Funny thing about being a business in Ybor: If you're not on the main drag, it can feel like you're invisible.
"We can see them from the museum, people just walking by on Seventh Avenue — and they don't even know we're there," says Manny Leto, outreach coordinator for the Ybor City Museum Society.
Perhaps no one knows the Ybor City Museum, nestled just north of Centennial Park on Ninth Avenue, better than Tampa's fourth- and eighth-graders. They visit each year, when their curriculum alights on Florida history, to tour a replica of an early-20th-century shotgun casita and a labyrinth of pictorial histories about cigar rolling, Cuban bread and the Spanish-American War. Beneath the charmingly antiquated trappings is a dense resource of information about the area's vibrant history.
But for Leto, 30, that resource is lost on his peers. People of his generation, who visit Ybor restaurants, bars, clubs and concert venues, are walking by without a clue that his institution is there — and perhaps without much of a clue about Ybor's rich cultural background.
So he decided to do something about it.
For one night — Fri., Oct. 20 — the museum, in cooperation with a few of its neighbors, will bring contemporary art and music into Centennial Park and surrounding venues in an effort to let visitors know that the area is alive and, well, relevant.
"The museum feels that Centennial Park is a cultural destination within the city," Leto says. "We want to say, 'You can come down to Centennial Park and do a variety of things ... the Art Studio, [retail stores along] 19th Street, Tre Amici.'"
The Ybor City Museum complex will serve as the cornerstone venue of the event. The historical museum itself will be open to visitors without the usual $3 admission charge, and its adjoining courtyard — a spacious brick-lined patio with benches, tables and a central fountain — will host an outdoor show of 15 local artists and WMNF DJ Franco Silva as he spins Latin jazz.
Across the street, Centennial Park will serve as a venue for popular local bands The Beauvilles and Worldwide Zoo. Tre Amici at the Bunker, a swank new coffee shop on 19th Street across from the park, will display even more artwork and host a performance by local band Candy Bars. The Ybor Art Studio, a city-run arts center on the park's west side, will showcase recent student and instructor work.
By combining entertainment from a variety of idioms (poetry and dramatic readings between musical performances are also in the works) and keeping the event free, Leto hopes to generate a critical mass of interest and a diverse crowd.
To be chosen for the visual art show, artists were required to address Ybor City on some level in their work. That qualification turned out to be an unexpected deterrent to artists, says curator Elizabeth Kozlowski. It took some convincing to persuade artists that the exhibit was committed to addressing the idea of Ybor on a sophisticated level and with an open mind. "We weren't looking for literal translations" or to put anyone in a box, she says. Instead, any one of myriad facets of Ybor's historical or contemporary context could serve as a jumping-off point.
Guillermo Portieles, an artist who works in West Tampa's Gallery 1906 studios, fits into the Ybor framework and transcends it at the same time. Portieles, who was born in Cuba and lived in the Dominican Republic before coming to the States, will have two paintings in the show. Both images share a recurring visual element, a distinctive chair — simple but sturdy — traditionally used by Cuban cigar rollers, Portieles says. The chair, made of wood with a cowhide back and handle at the top, has roots in antique Spanish furniture and cousins in Latin American design, he says. "La era esta pariendo," an oil painting on linen, conjures up a mother chair erupting with tiny offspring — symbolically, a homeland or tradition giving birth to a diaspora population.
Diana Lucas Leavengood's multiple exposure photographs remix some familiar — and unfamiliar — Ybor sights the old-fashioned way, without the aid of Photoshop or other digital manipulation. I count at least three layers in her poetic image, "Free Ybor," which combines a view of the locked gate of Ybor's iconic Jose Marti Park with text and an angel sculpture from the Ybor City Museum's courtyard. Here it echoes the muted protest that the exhibit itself is trying to articulate: Don't lock Ybor's history away — it's still alive.
The event also aims to shine a spotlight on the Ybor Art Studio, a local branch of the city's Parks and Recreation department. The studio offers dirt-cheap classes — typically $5 a week plus the cost of materials — in a beautiful facility; if you've trudged up 18th Street on your way to the new Mema's Alaskan Tacos, you know the long, rectangular brick structure with clay pots in its windows, perched on the west side of Centennial Park. The building boasts a gallery and a vast, sun-drenched classroom area, where manager Sean Fitzgerald and visiting artists lead classes in oil and watercolor painting, drawing, pottery, metalsmithing and glass fusion.
Pottery classes have a lengthy waiting list but painting and drawing classes typically have space available for new students, Fitzgerald says. In the near future, he plans to offer digital imaging and video production as well.
While it's too soon to say whether the event will become an annual tradition, Leto, Kozlowski and Fitzgerald are hoping that a successful debut this week will generate demand for an encore. For the Ybor City Museum, it could be a lifeline to the present.
"Our mission is to preserve, promote and celebrate the history and culture of Ybor City," Leto says. "[The museum's director] and I have looked at the term 'culture' liberally and said, 'There's a culture that's going on now.' If we're doing exhibits on what happened 30 years ago, we need to have something celebrating what's happening in the present."