I’ve heard a lot of interesting stories about local businesses adapting to survive COVID-19, but I’ve never heard a story quite like Robbie De Zago’s.
De Zago owns Angels Nude off U.S.19, just north of Ulmerton Road, in Clearwater. I don’t normally cover strip clubs, but when a local artist messaged me about a new erotic art gallery in Clearwater, I was intrigued. I didn’t realize that the gallery was in a strip club until I drove down there on a quiet Monday afternoon to meet De Zago and see the art.
The club is normally closed on Monday afternoons, so it was just De Zago and I, masked up and talking about art, business, and COVID-19. Inside, Angels looks like a swank cocktail lounge, though it doesn’t serve alcohol.
Blush: The Evolution of Innocence
Open now at Art of Angels Gallery, inside Angels Nude, 14411 US-19, Clearwater.
$15 door fee, with $5 going to John Gascot’s Diversity Arts
@artofangelsgallery on Facebook and Instagram
“I went with an old school speakeasy vibe,” says De Zago. The idea carries through to his new, more discreet, business cards and private “Art of Angels” Facebook group. De Zago makes me feel like I’m part of a secret club, and it’s kind of exciting.
The walls are covered in exquisite figure art and fine art photography from artists whose work I’m used to seeing in local bars, restaurants, art centers, and galleries. Walking around the space, listening to De Zago talk about the art, I can tell he’s really into it. He shows me an entire room full of Jose Gomez’ sensual portraits, talks up Charlie Krusac’s fine art photography, and shares his appreciation for M’ria Swire and Evelyn Dufner’s depictions of the female form.
A strip club may seem like an unusual place to see art, but De Zago sees it differently. To him, a good strip tease is performance art. He still remembers the first time he went to a strip club in New York City.
“This place had like 60 girls during the week and 100 some girls over the weekend,” De Zago told Creative Loafing Tampa. “They came from all over the place. They were all gorgeous and well out of reach for me. But of course I was 18, so looking back, I kind of chuckle. I was sitting side stage—this woman is dancing in front of me, and I am mesmerized…She was wearing something similar to a gown, and the way it flowed, and the way she danced, it was just beautiful…To me it wasn't sexual. It was art. And even at 18 years old, with raging hormones and everything else, it was art…And that happened every time I went to a gentlemen's club….Fast forward and I'm 43 now, and I still look at it that way."
But it wasn’t until the pandemic that De Zago became more intentional about his experiences with art.
“We were shut down for the pandemic, which was awful,” De Zago told CL. “They shut us down halfway through the busiest part of my year, at the busiest time of that time of year.” According to De Zago, it’s damn near impossible for strip clubs to get COVID-19 relief.
“There were five clubs in the entire country that got it,” says De Zago, “and it took a legal team to get it and a legal team to keep it.” De Zago survived thanks to the generosity of a few regulars who donated money to help keep the club afloat. “I cannot express the level of gratitude and appreciation I’ve had for that,” says De Zago.
The money allowed De Zago to update his stage and start showing visual art.
Initially, he planned to just buy a few prints to class the place up a bit. Then artist Michael Salisbury told him, “Every artist I know has erotic work and they don’t really have any place to put it.” But De Zago was skeptical. He figured there was no way real artists would want to show their work in a strip club.
“I’ve struggled for 11 years with people not being able to look past this place as a gentlemen’s club,” De Zago told CL.
But as it turns out, quite a few artists were interested.
When De Zago’s friend Nikko Lalloo posted about the club to “Artists of Tampa Bay” on Facebook, he got about 40 replies within 12 hours. It was enough to encourage De Zago to start his own Facebook groups for artists interested in showing their work at his club. “The Art of Angels” Facebook group now has over 100 artist members.
On Friday, Sept. 11, 2020 Angels Nude hosted its first art opening.
“When we put on our first show, we had like 80 people here,” De Zago told CL. “It was amazing. It was such a good night. It instilled me with the belief that we can overcome COVID.”
De Zago followed it up with “Expressions of Desire” in November.
This February, the club premieres “Blush: The Evolution of Innocence,” curated by De Zago, M’ria Swire, John Gascot, Charlie Krusac and Evelyn Dufner.
De Zago hopes to rotate the art every two months like other galleries. Thus far, he says they’ve sold about 30% of the artwork at each exhibit—85% of that money goes to the artist, 10% to whoever sold it, and 5% to charity. This month’s charity is John Gascot’s Diversity Arts.
"I will sell the shit out of this artwork because it's going to a good cause,” says De Zago. “And if the people who are in this gallery promote the place, any increase in business is something that I cannot express to you how much I'd appreciate it. That's it. If these organizations do something positive with this money, and I have the means to be able to create it, that does something for me that goes far beyond the money that the club could be making from it. I would want to donate it anyway."
Being surrounded by artists these past few months seems to have infused De Zago with creative energy. He’s already thinking of more artful ways to entertain his current patrons and discover new clientele. He recently added bBurlesque to the club’s entertainment offerings in conjunction with the art openings. And he’s considering adding erotic poetry, live music, fashion shows, figure drawing sessions, and adult-style paint and sip events in the future.
“I’m trying to bring more to this place than just a gentlemen’s club,” says De Zago. “Imagine the old French salons where artists and philosophers would get together and talk about ideas. I would love to have something like that on a Monday for a couple hours.”
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