk just hopes that the artwork remains the focal point of the event and not food and drink, which is what Ybor is already known for.
"I am supportive of this but it is an experiment," she said. "I'm open-minded. I'm looking forward to the opening, and I believe it will be very busy."
Justin George can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3368.